Cricket: Mr Average bursts into the picture

Stephen Brenkley studies the reserved and deserved rise of Steve James
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The Independent Online
Under the system, yet to be devised by Duckworth and Lewis, which measures the shifting sands of a man's outlook on life and himself purely by cricket shots, Steve James has moved up sharply on the barometer.

His reserve and uncertainty were once obvious on the scale as he nurdled, prodded and dabbed to third man.

Occasionally, he broke into something as expansive as a drive and that, too, went backward of square on the offside. Diffidence is a hard shackle to break. But James has discovered, or perhaps learned and nurtured, in his shy way, assertiveness.

The 29-year-old is playing frequently in the vaunted "V" between mid on and mid off - V for victory, that is - and bashing cover strokes in the direction laid down in the manuals. The alteration, muse his closest observers at Glamorgan, has been such as to send any putative Duckworth/Lewis method back to the software laboratory.

At this moment, he stands proudly atop the national batting averages and has amassed through all parts of the field - third man is not an area to be forsaken lightly - more than 1200 runs. He has already scored four hundreds and these follow the seven he compiled last summer when only Graham Gooch, among all batsmen, scored either more centuries or runs.

"The reputation I have is a difficult one to shed," he said. "I suppose there are many people still believing I play as I used to do. When I've made runs, sometimes Mike Atherton has rung me and asked whether they had a third man in or not." He smiled, diffidently, as he said it.

James and Atherton met and played together at Cambridge University. That term of 1989, Atherton made 417 runs at 29.78 and went on later that summer to make his first Test appearance; James made 575 runs at more than 40, including two hundreds, and never got a sniff of an England place.

Nor has he had since, until now, but there is no doubting the profound influence which the future captain of England had on the withdrawn fellow who opened the innings.

"We were the only two players who were on County books so we practised very hard and talked a lot. His belief in himself and his mental strength were abundant. Really eye-opening." James, still unsure of himself, continued to nurdle around for a while.

He had made his debut for Glamorgan at 17 back in 1985 but then further education of a non-cricketing variety intervened. He garnered a classics degree from the University of Wales and went on to Cambridge to study land economy, a subject which might just have been chosen with the prospect of a Blue in mind. He got two Blues and then returned to his county. The going was no longer good. He found it difficult to break into the side regularly and though he was a key member of the 1993 team which won the Sunday League - irritating, rotational third man harvesters having their place in such circumstances - he was in trouble by 1995.

"At the start of that year, the captain, Hugh Morris, told me I wouldn't be in the team. Maybe it made me more determined," he said.

As it happened, he made the one-day side from the start and broke the club's scoring record - belonging to Morris - for a season. They could not keep him out of the Championship team.

"Looking back I think there was a turning point for me two thirds of the way through that year. I had worked very hard on my technique, changing grip, altering stance, resorting to a more orthodox backlift to stop my head moving and was no longer thinking at the crease how difficult the changes were to adjust to, but on dealing with the ball in hand." James scored 230 not out at Leicester and his trot of form has been all but unbroken since.

His mentor, the man who first honed his technique at Monmouth School (though James is Welsh-educated and England born), is the old Somerset pro Graham Burgess. Once coach at the school, Burgess is now a first class umpire and, though not averse to giving out his protege leg before, continues to nurture him. James, who also suspects that his fiancee, Jane Parker, whom he will wed this autumn, has helped build his confidence, had not thought of an England place until maybe a month ago. That is the measure of the man. Now he wants it, although still paying handsome tribute to the job done on dodgy pitches by Mark Butcher.

He may make it and, if not, with due respect to the more obviously pleasing natural talents of the likes of Mark Ramprakash, who goes off the Duckworth/Lewis scale in such matters, it is easy to hope he heads the averages. Incidentally, he is still a reserved man, he just bats a little differently.