Cricket: McCague comes off long run: Glenn Moore picks up the trail of the latest England fast-bowling discovery

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The Independent Online
THE lush green of Arundel, with its castle looming out of the mist and the spectators huddled against the rain, may not look like the place Martin McCague was brought up to call home but, as he waited to lead Kent's attack against Sussex this week, it certainly felt like it to England's new opening bowler.

There were not too many castles where McCague grew up, and not much greenery, mist or rain either. Port Hedland, where he spent his formative years, is a small (pop: 11,500), hot industrial town built to provide a harbour for the iron ore mines of north- west Western Australia. It is one of the most isolated towns in the western world, and its red, dusty earth has little to offer; even the Indian Ocean provides scant relief from the 40 C temperatures, being inhabited by sea snakes, poisonous jellyfish and sharks.

The pitches are of artificial turf matting, stretched over concrete bases, the outfields, watered by rust-coloured bore water, are liable to inflict festering wounds on even the most careful fielder.

Yet from this unpromising nursery, two cricketers have emerged to compete in this summer's Ashes series, McCague and Australia's Brendon Julian. While Julian's path has been a well- posted one - the move to big-city Perth, a spell at the Australian Cricket Academy, then, after a good show in the Sheffield Shield for Western Australia, a Test place - McCague has followed an unconventional route.

It has been marked by McCague's preparedness to uproot himself in search of a better deal and, less consciously, a desire for acceptance. It would appear to be Kent's, and England's, fortune that he has found both here.

McCague first came to note in his late teens as a raw but promising bowler whose obvious pace created interest 1,000 miles south in Perth. There was little to keep McCague in the north. Work opportunities were limited by the town's reliance on one industry and family life was unsettled, his father having moved south early in their stay leaving McCague in the care of his mother, who was recently described by Jack Potter, his coach at the academy, as 'a wild Irish lady'.

McCague, having completed his schooling and trained as an electrician, thus moved to Perth where he impressed enough to be put forward for the academy in Adelaide, another 1,000 miles east. From there he went, not back to Perth, but to Melbourne, Victoria, to work and play cricket. He did so successfully enough for Western Australia, aware of Victoria's interest, to pick him to play the latter in Melbourne. He took 5 for 105 in his maiden innings.

Still McCague had not considered playing cricket for a living but the possibility became apparent in the off-season when Daryl Foster, his Western Australia coach, brought him to England for the first time to play for Kent, then regaining their equilibrium after an unhappy period.

The tense atmosphere was noted by McCague but so, too, were the benefits of plying his trade in England. A salary four times what he could earn - if picked - with Western Australia and, after a decade, the promise of a benefit at a county notable for lucrative ones. Struggling for a job and a first-team place back in Perth, he considered, for the first time, making a living from his sport. 'As a fast bowler my body would not stand up to playing both here and Australia,' he said, 'so, having enjoyed my cricket in England, I decided to stay here.'

The rest is recent history: his emergence late last summer as a genuine strike bowler and, this year, his first England cap. A case of a desperate England employing a mercenary to represent their country? Some of the Australians certainly see it that way but, while understandable, it is a jaundiced view. McCague first came here for money, he admits that, but, once in England, he found more than pure material reward. For the first time he felt wanted.

While for many players, especially bowlers, the County Championship is a grind, for McCague the lifestyle gives him a sense of belonging. In Australia, teams gather for a match, then may not meet again for weeks. Here players are part of a small community travelling the country week in, week out. Kent, run by Foster - an influential figure from his youth - have become the settled family McCague never had.

He and Alan Igglesden have become firm friends, he is going out with a Kent girl, and thoroughly enjoys life in England, only returning to Australia for three weeks - to see relatives - this winter, and becoming a Selhurst Park regular, the Eagles of Crystal Palace having taken the place of Perth's Australian Rules side, the West Coast Eagles.

The Australians also question McCague's 'heart', suggesting sometimes he is interested and sometimes he is not. But this is the man who worked from midnight to 4am filling shelves to pay his way in Adelaide and never missed an 8am training session. He also happily bowls long, fiery spells. It is more the case that sometimes the rhythm is there, and sometimes it is not, then he can become downhearted.

Both cases were seen at Trent Bridge - the rampant bowler of the first innings looking innocuous in the second. It remained a promising debut, especially given the fuss surrounding his selection.

'I expected a little bit of opposition but I was just looking to charge in and do my best,' McCague said. 'There was this great feeling when I walked out; it was an honour to walk out on the ground for England. I felt so much at home, the team was very supportive, we fitted in well together and I think it showed out on the field. I thought it went well for me.'

Alec Stewart, who has had a run-in or two with McCague on the county circuit, was impressed from his position behind the stumps. 'He did very well. He is a good, aggressive bowler who bowls a 'heavy' ball which hits the bat hard. He is up there with the quickest and capable of bowling genuinely quickly.'

The benefits have clearly been mutual for McCague and his county. 'At Kent now I am really happy,' he said. 'I couldn't be happier, I'm hoping to settle here for a really long time.'

He may be born in Ireland and bred in Australia, but McCague looks very settled in England.

(Photograph omitted)