Cricket: Irani's refreshing reserve of belief

After the write-offs, two former Test players with rosy futures are determined to enjoy their one day in the sun as their counties look towards Lord's: Stephen Brenkley meets the Lancashire turned Essex boy with the all-round appeal
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The Independent Online
IF self-belief came in bottles Ronnie Irani would have a cellar bursting with the finest vintages. The stocks would invariably replenish themselves no matter how much of the stuff he quaffed.

"I'm a much better cricketer now than when I first played for England," he said. "I'm fitter, stronger and I've improved as a batsman and a bowler. There really is no comparison." Since Irani's last six international appearances brought 16 runs, including three scores of nought, and three wickets at more than 50 runs each this seems to confirm the unlimited supplies.

These reserves are precisely what make him such a watchable player. Irani's passionate faith in his own ability has not always been matched by deeds but it is not wise to take your eyes off him. At Ilford last Thursday, for instance, Nottinghamshire were not exactly coasting along but they were in no sort of bother from the Essex bowlers either.

Irani was down at third man when the Nottinghamshire captain, Paul Johnson, who was approaching his first Championship hundred for two years, cut a ball backward of point. The fielder set off to his right and at some stage in his flight decided the catch was on. He took it two-handed at full stretch. Now, that was self-belief. He then turned round and grinningly acknowledged the applause of suddenly unslumbering spectators, who instinctively warm to cricketers like Irani, by bowing to them several times.

He has worked extremely hard on his game to ensure progress in all departments. When the selectors ignored him for both tours last winter he was, if not delighted, then not distraught either because he knew he could advance more by training at home than playing abroad. Either side of his wedding celebrations he spent copious amounts of time in the gym and the Essex nets. In the first establishment Irani followed an exercise regime specifically designed by the leading athletics coach Frank Dick, and in the second he followed the rules as laid down for batting by Keith Fletcher and for bowling by Geoff Arnold. "You couldn't get a better three to help in all areas," he said.

At 27, Irani is aware of his significance to Essex and their hopes of beating Yorkshire in the Benson and Hedges Cup semi-final against Yorkshire at Headingley on Tuesday. "When I come on I'm expected to do something with the ball and take wickets and when I bat there are responsibilities on me. I think I'm more consistent with my bowling action and slightly more restrained as a batsman. I don't just go out and give it a thrash. This season he has fulfilled his responsibilities with 18 Championship wickets, a start in most of his innings and rampant one-day batting which has yielded four fifties.

Irani was born and bred in Lancashire, the son of a Lancastrian, but he is something of a hero in his adopted county. A buzz goes round the crowd when he is in the game and at a Sunday League match recently a section of spectators appealed for Essex batsmen to get out so Irani could come in. "Yes, I'm an Essex lad now except I drive a Rover, not a Capri."

As his dad was a professional in the Bolton League (at 56, Jimmy Irani is still playing for a team of schoolboys whom he coaches) cricket came early and easily.One of his first coaches was a Pakistani teenager who came to Lancashire as a league professional when spotted by Jimmy on tour. Thus, a five-year-old Ronnie was subjected to living-room leg spin by Javed Miandad.

He moved south after starting his career with Lancashire. It was a career move pure and simple. Lancashire could not providewhat he saw as a proper role; Essex could. Within two years, England called him up against India in 1996. It was on the tour to Zimbabwe and New Zealand the following winter that his international career stuttered. A back injury was followed by long periods of no cricket. The eventual returns were nothing to write home about but unfortunately the attendant press corps had no option.

"When we got back, my gut feeling was that I wouldn't get in and so it proved," he said. "But nobody has a right to play in every game. I just got back down to trying to play well for Essex. The will is still there." He did not need to add the last sentence. The wonderful 20-yard running, diving, applause milking catch of a few minutes before was eloquent enough testimony.