Cricket: Malcolm up to full speed

Stephen Brenkley talks to the fastest bowler in the country as he awaits a recall
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Passion blazes deep in Devon Malcolm's eyes and gushes in torrents from his lips. He is desperate to play for England again, to bury the past and to confront Australia one last time.

"I have a burning desire to get back in the side," he said last week. "There's nothing like playing Australia. They always lift their game, play it hard. I want to be there to help get the Ashes back."

Malcolm was speaking at Trent Bridge moments after a quite ferocious spell with the new ball for Derbyshire which undermined the techniques and resolve of several Nottinghamshire batsmen. He did so with fierce desire, utterly determined to ensure his time comes again.

"I'm taking wickets, I'm the quickest guy around still and I know the opposition respect me. England should have a plan, stick to it and we'll be able to beat the Australians."

There is a long and noble custom of English comebacks against the oldest enemy. Successful missions in pursuit of either regaining or retaining the Ashes have usually involved the recall of at least one old warrior.

If the selectors are minded to keep faith with the tradition this summer they may look no further than Malcolm. He fits the characteristic requirements. A year ago his international career looked to be finished. The tour of South Africa in 1996 had begun with stirring hopes but became memorable for all the wrong reasons.

His bowling action was bizarrely and publicly criticised by the management which left relations seriously strained. After being overlooked for much of the series he was in the side for the last Test in Cape Town, but with his confidence down the drain he bowled like one. The fast bowler and the tour manager Ray Illingworth then exchanged unpleasantries in newspaper articles.

Malcolm has responded magnificently. Last summer was one of careful rehabilitation. He took 82 wickets and if they were a tad expensive they came at a strike rate of 47, better than any of his close rivals. He has begun this season in a real hurry. He is bowling like the wind and batsmen are being blown away. In Derbyshire's first three Championship games he took 22 wickets and added a further eight in the fourth at Nottingham. It has taken guts to return to the fray so explosively after his experience in South Africa and he is clearly proud of himself.

"It was the lowest point of my cricket career," said Malcolm. "But it's a sport of character and I had to show a bit of character. I went out there and I fought and fought. I've still got a lot to prove, I'm still hungry for the game. Most of the guys around the county scene were fantastic. They were really complimentary and supportive.

"In South Africa the whole thing was taken out of my hands. I went out there with one thing on my mind, to get out and beat them but unfortunately I was grounded early on before it even started. I spent all the last year trying to get rid of that, get it out of my system. I reckon I have and I'll be moving on now."

The Australian coach of Derbyshire, Les Stillman, is certain that at 34 Malcolm is worthy of an England recall. "They've got to be thinking about him. It might depend on the wickets but he's still the fastest bowler in England. It's not that Australia will be intimidated by his extra pace but there are others they'd rather face.

"He got a kick in the guts in South Africa but he came back and got on with the job. It's not just the speed either. He's bowling straighter than ever this season. He's terrific."

Such testimonials about Malcolm are easy to garner. He plays it hard on the pitch but he is enormously popular with players and spectators alike. Since his devastating bowling at The Oval against South Africa in 1994 when he took 9 for 57, he has assumed the status of folk hero. This is his benefit year and he is sure to break the Derbyshire record.

"I'm enjoying my game again," he said. "I'm fitter than ever before. I had a winter's rest and it's like I've got a new body. I'm 34 but it's like I'm 26. Don't forget I started late and I've always been well used by Derbyshire."

Malcolm has seen the selectors around this season, Derbyshire being one of their present favourite hunting grounds and, while there has been no direct contact as yet, he was relieved at the declaration in April that this was a new beginning. The past, it was made clear, was being forgotten, everybody would be under consideration.

No selector has had better sight of him than Mike Gatting, who had both barrels unloaded in his direction at Lord's. Middlesex won the match but Gatting was out to Malcolm in both innings, caught at slip in the first and at the wicket in the second. Other wickets of batsmen of high quality have included Mark Ramprakash and Alec Stewart and, as if to emphasise that the location finder is in good order, he has bowled five batsmen this summer, had four lbw and had six caught behind. It is worth noting that he has usually struck early with the new ball.

"All I can do is to keep on doing what I'm doing," he said with the intensity of one who will do it for as long as it takes.

The comeback men

Six players who were recalled to help

England to Ashes victory.

1926 Wilfred Rhodes: Recalled after five years at age of 48 for Fifth Test. He took six wickets as England recaptured the Ashes.

1953 Freddie Brown: Persuaded to return at 42 after two years. Took four wickets, made important 28 in crucial, fighting draw.

1956 Cyril Washbrook: Was 41 and a selector, brought back for Third Test, made 98. England won; went on to regain urn.

1977 Geoff Boycott: After three-year self-imposed exile, recalled at 36, made 107 and 80 no. England won and later regained the Ashes.

1981 Mike Brearley: Summoned in desperation to resume captaincy at Headingley for Third Test. Inspired Botham and everybody else. Ashes retained.

1985 John Emburey: Re-selected after three-year ban for South African rebel tour. Took seven wickets in First Test, 19 in series. Ashes regained.

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