Cricket: England's quick fixer is reborn

At 35 Neil Fairbrother is an unlikely figure to build a World Cup strategy around - but he is loving it
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The Independent Online
NEIL FAIRBROTHER was washed up. It had been two years, going on three, since he had played for England, and if he was not constantly out of action or on the physiotherapist's couch with a dodgy knee here, a twisted ankle there and pulled hamstrings everywhere, the perception existed that he was a crock.

Perceptions in sport can count for more than reality. When he was injured while playing with his small son it seemed to confirm the state of his body. Fairbrother was 35 and his times as an international cricketer were obviously ended. A couple more seasons loomed for Lancashire, after which he could retire as a batsman who had been unfulfilled at Test level but who, for a brief period, had been one of the most effective of all one-day batsmen. Thanks Harvey.

Yet, last week in Australia, Fairbrother demonstrated why he is likely to be a central plank of the middle-order for a third World Cup. He was up to all his old tricks in the Carlton & United triangular series, nudging a single to point one ball, flicking one to square-leg shortly after, scampering between the wickets, daring fielders to go for a run-out and waiting for one short enough to pull angrily square.

He was there because in his long international absence the England hierarchy never forgot. Perhaps the Lancashire connection helped, but David Lloyd made a point of travelling to see Fairbrother, known throughout the game as Harvey because of the middle name he was given after the great Australian cricketer. If he recovered fitness and sustained it, the England coach told him, he would be back in the reckoning.

Last season he played a full and prolific part in Lancashire's characteristic one-day triumphs. He went to his 10th final at Lord's. England, without the players who were taking part in the Ashes tour of Australia, picked him for the special tournament in Bangladesh last October. Fairbrother was back. He played in Dhaka and made 56. It had been two years and eight months since his last, dismal appearance in the 1996 World Cup where England were simply calamitous and where Fairbrother played a full and active part in the failure.

"It's totally different this time," he said last week, reflecting on his own form and the England establishment. "To start with, roles have been defined and different strategies have been laid out. Basically we know where we're going and how we're going to get there. The spirit is very good."

He said this after England had won their opening two matches in the Carlton series but before they were dismantled in the third, hapless in changing approach when their 15-over batting ploy began to go wrong and outsmarted in the field. But Fairbrother was not vastly wide of the mark. This does appear to be a revitalised one-day England and if they could do with some additional flexibility they have at least worked out a game plan. With Graham Thorpe likely to be out of the World Cup - it would be a huge gamble to risk his weak back - Fairbrother's significance as the consolidator, the archetypal middle-order, middle-of-the-innings scoreboard rotator will only grow.

Not many other countries (and probably none) would find a potential saviour in a comeback batsman of 35 but there are simply none better at his brisk, irksome style, which is complemented by his left-handedness.

The faith in him is understandable. He displayed his credentials immediately in the Carlton series with a crucial, painstaking 47 in the first match against Australia when the ball was seaming about, made a similarly commanding 67 not out against Sri Lanka and failed along with most everybody else with 14 against Australia in Melbourne on Friday.

There was a shot in the second of those innings which exemplified his great gifts for this form of the game. England were behind the required rate. Ones and twos were no longer enough. They needed a boundary and they needed it quickly. Fairbrother did a little jig from his crease, met Sanath Jayasuriya's left-arm spinner as it pitched and drove a straight six. England were back in front again.

It is doubtless this kind of ability not to be daunted and determination to control the pace of the battle that has persuaded the England captain, Alec Stewart, to call Fairbrother The General. The player himself conveys the impression that he can hardly believe this is happening to him.

"If they want to see me as the grand old man then I'll be the grand old man," he said. "I'm 35 but while there's been a lot of one-day cricket played there's a lot more to be played. I didn't know whether I was going to play for England again but when David Lloyd came to see me I knew I was still in their minds. There's nothing wrong with me as far as injuries go. It's just age."

Fairbrother first played for England's one-day side in 1987. His finest hour and his only hundred came against West Indies at Lord's in 1991 when he made 113. The following year he was an instrumental figure in perhaps the most accomplished of England's limited-over sides.

They eventually ran out of fuel in the 1992 World Cup in Australia but they reached the final. There, Fairbrother made 62 in 70 balls but he was powerless at the other end when England's innings was transformed by two searing, swinging deliveries in consecutive balls from Wasim Akram to Allan Lamb and Chris Lewis.

He played throughout the following World Cup, too, but England were horribly out of sorts and off the pace. Fairbrother suffered along with them and when the tournament was over (for England in an abject quarter-final defeat against Sri Lanka) he was dropped. In 56 matches he had scored 1,595 runs at an average of 37.97 and a 57th was hardly in the running.

He looks much as he always did, though time surely dictates that he has lost some sharpness at cover point in the field. And when he tips and runs the thought occurs that a muscle might twang. But he is back and it was not only perception last week that he was England's most influential batsman. It was reality.