Cricket: Flight, guile, and a spot of turbulence: Phil Tufnell is in the great tradition of sporting misfits. Richard Williams reports from Madras on the England spin bowler's struggle for success

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The Independent Online
IN THE days when large chunks of the map were still painted pink, it was the custom for young males of the species to be issued with a copy of Scouting for Boys, Lord Baden-Powell's guide to a healthy adolescence. Within, somewhere near the exhortation to abstain from a solitary vice which the hero of Mafeking could bring himself to describe only as 'beastliness', was a page carrying a simple pencil sketch of two boys. One, upright and well-formed, neat and alert, was the Scout. The other, his thin body slumped into the shape of an S, hands stuffed into his pockets and a fag drooping over his prognathous jaw, was the Weed.

On the face of it, there's not much doubt about which of the two groups would claim Phil Tufnell's allegiance. As he mooched around the baking outfield in Madras on Thursday and Friday, a baseball cap pulled down over his forehead, his snow-plough of a chin covered in dark stubble, his large flat feet pointed at 10 to two, he looked like the First Scout's worst nightmare. The only shadows in the Chidambaram Stadium, it seemed, were those cast a few days earlier by his latest outbreak of bad behaviour, and lingering still in the harsh sunlight.

As well as England's desperate attempt to square the series against India by winning the second Test, last week was also about the rehabilitation of Phil Tufnell. The two events were not unconnected in the minds of those who felt that the omission of the gifted but truculent Middlesex spin bowler might have made a significant contribution to England's opening setback. Now, in Madras, on a considerably less helpful surface than that enjoyed by the victorious trio of Indian spinners in Calcutta, in fact on a surface specifically designed by the home team to be less than helpful to him in particular, the man recently described by Sunil Gavaskar as 'the best left-arm spinner in the world' was being asked once again to prove himself worthy of Test standing.

It's a running story. When Bob Bennett, the England tour manager, refers to him through perceptibly gritted teeth as 'an interesting character', he prompts the reflection that Philip Clive Roderick Tufnell has been in trouble more or less continuously since he first played for England in 1990, and probably long before that.

Born in Hertfordshire 26 years ago, he seems from all accounts to have led a turbulent life, including a premature departure from Highgate School, where his friends included Zak Starkey, son of Ringo Starr, and which he left with a single O level, in art. He subsequently qualified as a silversmith, his father's trade, but his jobs before joining the ground staff at Lord's included driving a taxi and working as a builder's mate. Even when he had established himself, he couldn't get out of the choppy air.

On his first tour with England, to Australia in the winter of 1990-91, he was disciplined for slovenly performances in the field. On his return, the authorities asked his county's two senior pros, Mike Gatting and John Emburey, to knock some sense into him. But even genuinely match-winning performances in three Tests - 6 for 25 against West Indies at the Oval in 1991, 5 for 94 against Sri Lanka at Lord's a fortnight later, and an aggregate of 11 for 147 against New Zealand in Christchurch a year ago - couldn't dispel the aura of loucheness and indiscipline that hung about him.

If Tufnell was capable of winning matches by his own efforts, he has also seemed capable, more or less single- handedly, of maintaining the England cricket team's recent tradition of providing fodder for the news pages of the tabloids. Established by Botham, Lamb and Gatting, it had seemed in danger of extinction until Tufnell slouched into view. Whether he deserves the notoriety is another matter, and the truth of it may hold the key to what has become a compelling human drama.

'He's a great bowler,' one of his England colleagues said last week, 'and a complete dickhead'. The colleague, who did not wish to be identified, praised his 'wonderful natural talent', and added: 'He gets plenty of good advice, and he always appears to be listening to it, but I think it goes in one ear and out the other. When he does something wrong, he always apologises, eventually . . . but how long can you keep on apologising?'

Everybody knows what Phil Tufnell's problem is. You could see it encapsulated in the incident at Vishakhapatnam last weekend, when he reacted to a missed stumping with a very public display of petulance, kicking his cap across the field and letting fly with the verbals in the umpire's direction. A volley of no-balls and various other manifestations of displeasure were met with a pounds 500 fine, a public censure and an enforced apology. And the stories began to hum down the wires: about how he hated flying, was a bad tourist, couldn't stand India (as if he weren't entitled to form his own opinion).

In fact, he's greatly liked in the dressing-room, where his humour and his individuality are appreciated. His particular friends in the party include Robin Smith, Neil Fairbrother and Mike Atherton - an eclectic bunch. He is rooming in Madras with Phil DeFreitas, the only other smoker in the squad. No, on the field is where the problems begin, and where he must find the solution.

