Cricket: Millns set to put his pace to the test: Rob Steen meets the former miner who will be hoping to strike gold for Leicestershire in the NatWest Trophy final at Lord's today

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WHETHER the subject is flat pitches or sharp practices, endless motorway hikes or short-sighted umpires, disgruntlement is never far from the lips of the county shirehorse. Determined that a foot injury will not consign him to a spectating role at Lord's today, David Millns, on the other hand, is decidedly gratified with his lot. Even more unusually, he is fast, accurate and English, assets generally deemed to be mutually exclusive.

Prior to joining his native Nottinghamshire in 1988, the Leicestershire strike bowler spent three years as a surveyor's linesman. Digging out batsmen constituted a merciful release from the coalface.

Nostalgia is limited. 'Who enjoys getting up at 4.30 to go down a black hole? It makes me appreciate doing this for a living. Of course it's romantic, especially if I go on to represent my country. At the time I thought I took playing for Notts seriously, but I didn't. It was a bit like a dream holiday: travelling all over the country, playing cricket and getting paid. Now I feel I've grown up.'

The Millns clan is steeped in cricketing folklore. Great-uncle Richard bowled Don Bradman while playing for Saskatchewan University against the Australians in 1932; one Mansfield chapel team during that era numbered no fewer than 11 Millnses. Indeed, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that David may one day open the England attack with his brother-in-law, Andy Pick, who first alerted Nottinghamshire to the possibility that whistling down a shaft might not be an entirely antiquated method of mining the seam.

That said, Millns' ascent has been anything but stealthy. Up to last summer, he had paid dearly for his 58 first-class wickets in three seasons of sporadic opportunity, a frustrating period that prompted him to leave the seam- crammed environs of Trent Bridge in 1989. Six weeks ago, however, Micky Stewart was on hand to witness the match haul of 8 for 90 that humbled Essex. Millns then stood fourth in the first-class averages, by some distance the leading Englishman with 69 wickets at 18.89 runs apiece.

During that Grace Road conquest, however, he stumbled in the footholds, breaking a little toe. Bang went that mooted call- up for the Oval Test. The joint was displaced, prompting Millns to 'modify' his left boot. Nothing too technical, mind: 'I just cut a ruddy great hole in the side.'

Not until Tuesday did he return to Championship duty. Once again, the outgoing England manager was present, but this time Millns, by his own admission, strained too hard and 'tore in'. His first over contained two wides and an unintentional beamer. 'Some days you come off feeling like a Ferrari, as if you could go on all night. That day at Bristol I felt like a push-bike without pedals going up a hill, getting nowhere. I felt in good nick before the injury, for the first time in my career, so the lay-off has been very frustrating. I don't know how my fiancee put up with me.'

Millns has hardly lacked for advisers. Midway through last summer, his captain, Nigel Briers, suggested injecting a bit more zip. Alan Jones, the fast bowler-turned-umpire, recommended running in straighter and hitting the deck harder. Ken Higgs, the erstwhile Leicestershire coach, stressed the mental angle, the need to block out the batsman. Geoff Arnold has also put in his twopence worth.

'I don't think about who I'm bowling at now. I aim on or just outside off-stump and try to make the ball run away. If you can do that five balls out of every six you're bound to get wickets. The problem with many fast bowlers is that they try to do something different every ball. What I've discovered is that you need to play percentage cricket. Ninety per cent of batsmen get themselves out.'

The fruits of this approach are self-evident. Over the past 12 months Millns has snared over 100 victims, half as many again as Devon Malcolm, paying a knockdown price of 15 runs a time. As if to ram the comparison home, he took 9 for 37 against Malcolm and his Derbyshire cohorts last August, the best figures of the season and the most productive Championship analysis for Leicestershire since 1929; the England spearhead managed 2 for 117. This metamorphosis, though, appears to have come about despite the presence of Bobby Simpson, who endured a squally voyage as Leicestershire manager in 1990 and 1991.

'There was mutual respect, but we didn't see eye to eye. Bob loves to see players belting round the ground half an hour before the start, but I believe in bowling to get myself fit so I prefer to go to the nets. My day starts at 11, but he never understood that and was on at me all the time.' No shrinking violet, Millns eventually told Australia's national coach where he could put his workouts.

Since then, the gloom in the Grace Road dressing-room has dispersed. 'Because we're tasting success, everyone comes in at 9.30 bursting with life and the banter really gets going. We've really earned it after the dark days of last season. So have the supporters. They've had sod all to cheer about lately but still they've stuck by us. To win on Saturday would be a huge thank you to them.'

Should Millns prove his fitness to grace a higher stage in the process, those despairing of England's so-called 'popgun' pace arsenal will doubtless express their gratitude too.

(Photograph omitted)