Cricket: Face to face, pace meets pace

Dazzler v Destroyer: England rely on man of spirit and speed as tourists look to an uncompromising talent
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Stephen Brenkley

applauds the deeds

of Darren Gough,

the laughing cavalier

DURING the one-day international series there was an incident which demonstrated that England's best bowler is truly back. It happened at Old Trafford when a spectator dressed as a long-billed bird waddled on to the pitch. He, or more unlikely she, approached the middle where some of the players might have been understandably tempted to show that this was no place for toucans who had presumably drunk somewhat more than two cans.

Darren Gough defused a potentially tense moment by jumping on the creature's back and going for a little ride. Laughter all round, stewards' task made easier, big-time cricket being played with a smile on its face, the Dazzler dazzling once more. If the birdperson should not have been there it was still fun to watch.

It was typical of Dazzler, one of the brightest and most welcome sparks in the game. There was also the additional business of his pace, accuracy, brutal swing and constant variation. Back indeed and the following day he was named England's man of the series, not for the toucan riding but for the bowling, though English cricket probably needs them both.

It needed them when he first made his significant breakthrough at international level in Australia four winters ago. His speed allied to the grin made him a new sporting hero before his tour was cut short by injury. The boy from Barnsley has never quite regained that prowess. Maybe the time is now upon us.

After his bowling in Manchester last Saturday where he constantly set conundrums for the batsmen to which there was no obvious solution, he said: "It has given me the confidence to believe that I am back to somewhere near my best. I was able to reverse swing the ball at the end and bowl aggressively at the start. I was happy with my pace and pleased with the way the ball came out of my hand. The seam came out straight."

All of this was missed profoundly by England in the Caribbean. All of it will be needed if they are to overcome a stable South Africa side. Gough, fully restored after repairs to the dodgy left knee which caused him to withdraw from the tour, is ready to confront them with a heady repertoire.

"With Darren Gough playing, England would be a good side," said Geoff Arnold, the former Test swing bowler and generally recognised as the top bowling coach in England and all-round guru on the subject. He left unsaid what they were without him but Arnold, more than anybody, is aware that bowlers of Gough's stock are not thick in the averages.

"He must be one of the top six in the world," he said. "He's got very good pace, plenty of variation and he thinks as a bowler. He knows where he wants to put it and and he can do it. The big difference for him came when he got extra pace and then learned to swing it as well."

Arnold, a mean swinger himself, is as gratified by Gough's knowledge of pitches and opposing batsmen as by his ability. There are not too many others around and the complete article hardly figures at all in Arnold's list of ones to watch. He rates Ed Giddins - height and bounce - and gave honourable mentions to Jason Lewry, Ashley Cowan and Melvyn Betts but the 27-year-old Yorkshireman is his one surefire bet. "The days have gone for now when you could call on half a dozen who would do a decent job. That's why Gough is vital. If he stays fit, England have a good chance of winning Test matches."

It is his fitness, or rather proneness to injury, which has been constantly questioned since he first broke into the England side four years ago and expressed the wish to bowl fast, take 100 Test wickets and take it from there. As it is he has played in 21 of England's 43 Tests since he was first picked against New Zealand in 1994 and his wicket haul stands at 85. The century is an inviting target this summer.

The theory that various parts of his body have a tendency to break down goes unsupported by Arnie Sidebottom, who was leaving the Yorkshire side just as Gough was entering it. "You can't bowl at that pace if you're not properly fit and Goughy has a good record," said Sidebottom, who now looks after Yorkshire's academy.

As Gough made a highly promising debut at Lord's in April 1989 - with Sidebottom taking the new ball - and then promptly missed the rest of the season with a bad back before returning for the penultimate to ensure a new contract, this may be slightly overstating Gough's status as a man who would not recognise a sicknote if it was put under his nose. But Sidebottom also enthuses about Gough's other qualities. "Maybe I'm biased because I'm a Barnsley lad like him but I would say he's the best in England easily. He's got a bit of a pace and he runs in giving 100 per cent every ball. But he's such a wholehearted lad, a good team man. He's never let anything go to his head, a Barnsley lad through and through. Goughy's got spirit; he's got five years left at least for England."

After issuing his warning to the South Africans in the summer's initial skirmishes, Gough said: "I've enjoyed it. I tried every-thing, slower balls, yorkers, reverse swing." Toucan riding to give the crowd a laugh is a bonus.