Cricket: England nurture a natural

Two men of raw speed separated by 44 years but linked by striking similarities and the game's oldest conflict; Time is on his side, but Tudor is on the fast track.
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The Independent Online
Tradition has it on long overseas tours that the social chores are delegated to the first-time tourists. Alex Tudor fancies the role of resident DJ, the man in charge of the dressing-room tapes. A quick glance at his CD collection might persuade the old lags of the folly of such a move. R Kelly, soca, reggae, soul. Not a Perry Como nor even an Oasis track in sight. "No, on second thoughts, I don't think the guys will like the stuff I play," Tudor says, with a Frank Bruno-like thunderclap of laughter.

Most have already pencilled in the young Surrey fast bowler for the most arduous chore of the lot. There could be a lot of drinks trays to be carried round Australia during the next three months. By general consent, Tudor, his 21st birthday celebrated on the day the England touring team touched down in Perth, has been chosen for the future, not the present. He is there to listen and learn. Tudor is well aware of the educational nature of his visit, but has no intention of sitting patiently at the back of the class all term.

"I've been positive in the way I've thought about this tour," he said on the eve of departure. "A lot of people have said I am going there for the experience and I know I am. I am going out there to work hard and learn off the others. But if I get a chance I want to take it in both hands and create a real headache for the selectors." Ashley Cowan, to name but one of his talented young predecessors, probably expressed exactly the same thoughts before the West Indies tour last winter.

Since he first terrified schoolboys at England Under-15 level, Tudor has been earmarked for the developmental fast track. "He has genuine natural pace," said Dave Gilbert, Tudor's former coach at Surrey. "In many ways, I liken him to a young Glenn McGrath. When Glenn first came to the Australian Academy, there was a feeling of 'Wow, what have we here?' But he was still growing so he was plagued by injuries. Alex is the same."

Tudor is the only bowler to whom Nad Shaheed, his Surrey colleague, pays the courtesy of attaching a grille to his helmet in the indoor nets. Mark Butcher is another who will testify to Tudor's ferocity. Facing the first ball from Tudor on his return from injury late last season, a gentle lollop off four or five yards, the England opener was fending a rising ball off his chest a split second later.

Yet few would have made the quantum leap and swept the Londoner straight into the toughest of all cricket's finishing schools. It is a mighty gamble. "A make or break tour, quite literally", as Gilbert terms it.

As the England team mingled with the briefcased executives amid the potted palms of the Excelsior Hotel near Heathrow last week, Tudor was barely able to contain his wonder. There was Alec Stewart, chipper in his England tracksuit, and Mike Atherton, in jeans and baggy sweater; seasoned tourists heading off for a final tilt at the Ashes. Tudor sat, self-conscious in his dark blue tracksuit, his family gathered around, wondering how he would fit a few extra items into his suitcase.

"It was a thrill every time a letter came through the post with information about dress code or insurance or something," he said. "But it wasn't until I was driving down here that I thought 'Hey, this is really happening'. I mean Atherton, Stewart, guys like that, I used to watch them on the television when I was growing up." Neither would care to be reminded of the age difference. When Atherton made his Test debut, Tudor was 12. More influential role models were Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, and before them the quartet of Marshall, Holding, Roberts and Croft.

Like Dean Headley, Tudor had a West Indian father who maintained his allegiance to the Caribbean, while quietly admiring the progress of his son in his adopted homeland. For all the good work done in inner city schools, Daryll Tudor can claim much of the credit for warding off the rival attractions of football and basketball. Tudor's school in Fulham barely played cricket and though his reputation attracted coaches from Lord's and The Oval, the real truth is that Tudor succeeded despite rather than because of the system. Successive coaches at least had the common sense to leave a naturally athletic action well alone.

"The only technical adjustments I made with him were to avoid serious injury," Gilbert said. "At the point of delivery he was falling away on to his left side and his rib cage was taking a terrible pounding, so I tried to get him more upright. But I hate to see technique rammed down a kid's throat." Adam Hollioake, the Surrey captain, adopted much the same philosophy in his handling of Tudor last season. "We tended to say to him 'Go and bowl four overs flat out' and let him get on with it," said Nad Shaheed. "He's sometimes a bit too nice, he doesn't bowl enough bouncers, but if he gets his outswinger going he can be a real handful."

An early burst of wickets - 29 at an average of 25 - augured well for a first full season until a shin injury in the second over of the Championship match against Sussex meant a further stretch on the treatment table. By the time Tudor was ready again, the season was over and Surrey had fallen at the last. Tudor was resigning himself to a winter in the gym and, if lucky, an A tour to South Africa when the England captain rang.

"I didn't think I had any chance at all," he said. "My injury came just at the wrong time. I mean I knew they usually tried to pick a young fast bowler but there were several higher up the queue than me. In sport funny things happen. I've got my chance." Realistically, only a slender one. If Tudor plays a Test, Plan A has been thrown on the barbie. "But," Gilbert adds, "he should come back with a better understanding of what it takes to be an international cricketer and if he stays fit, the sky's the limit."