Cricket: Fairbrother determined to put the demons to rest

Veteran relishes an unexpected third chance for World Cup glory.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT WAS seven years ago now, and still the memory is as fresh as ever. England, yet again, were in the World Cup Final and surely, this time, they would claim cricket's greatest prize by beating Pakistan in Melbourne. But it was not to be, and that day and night have been eating away at Neil Fairbrother ever since.

Of course, the experience has hardly dented his chirpy nature but, as the tournament looms once more, and England face their opening encounter against Sri Lanka at Lord's today, the Lancashire batsman is reminded that, in an otherwise successful and entertaining one-day career, the World Cup has not been kind to him. "Do you know, at one point Pakistan were 90 for 5 after something like 35 overs, and we had one hand on that trophy," Fairbrother tells you. "Then some brilliant play took it away from us." We are sitting in a hotel bar. He shakes his head and rattles the ice-cubes in his glass.

"It was the World Cup final, played in front of a capacity crowd at the MCG. It should have been the greatest day of my life. But all I can recall is walking around the ground at the end of the match. It is a moment I will never forget because we all thought we were the best team and that we were going to win. The next day was pretty awful, too."

The script, which has normally been so faithful to one of the most-feared run-chasers in international cricket, was no kinder four years later in the sub-continent, where a dismal England performance saw their World Cup campaign end prematurely. "Now that has to be the lowest point of my career," Fairbrother admits, accepting another lime juice from his county and international colleague Andrew Flintoff.

"After what happened in 1992 we thought we would give it a real go, but I didn't play well and then I got a hamstring injury and had to return home. From a team point of view I think everyone will now admit it was a bit of a shambles. There was no planning nor preparation, and nobody seemed to know what was going on. We never discovered our best team, and we were on our way home before we had even started to play."

Shortly afterwards the then England captain, Mike Atherton, broke what appeared to be inevitable news. "Athers, my best mate and captain, told me that, in the light of such a disappointing World Cup, England would be introducing some promising youngsters. I had absolutely no arguments."

That, then, appeared to be that. Neil Fairbrother was supposed to see out his remaining days at his beloved Lancashire chasing his personal Holy Grail of the County Championship title and no doubt notching up the odd half-century in the one-day competitions. A largely successful innings but, perhaps, especially when one looks at his unfulfilled Test career, one that failed to quite reach the maximum output.

Even if the story had ended at this juncture Fairbrother, contrary to the popular belief that the likeable Lancastrian was tearing his red hair out of his roots in frustration, was satisfied with his lot. "I've always been happy with my career," he insists. "People sometimes ask me if the one-day label I seem to have and the fact that I didn't get too many chances in the Test Match arena is frustrating, but the way I see it is that I've played 80 times for my country (70 one-day, 10 Test) and I reckon that's a reasonable run, especially when I recall some of the fantastic moments I have enjoyed both personally and as part of a team. There is not much point in looking at it in any other way."

You can't argue with that, but still one wonders about the Test career. Ten Tests seem scant reward for such an exhilarating player. Back in 1990 Fairbrother was scoring runs for fun, including a couple of double hundreds and a 366 at The Oval which beat Sir Len Hutton's record score at the famous old ground. A smooth transition on to the international stage seemed assured.

"I sometimes wonder about what might have been," the 35-year-old finally concedes. "But I got stuck on how I was going to play in the Test matches. Everything was going so well at Lancs, and I was going out and giving the ball a good beating. But in the first Test against New Zealand at Trent Bridge I scored 15 runs in two-and-a- half hours on a slow wicket. When I came off everybody asked me what I was doing. This wasn't how I score my runs. So in the next Test I had a look at a couple of balls, then went down the wicket to an off-spinner and holed out to mid-on. That was during a three-match Test spell, and that turned out to be my longest run."

In truth, you could see that the confident batsman had become befuddled. The advice he received hardly helped matters, either. "In the space of 10 minutes during those Tests I've just mentioned I spoke to two great England captains, Tony Greig and Mike Brearley, and they offered me completely conflicting advice on how I should be batting. It was all whirling around in my head. In the end I tried to be me, it didn't come off, and at that level, especially with the English mentality, you don't get too many chances."

After the 1996 World Cup debacle Fairbrother reckoned his last chance had come and gone. "It wasn't the case that I had lost confidence in myself," he explains. "I have never thought I'm no longer good enough, but maybe others believed my body, especially my hamstrings, weren't up to international cricket. But in those intervening years not much has changed, and I'm still chipping away."

So much so that last summer David Lloyd and David Graveney felt compelled to pay the little man a visit. "They asked me if I was up for another crack, and told me to stay fit. The next day my little feller Sam jumped on me when I was watching television at home and injured my knee. That put me out for three weeks. Then, at Lytham, I was running round the boundary, stuck my foot out and inadvertently landed on the ball. That resulted in a sprained ankle and another four-and-a-half weeks out. Luckily, I just got back in time to score a number of useful knocks at the end of the season." Indeed he did, and he went on to be one of England's better players in the one-day marathon series in Australia against the host country and Sri Lanka.

To say that Fairbrother is itching to start is an understatement. "It's just such a massive opportunity," he reasons. "The World Cup. Here, in England. Just think what it could do for our game, let alone the England team, if we won. I think the game's on a knife-edge here, but if we can do well it could be shades of Euro 96 again. It really could."

There is one final motivating factor for a man desperate to make amends in the twilight of his career. "Yep, there's some unfinished business still," he admits. "Not just for me, but for players like Alec Stewart and Graeme Hick, who also played in that World Cup final defeat. We all know it's our last chance."

He nods his head and downs the last drop of his drink. "I feel very lucky and privileged that I'm still here, and there's a little bit of life left in my England career. So I'll do my level best to take this unexpected but wonderful opportunity."