'The trouble with him is that he doesn't like it when the stick's flying about,' said John Emburey, the veteran off-spinner who has encouraged and advised Tufnell since the mid-Eighties. 'When that happens, he starts giving things away. So I have to come on to calm things down. Mind you, the old- timers like Fred Titmus say that Jim Laker was the same. He didn't like stick, either. Eric Bedser used to have to come on and tighten it up. Phil loses his rhythm. He gets something on his mind, and the rhythm goes. The only thing you can do then is take him off and bring him back the next day.'

'Cat's got to learn not to show his feelings so much,' said Keith Fletcher, the England team manager, using the nickname which is not an ironic salute to Tufnell's legendary lack of agility but a reference to his liking for sleep. 'When things go wrong, he's got to keep going, keep working. He gets a bit demoralised, and it shows to the batsman, who's one-up straight away. You mustn't show your feelings to a batter. It makes it easy for him.'

It's no surprise to discover that Tufnell started out as a schoolboy seamer. Any bowler above medium pace is allowed a temper; to many, the ability to wind themselves up is part of the functional channelling of aggression. For a spinner, though, a mastery of the art of passive resistance is an essential part of the kit. Spinners are going to get thrashed from time to time. They can't let it affect them, either at that moment or in the longer term. They must accept humiliation and dismiss it, or risk losing the delicate control without which their snares cannot be set. Revenge must be awaited with a clear mind. It can be a cruel trade, and it is Phil Tufnell's cruel fate to bring a choleric temperament to a phlegmatic role.

All this was on display on Thursday and Friday, as the Indians built a colossal first-innings total. Alec Stewart, England's acting captain, gave Tufnell one over before lunch on the first morning, with one wicket down. The Madras crowd, who love spinners and understood the significance of the moment, stirred with interest. He marked his run, flipped the ball from hand to hand, walked five steps, gave a little hop on his left foot, ran six paces and wheeled his arm. No ball. The horror] And when the last delivery of the over sped for four, it looked gruesomely as though the nightmare might be returning, this time in Cinemascope.

Stewart wisely rested him after lunch, bringing him back for eight indifferent overs before tea. Time and again Tufnell turned his back with a grimace and a silent imprecation as Navjot Sidhu and Vinod Kambli feasted on balls drifting helplessly towards the leg stump. After tea, though, he slowly began to get a grip, and nine overs to Sidhu and a rampant Sachin Tendulkar went for a mere 21 runs.

The next day, Stewart kept faith with him. In a spell of 14 overs either side of lunch he at last found his direction, dropping the ball on off stump or middle and off and cutting away from the right-hander with bite and bounce. In two perfect maidens to Tendulkar, the boy genius, it was possible to glimpse the most beautiful aspect of Tufnell's art: the way the ball lingers on his fingertips at the moment of delivery, just as the tennis ball seemed to rest on the racket strings of John McEnroe before being despatched with cunning spin and deceptive flight.

Along with the gift of flight and spin is the ability to vary the speed of the ball without altering the speed at which his arm turns over. Together, these things enable Tufnell, at his best, to control the mysterious last yard of the ball's flight, in which it can dip and float and sow lasting uncertainties in the mind of even the greatest batsman.

Only at the end of the innings, with Kapil Dev launched on a pre-declaration thrash, did Tufnell really take punishment. He finished with no wickets from 41 overs, at a cost of 132 runs. These were not figures to set next to those of his triumphs against West Indies, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, but the performance was in its way every bit as impressive. In hostile circumstances, with everything to prove, he had bent his back for two solid days, working with complete diligence on line and length, as unsparing of his own failings as his harshest critic. He listened to advice, accepted encouragement, stayed awake in the field.

At 26, is there still time for him to mend the flaws? 'He's young, for a spinner,' Fletcher said. 'He'll be at his best between 28 and 38, I reckon.' Others, while wishing him well, are not quite so sure. 'People either grow up or they don't,' one member of the team said. 'The danger is that he may be one of those who don't'

Maybe Thursday and Friday gave a clue. Nought for plenty is not, you might have thought, a performance to write home about, but set in the context of Tufnell's strange life and flawed career, the dedication and passion he showed made it an oddly moving one. The thing about Scouts, after all, is that they sometimes turn out to be Weeds at heart. And Weeds, under pressure, can reveal a core of purest Scout. Wouldn't that be a happy ending?

(Photograph omitted)

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