Cricket / Man in the middle: Patient veteran awaits a call: Rob Bailey

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PRESUMABLY no first-class batsman ever gets blase about yet another double century, though it is in Rob Bailey's nature to show more phlegmatic satisfaction at the feat than champagne celebration. In making precisely 200 for Northamptonshire at Hove he hoisted himself up the averages table, with only Graham Gooch and Mark Nicholas among England-qualified batsmen ahead of him, and he went into this weekend's match batting off 62.71.

'It was my fourth double century,' he says, 'and it came at a nice time because I'd made a slowish start to the season, lots of 40s and 50s. The weather has been such a problem for everyone - it makes it hard to build an innings. But we arrived at Hove during a dry spell, with a fast outfield.'

Such has been the dampness of this early season that of seven Championship games and a tourist match scheduled to end last Monday, a few overs at the Oval was the nation's entire first- class ration. Bailey's 200, along with a patient, form-finding 109 for Nigel Felton, remains in moist limbo.

Bailey is unusual in that he turned down an invitation to join the last 'rebel' tour before South Africa were readmitted to the international circuit. In the late Eighties he played four Tests and four one-day games for England, in the period immediately before Mike Gatting led the ill-advised tour. Now, Bailey could be rejoining the queue, along with his team-mate Alan Fordham, looking for England recognition - though he is quietly practical when he observes, 'It's rather a long queue, isn't it?

'The money was tempting, of course. When people are flashing huge bags of loot in front of your eyes it really is difficult to turn down. I was 26, I calculated wrongly that I would be banned until I was 32, and basically I wanted to play for my country.'

For many years Northamptonshire have been far stronger on paper than in results. Their cricket manager Mike Proctor saw them to the NatWest Trophy and third place in the Championship before handing over to Phil Neale, Worcestershire's captain for the past decade. 'Phil's fitted in well,' Bailey says. 'Mind you, we are a good side now, very positive. I think there's more depth to the squad now, with people like Mal Loye moving up the ladder.'

Bailey, who followed his 200 with a propping-up 59 as Hampshire's Kevin Shine bowled out Northants for 125 on Thursday, has an important role to play. 'I'm bowling a bit more now. Quite well, a couple of times. This could allow us to play an extra batsman with me supporting one specialist spinner.'

This is also his benefit year. Bearing in mind the controversy over Allan Lamb's fund-raising efforts throughout the country a couple of years back, Bailey insists his is a 'local' benefit. 'I'm going to have to be a bit careful. Anyone who says they don't get slightly distracted by it would be lying.'

Maybe Bailey will continue to serve his county until he qualifies for a second bonanza. 'Well, I'm only 29. I'm enjoying my cricket. You never know, do you?'

(Photograph omitted)

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