Cricket: It's not over for missing Syd

Stephen Brenkley meets the fast bowler who is defying the advice of his doctors
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That lovely, warm smile spread across David Lawrence's face. There was not a hint of irritation in his voice. His tone was measured, his body was relaxed.

"I guarantee that if you got together the five quickest bowlers in England and put me up against them, I would match them in terms of pace," he said. "I know that. Maybe the rest of it wouldn't be together but my speed wouldn't be a problem."

Confidence and delusion are often difficult to tell apart when sportsmen announce a return to the fray after a long, apparently terminal, absence. They need the first, you can only hope they are not suffering from the second. Lawrence, rightly, exuded pleasant assurance as he explained why he will attempt a comeback with Gloucestershire next season, but he could not quite dispel the unkind thought that it might be too much, not least since medical opinion is against him.

The abiding, dreadful image of him is from the final Test match in Wellington nearly five years ago. Lawrence was at the start of his third over in New Zealand's second innings and as he reached his delivery stride his front knee buckled. The anguished scream he let out rang round the cricketing world. That was not all. As he was carried from the field on a stretcher, his usually sunny face wreathed in agony, a television cameraman honed in. Perceiving this to be an intrusion of privacy, Micky Stewart, the England manager, hurled a volley of abuse in his direction.

Syd, as he has always been known in the game, after the bandleader, has not appeared in a first-class match since. The medics were optimistic at first, despite the damage to his kneecap, which had snapped in two and is now joined by a metal screw. It was a freak accident (though, when you consider the strain bowlers such as Lawrence put on their front leg in the delivery stride, you may wonder why).

When it happened again a year later as he was exercising during rehabilitation, comeback hopes faded. A second recovery in Australia petered out and Lawrence seemed resigned to his fate at 30. He had taken 500 wickets, made countless friends, was held in affection, but we were left to wonder if he could have made the final breakthrough. As the young cricketer of the year in 1985, he had taken some while to ally pace to the other weapons in the fast-bowler's armoury, such as the outswinger.

"I was just coming into my own when the injury happened," he said. "But I'm not bitter. I had 12 good years. It's just that now I know the knee is strong enough. Before, I came back too soon, but I've built it up. What the doctors say doesn't worry me. They would say that.

"It's not that I've missed the cricket. It's just something I've got to do. I don't want to get old and regret not doing this."

The deal is that Gloucestershire give him a month to six weeks before next season to prove his fitness. His body is already a temple to a regime of daily gymnasium visits but his personal trainer, Howard Thomas, knows he must lose two stones to have the stamina for regular fast bowling again. The running and the diet have already begun to complement the weight training.

Gloucestershire, while low-key in their reaction, are clearly excited at the prospect, no matter how slim. Their chief executive, Philip August, was no doubt conjuring up balmy days at Cheltenham as he mused on a bowling line-up of Lawrence opening with Courtney Walsh and Mike Smith as first- change.

Lawrence, 33 in January, is keen for people to know that he does not have to do this. Five months ago he opened a wine bar in Bristol and perish any thought, he demanded, that it is a publicity stunt for the bar or his speciality cocktail, Syd's Super Strong Screaming Orgasm.

"This is no hoax and anybody who says that can have pounds 100 if they survive an over in the nets against me - pounds 200 for two overs. I want to play for Gloucestershire again, nothing else. But you never know. I might take the wicket that wins the Ashes next summer on the same day Lord Lucan is found." You pray he does, but you wonder which occurrence has the shorter odds.