Cricket: Mullally at ease with life back in the fast lane

England's phlegmatic pace bowler has no worries about the in-form Indian batsmen today.
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ALAN MULLALLY is a lazy lummox, who cannot and never has been able to bowl a hoop down a hill. These are controversial words; inflammatory even. But wounding? Never. You see, Mullally is a rare breed of professional sportsman whose skin is thicker than his wallet. Actually the opening remarks are totally disingenuous, but it would not worry Mullally if they had been made with conviction. In fact, he happens to be a very fine fast bowler whose ego just happens to have gone Awol.

You may think this level-headedness and lack of emotion would be the very antithesis of what makes fast bowlers tick. Tradition would certainly have it so, but unless the aggression and ire come naturally there is no point in forcing them. Mind you, there is a school of thought that believes fast bowlers tend to lose the plot and spray it about when wound up, so Mullally, with his unerring control of mind and body, may actually have it right. Anyway, those who criticise him are probably only doing so for his lack of theatre.

The laid-back Mullally attributes his good nature to his father Michael, an Irish scaffolder who emigrated to Western Australia when Alan was four years old.

"I'd just had a bad season and my knee was hurting. Dad's philosophy was that I should just be glad to wake up in the morning six feet above ground, rather than six feet under. I reckon he's right and there's no point in getting too worked up over things." Despite an Australian upbringing and all that entails, Mullally Jnr is clearly not of the Bill Shankly school of thought.

Perhaps it is just as well. Today's match against India, which pits their in-form batsmen against England's bowlers, is bound to test nerve and sinew. "Tendulkar is just another batsman," Mullally says, speaking of a man who has 22 one-day centuries. "He's obviously a good one, but I don't go around thinking he's going to make 150."

Edgbaston is a favourite ground and not just because Mullally made his Test debut against India here in 1996. "It has nice flat run-ups and I just like the atmosphere." Most fast bowlers identify rhythm as the most important and elusive part of their make-up, and Mullally, who is 30 in July, feels his is spot on at present. "Since Lord's it's really clicked and I reckon I'm in the best form of my life."

His rise to prominence over the last 12 months, is proof that old habits can be recast. Following six seasons with Leicestershire, Mullally made his England debut in 1996 and played nine Tests in a row before being dropped. Coming in off an overly long run, the results were steady rather than spectacular. As England fared not much better, he was dropped and a drab career as a county journeyman beckoned.

Top sportsmen are often walking contradictions and for all his phlegmatic ways, Mullally clearly still harboured ambitions of playing for England. Taking himself away for the winter to Perth, his second home, he sought help from the ex-Hampshire batsman Paul Terry over ways to shorten his run-up. The idea was to try and explode into his delivery stride ("hitting the crease" is the jargon) rather than run through it as before.

Getting back to Leicestershire, where his coach, Jack Birkenshaw, honed the changes further still, Mullally began to raise eyebrows and remove batsmen. The new action, required a stronger frame and although his 6ft 5in figure has retained its loose-limbed cool, he has worked hard at strengthening his shoulders and torso in the gym.

According to his county captain, James Whitaker, he has added a yard of pace and can now bring it back into the right-handers. It is the ultimate ambition as far as left-arm pace bowlers are concerned and he produced just such a ball to clean bowl South Africa's Jacques Kallis at The Oval last Saturday.

At the moment he is so enjoying the white ball, with its unpredictable swing, that it is hard to believe he was not in the original squad of 35, when it was named last August. Another notable omission at the time was his Leicestershire team-mate Chris Lewis, who reacted by accusing the selectors of being "full of shit". According to Whitaker, Mullally was just as peeved, though his response was to "go out and take five wickets."

When not testing batsmen with bounce and late movement, Mullally likes nothing better than listening to music. A devotee of Bob Marley and U2 (whose early rehearsals apparently took place in his auntie's garage in Malahide), the closest he has come to getting upset was when the coach, David Lloyd, kicked his beloved Bose boom-box after England had gifted the first one-day Carlton and United series final to Australia last winter. If Tendulkar and co want to fluster him, a bat through the woofer rather than a flurry of boundaries would probably do the trick.