Cricket: Ilott measured for success in the top flight: England A's new bowling hero is determined to fulfil his destiny and play for the Ashes

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The Independent Online
GIVEN the fate of one recent England captain, not many cricketers would admit that the highlight of their career occurred in a hotel room. But Mark Ilott has no hesitation in picking out the moment, early in June, when he pulled on a sweater, looked in the mirror and saw an England cricketer.

Except he was not quite the genuine article and when, two days later, he was left out of the side for the first Test against Australia, the sweaters, cap and assorted England garb had to go back.

And that, along with Essex's poor form, 'was the low point of the season', Ilott saidhere yesterday as he relaxed after Sunday's marathon match-winning performance for England A against Transvaal.

Ilott, who took 6 for 61 and bowled for more than two hours, added: 'I was given my jumpers, I looked in the mirror and I thought 'this is excellent. I am an England cricketer. I have always wanted to wear one of these. This is going to go on my wall, I am going to frame this.' Then I was told 'You are not playing, you have got to give them back'.

''It was upsetting. I had worked all my life to have those jumpers. In careers at school the teacher would say to me: 'Mark what have you done about a career?' and I would say: 'Nothing - I'm going to be a cricketer.' She would say: 'What if you don't?' and I'd say: 'I will, I will.' I always knew I was going to be a cricketer. Looking back it was foolish because if I got injured I'd have been stuffed.'

Having been left out at Old Trafford for the late replacement Phillip DeFreitas, Ilott was again 12th man at Lord's. But he got that sweater eventually, playing in the third Test at Trent Bridge and it now hangs on the wall of his Potters Bar home.

Ilott kept his place for the next two Tests but was dropped for the Oval win and the West Indies tour. Having won his Test place through a good A tour of Australia, he now seeks a repeat. Just in case, two dates are set for his wedding to fiancee Sandra, one during next winter's Ashes tour, the other after it.

Sunday was a good start, and not just in terms of figures. With half the England side unwell, the 23-year-old cut his pace in order to bowl a long spell and discovered it improved his rhythm and swing.

'It possibly makes me a better bowler,' he said. 'I was told before I came out that I had to learn to swing the ball, which I did at Lilleshall (in the pre-tour get-together) when I bowled slower. Here it has swung every game but there may be a lesson in slowing down if it doesn't'

Ilott has received advice from everyone from the England bowling coach, Geoff Arnold, to his own father. The only technical change is an adjustment of his wrist position during approach but he has also reassessed his mental outlook.

'I did not think I did too badly but I was not surprised to be dropped. When I was left out I realised how much I wanted to get back playing for England. If that means being more dedicated then I will be.

'That means practice and patience. If I go out without training much and bowl badly it is my own fault. I must also be disciplined in bowling. With good batsmen you must be patient and keep putting the ball in the business area and not waste it on bouncers and such.'

This is Ilott's third A tour. The first, to Sri Lanka in 1990-91, was followed by 10 months out with a stress fracture in his back. When the injury was diagnosed the warnings of his careers teacher loomed, especially as it was Ricardo Ellcock, whose career was ended by a similar injury, who alerted Ilott. 'I was gutted, I thought my career was over,' he said.

But, after an operation on '9 August, 1991, 8.30 in the morning' - the date is etched in his mind - Ilott came back the following season. He remains wary - 'every time I get a niggle near that area I think 'stress fracture' but back pain is an occupational hazard. I am fighting fit at the moment.'

So are his team-mates, which means no one will be quarantined on today's flight to Port Elizabeth, an east coast industrial resort.

(Photograph omitted)