Cricket: First-class Stemp improves his delivery: Michael Austin talks to Worcestershire's promising, though enigmatic, left-arm spinner

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FEW spin-bowlers in recent seasons have fulfilled the three criteria of being young, England qualified and talented. In the space of two sunlit months, that has all changed.

A queue for higher honours developed, headed successfully by Ian Salisbury, the Sussex leg- spinner, now playing his second Test match, at Old Trafford, followed among others by Richard Stemp, the enigmatic Worcestershire left-arm bowler.

Every cricketer should be a character and Stemp, riding high in the first-class averages, embellishes his ability with a chirpy outgoing nature and innate honesty. He even admits that he expected to be sacked by Worcestershire two years ago.

'I had three successive one- year contracts and felt I had made the grade. But big-headedness almost brought my downfall,' he said. 'All my friends said 'Look he's a first-class cricketer' and I thought 'This is the life'.

'Then I realised my mental state was wrong. I was given a kick up the bum by Basil D'Oliveira and Mark Scott, the Worcestershire coaches, and it worked. I suddenly thought of all the players I knew who could have reached the top but didn't'

The sandy-haired Stemp, now 24, is in the first summer of a new three-year contract and grins through his designer stubble about his experiences in and out of the game. A 'serious highlight', as he puts it, in a brief career was a match return of 11 for 146 off 53.5 overs, including a career best 6 for 67 against Gloucestershire at Gloucester in May.

Stemp dismissed nine different players in the match, showed impressive control and variation and produced that modern English rarity, a turning ball. 'I enjoy spinning it. The feeling is great when it flicks the outside edge of the bat. I am determined to continue giving the ball air and try to draw batsmen forward.'

As an opportunist performance, Stemp's will probably not be bettered this summer. He played only because Richard Illingworth was on Texaco Trophy duty and promptly gave Worcestershire a dilemma. They have since solved it by selecting both their left-arm spinners.

Stemp stressed: 'It's fascinating to play alongside Richard. He helps me to 'read' batsmen whom I don't know. He will get me more wickets than I will for him. After facing Richard, they are likely to attack me.

'As a spin-bowler, it's vital to settle into a rhythm. I didn't bowl all that well against Northamptonshire earlier in the season and that's dangerous against someone like Allan Lamb. He is likely to smack a good ball out of the park, so if you bowl a couple of hittable ones, you are in deep trouble. Form is a strange thing. Tim Curtis, my captain, puts it well. He says that it hides in some strange places - you just have to keep looking.'

Nowadays, Stemp enjoys being brought down to earth, remembering that he lives in the real world, not just one of autographs and three-star hotels. He has spent his winters as a labourer, a trainee legal executive, a carpet company employee and even worked for a firm which printed Penthouse.

'I am not a gambler, so don't join in the wet weather card schools, but I enjoy the dressing- room atmosphere. When I first played, I would sit in the corner worrying about where I was going to pitch the ball. Ian Botham would suddenly pull out a water pistol and spray me in the face. It took off the pressure.

'Ian was always doing something different. If he was not slipping a bun into your boots, he would cut holes in your socks. When you pulled them up, they were as long as leg warmers.

'I remember Allan Border walking into our dressing-room one day. I thought 'Wow' and then suddenly thought he was only doing the same job as me. My first wicket was (Yorkshire's) Richard Blakey, caught at square leg. I rushed home to look at the teletext scores just to make sure it really was me.'

Stemp, a Birmingham-born six- footer, has already represented England in indoor 'Tests'. His ambition, naturally, is to play outdoors for his country within the next three years. 'I don't know how I would handle it but I am sure I wouldn't be short of advice.'

When not required by Worcestershire, Stemp plays for Old Hill, the club he joined at the age of eight. He has celebrity status there but nowadays just wants to lean on the bar as another player. 'I have learned my lesson,' the reformed rebel said.