Cricket: Knight takes one-day life on the run

England's World Cup hopes rest heavily on cavalier opener whose brief is simply to hit the cover off the ball
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The Independent Online
ONE OF the most thrilling and outrageous sights in English cricket is that of Nick Knight running up the pitch and hitting fast bowlers straight back over their heads. It is a shot which defies all known conventions and contradicts the misguided impression of some Australian pundits that England have given the game nothing since inventing it.

While it is no more than an extension to the Sri Lankans' introduction of pinch-hitting to the one-day game, it embodies England's revitalised approach. It is currently being exhibited to joyous if mixed effect in Australia, where Knight is opening the batting in the one-day series. It serves at least two purposes apart from its potential of adding big runs at the beginning of the innings: it shows England's willingness to improvise in attack and it gets right up the opposition's pipe.

"Actually I find it easier to hit the ball when I'm on the run," says Knight. "It's not exactly a fine judgement, I do it to unsettle the bowler, to make him think more because he doesn't know when I'll be coming and then try to hit as straight as I can while covering my stumps.

"I started it when the 15- over fielding rule came in two or three years ago. Only two men are outside the circle, so there are gaps, and it's another attacking stroke. The bowler won't know what's coming next."

The shot, which perhaps should be called the Knight Flight given its protagonist's rapid departure from the crease and the likely trajectory of the ball, is but a part, albeit a significant one, of Knight's scintillating dodges.

He also has an exciting sweep slog which is aimed at cow corner and should warm the soul of village cricketers everywhere, and he is lightning between the wickets. Those attributes, not to mention his supreme fielding in any position, have made him indispensable to England's one-day team, the platform of the innings.

This very week his coach, David Lloyd, was asked what Knight meant to the side and likened his absence to that of Steve Waugh from Australia or Aravinda De Silva from Sri Lanka. It weakens you, but also lifts your opponents. Knight is not indispensable, but he is integral to England's intention of plundering runs in the early part of their innings.

His recent record is astonishing for the regularity with which he does exactly the job he is paid for. Only twice in the past 20 matches has he been out to the new ball, and while his three one-day centuries hardly set him apart (he scored two of them on successive days against Pakistan four years ago), he sets the momentum of the side.

"I'm fairly philosophical about it. Sometimes it comes off, sometimes it doesn't. But it isn't necessarily restricted to 15 overs either. Quite often the fielding team keep men in so you're provided with 18 overs.

"The way I play in one-day cricket is purely manufactured. I wanted to come up with something that had a chance of working, but it's only because it fits into my role in the side. If I was going in at five I wouldn't play like that."

Knight exemplifies the evolution of the team being nurtured for the World Cup. Each member, it is said, has been given a clearly defined role and Knight's is to whack the cover off the ball any way he thinks fit. It is slightly worrying for him that all this one-day cavalier stuff might have damaged his chances in Test cricket.

After first playing in 1995 and making a maiden century he has fallen back in the selectorial pecking order. Although injuries allowed him to appear against South Africa last summer, his sloppy manners outside the off stump to the swinging new ball were exposed.

This was not simply a case of his Warwickshire colleague Allan Donald being aware of all his shortcomings, it was clear that he was not moving back and across as he should to cover the stump. The pushes at the ball which resulted in his being caught at slip were not a pretty sight.

Knight has worked to cure the defect, which does not diminish him unduly in the 50-over game, but his Test future may lie at No 6, the position in which he scored his only Test century against Pakistan. True, he may face the new ball, but he has the experience of that, and the bowlers, by then, should be tired.

His dashingly innovative methods could easily cut a swathe through the World Cup next summer, and he has a bowler or two in Australia to irk yet this month. In the first two matches of the Carlton & United series he settled in as usual and made 30 and 40 before giving it away. But he has looked in command and his perpetual encouragement of England in the field ("letting the opposition know we're there and would like to stop runs") suggests that the mould which produced Jonty Rhodes was not quite exclusive.

"One-day cricket has altered completely. There are things being done that wouldn't have been dreamt of. I've played 28 matches, but if I'd been in any other country that figure would probably have been 50. That's why this triangular tournament is so important to us. We're playing all these matches and seeing so many different situations. This is the sort of experience we need if England are to have a chance in the World Cup."

Knight learned the game at Felsted School, where he was coached by the long-serving former Essex opener Gordon Barker, who probably did not teach him the sweep slog but passed on much else. The pair still keep in touch, and Barker was there when Knight was married last autumn and was in Queensland to see his protege last week. "Great lad," he said. "Should have a drink now and then." But Knight is assiduous in his diet and tests show he is the fittest man in the England team.

"I think we can do still more in the field. Honestly, every run counts so you've got to look to take them and you've got to look to stop them. They can be turning points, as catches can. There are lots of little things which may only count for 0.1 per cent, but they all add up to the winning run or wicket."