Cricket: Lawrence back and bowling bouncers: David Llewellyn on a slow but safe return to the action for a former England fast bowler

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THERE was a breathless hush yesterday when David 'Syd' Lawrence took the ball from a fielder and turned at the start of his run-up in a comeback match aimed at ending 18 months of misery, misfortune and lots of hard work.

In February 1992, Lawrence was carried screaming in agony from the pitch during England's third Test against New Zealand. His left kneecap had split in two as a 17-stone frame brought his front foot thudding into the Wellington turf. It looked like the end of the fast bowler's career.

But Lawrence, who at one time wanted to be a boxer, is a fighter and there then followed 13 months of hard slog, self-doubt and pain as he battled to recover his fitness. His rehabilitation could not have been better and by March this year he was planning to begin the 1993 season with Gloucestershire.

Then fate struck a cruel blow. Lawrence was doing some simple exercises, rebuilding the muscle around the left knee, when the same thing happened. This time, the fracture of the kneecap was not as severe but enough to have driven most people into another career.

Not Lawrence. His choice was stark: give up - or fight back. To do so twice borders on the superhuman. And yesterday, at the start of the run-up on which rested a lot of heartache, 3,000 people held their breath in the genteel surroundings of Cheltenham College.

He set off to cover the 25 yards to the crease, clearly favouring his left leg. At delivery, he brought his front foot up high, then down. The ball strayed down the leg side and went for a single, but no one, least of all Lawrence, seemed to mind. All that mattered was that he had not collapsed at the crease. He continued his follow-through for a further 10 yards then turned round with a smile. And 3,000 breathed again.

For the first couple of overs there was an obvious limp, as there had been while Lawrence, whose benefit year this is, was making 12 in 11 balls as the David Lawrence XI reached 243 for 9 in their 45 overs, a total the Rest of the World passed with two wickets and two balls to spare. But as over succeeded over, Lawrence's line improved, the length returned and he even managed a maiden.

By the last two of his half-dozen overs, during which he conceded 25 runs without taking a wicket, he was looking very sharp. Not at full pace, about 70 per cent according to the bowler, but quick enough to bother India's Sanjay Manjrekar and Phil Simmons, the West Indies opener whose skull was fractured by Lawrence in 1988. Simmons was close to death but has made a full recovery and the way Lawrence ran in yesterday, producing a few cheeky bouncers, it would appear that he has, too.

Not that Lawrence is getting carried away. 'Those were the six most important overs of my career,' he said. 'I was very apprehensive for the first couple of deliveries, but as I went on I got more confident. But there is still a long way to go.

'A lot of people said there was no way I could get back after the second break, but I've been working hard. They wrote me off too early. I want to play some second XI cricket as soon as possible. Next week maybe. That is the next stage, to see if I can bowl 25 overs and field all day. But my aim is to play some first XI cricket this summer.'

That may sound pie in the sky, but Lawrence is no pie-chucker.

(Photographs omitted)