Cricket: England's Celtic warrior

Never-say-die Welshman lives and breathes the attitude to upset the Australians. Andrew Baker reports
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"Quiet" is not a word that normally applies to Robert Croft. The Glamorgan and England off-spinner is by nature garrulous off the field and on, but in Canterbury last week, where he played with distinction for his county against Kent, there was one topic on which he would not be drawn. Just when his name is on everyone's lips as a potential star of the forthcoming Ashes series and as a likely England spinner for many years to come, Croft did not want to discuss his international prospects until the England squad for the one-day games had been announced.

Matthew Maynard, his county captain, explained that Croft did not want to tempt fate by talking about a series in which his participation was yet to be confirmed. Several of his Glamorgan colleagues - Maynard himself, Hugh Morris and Steve Watkin - have broken into Test cricket but failed to establish firm footholds at the highest level. Croft wants to ensure that, having waited longer than most for elevation, his tenure is long- term.

But if his manner was unusually subdued off the field at the St Lawrence ground, he made an eloquent case for selection with bat and ball. In Glamorgan's first innings, in bright sunshine on Wednesday afternoon, he halted a threatened collapse with an important innings of 39, establishing respect with early boundaries before consolidating with care. Then, in the drizzle of Thursday morning, he bowled unchanged from the Pavilion end and surgically removed the heart of the Kentish innings with five wickets for 33 runs.

Seasoned Glamorgan-watchers purred, and none louder than Don Shepherd, the former spin bowler whose 2,218 wickets for the county earned him legendary status in south Wales. He was Croft's mentor at the club, coached him for three years, and is delighted by his continuing progress.

"I think Robert is now the finished article as far as his action is concerned," Shepherd said. "The only way that he can get better now is by gathering more knowledge of the people that he is playing against." Which Croft is keen to do, as proved by his careful study of Kent's leg-spinner Paul Strang from the far end on Wednesday: there was no way that Croft was going to get himself out to the Zimbabwean.

"Robert is still learning," Matthew Maynard said. "He knows that you never stop learning in cricket and there are always some aspects of your game that you can brush up. He is constantly striving to do better - his attitude is superb."

Croft has always been a hard-trier, from the time that he first picked up a cricket ball as a ten-year-old. He attended the Llanelli Schools trials, and worked his way into the Dyfed and Wales schools sides, where he played against young England XIs that included Graham Thorpe, Mark Ilott and Nick Knight.

Along the way he had also become a keen and accomplished rugby player, representing Llanelli schools at scrum-half. But when at the age of 16 he graduated to the Glamorgan Second XI, Croft had to weigh his twin ambitions - to play rugby for Wales, and cricket for England - against each other. Cricket won.

The route to his first Test cap was a long one, and not without disappointments. But Don Shepherd believes that the years of toil for Glamorgan - the attack was often depleted, and Croft would be given the ball and told to keep the runs down - were an invaluable education. "He learned to bowl in the old way," Shepherd said. "He's grateful that the county allowed him to act as one of their main bowlers rather than dropping him to bring in a fourth or fifth seamer." By getting through so many overs as a stock bowler, Croft learned how to contain, how to vary his pace and flight.

More recently, he has had the confidence to experiment and develop his own style. "The difference in my cricket over the past year has come from making a few changes," he said last month. "I modified my grip, changed the angle of my run-up and found that it helped me put more spin on the ball. Nobody helped me, it was something I worked out for myself, something I needed to do if I was going to convince people that I could bowl sides out."

The changes stood Croft in good stead when the Test call-up finally came, against Pakistan at the Oval last year. His match figures of 2 for 125 do not look all that inspiring, but he got through nearly 50 overs, and more importantly looked the part: confident, chirpy and enthusiastic. Wisden Cricket Monthly recorded that he was "Excellent throughout - England's steadiest bowler."

Croft said after his debut that he had been fortunate to have been selected when he was at the top of his form. But if that was the case then he has ensured that he has maintained that form in subsequent international appearances. On England's winter tour to Zimbabwe and New Zealand he was consistently successful with the ball, and less consistently, but still valuably, with the bat.

He made a great contribution to the spirit of the tour squad off the field, where his frequent playmate was Darren Gough: David Lloyd came to refer to the pair affectionately as "the children". But Croft also kept in constant touch with home, telephoning his wife Marie and relatives back in the South Wales village of Hendy, where he grew up and where his grandparents kept the Bird in Hand Inn. "I've got a strong group of friends and family," he has said. "They keep me on an even keel."

Don Shepherd was another to receive calls from Down Under. "He rang me twice from New Zealand. He wasn't particularly worried, but he had the sense to want to double-check on his action, and he knew that I was bound to have been watching."

Such long-distance spin-doctoring and constant attention to detail has kept Croft on song throughout the long working winter, and he has started the county season where he left off, taking a wicket with his first two balls of his first two championship games.

His long and deadly spell on Thursday morning exemplified his best qualities, and must surely have provided a final nudge - if it was required - to the England selectors. Brought in to the attack initially only to allow Steve Watkin to change ends, Croft struck true to form in his first over, inducing Alan Wells to pad up to a ball that drifted in to him. Having thus persuaded Maynard to persist with him, Croft then trapped Nigel Llong leg before to a quicker ball. Then he got Graham Cowdrey to prod forward a little too far and dolly a catch to silly mid-off, and adroitly snapped a drive by Matthew Fleming off the ground at his own feet.

Excellent cricket: but Croft's stalking and capture of Martin McCague to wrap up Kent's innings was a classic of the spinner's art. A mighty swipe for six over mid-wicket eluded the fielder posted on the boundary. But then Croft pinned his target back with relentless accuracy until McCague lost patience with his inability to get the ball off the square and looped a catch to extra cover.

Croft's solid figure was enveloped by his team-mates, who clapped him back to the pavilion. There they would spend the afternoon watching rain drip off the trees around the St Lawrence ground, alternately amused and exasperated by the hero of the morning. "Robert is a funny lad," Matthew Maynard explained. "But he will keep singing all these Welsh songs." That is more evidence of Croft the double patriot: proud to be Welsh, and proud to play for England.