Cricket: Natwest Trophy Focus: Lamb's chance to feature in the title credits: Michael Austin reports on the Northamptonshire man showing a straight bat to adversity

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The Independent Online
LIFE is not all silk shirts, champagne and celebrations nowadays for Allan Lamb. After being discarded by England, tumbling off the whirligig of international cricket and criticised as Northamptonshire's captain, he has been confronted once more by the real world.

It should not suit the chunky, gum-chewing batsman, who was 'surprised and disappointed' to be dropped after the Lord's Test against Pakistan last June, but he is, first and foremost, a doughty fighter, with the endearing balance of affability.

The latest challenge which Lamb will not duck is the NatWest Trophy semi-final against Warwickshire at Edgbaston today. His brief: to prevent a team of under-achievers from freezing and failing on another major occasion.

Northamptonshire's Tudor Rose has wilted over the past 12 seasons. Test players aplenty, sometimes as many as eight in the same team, but no titles and, many have asserted, little sense of direction.

Lamb's pot-pourri over the past 18 months has contrasted between the sweet and the not-so-savoury. His alleged 50-mile sortie to a casino in mid-innings as England's captain during a Test match at Brisbane was compounded by his swift dismissal the following morning.

Several months later, in May last year, Lamb pre-empted a potential decision by the England committee by stating he did not want to captain his country again, either as official vice-captain or occasional stand-by in the field. It was far removed from his achievement against the West Indies at Bridgetown a year earlier. He became only the second England player to score a hundred in his first Test as captain, following A C MacLaren against Australia in Sydney 92 years earlier.

Lamb's other downside last summer, apart from being omitted by England, was an infamous and anonymous letter sent by a Northamptonshire player to club officials criticising his qualities as a captain.

A poll taken by the local evening newspaper around the same time revealed that 80 per cent did not think the county would be successful under Lamb's leadership. Now 38, he is in his fourth summer as captain with a Lord's final beckoning on 5 September and an end-of-season tilt, from current sixth place, at the Championship, a competition Northamptonshire have yet to win.

The arrows have bounced off Lamb, who cheerfully reels off all the good points individually about this Northamptonshire team. The catalogue runs from Paul Taylor, a left-arm seamer giving his captain special pride, to David Ripley, a wicketkeeper who was reputedly unable to bat but has scored more than 700 runs this summer.

'As for me,' Lamb said, 'I feel I am batting as well as I did on the New Zealand tour last winter. There is a lot left in me and I do want to play for England again. But if I am not going to do so, I wish they would tell me.

'Fair enough, I know that I was dropped to bring a left-hander (David Gower) into the middle order, but I could have batted somewhere else. I had three Test innings of 12, 30 and 12 this season but one was near the end of a match bound to be a draw.' Lamb, who has played in 79 Tests, three as captain, and 119 one-day internationals, is also unaware of his Texaco Trophy selection fate with the series of five matches resuming at Trent Bridge tomorrow week. All he knows, is that he would love another crack at Pakistan. 'I regard them and the West Indies as joint No 1 in the world. With bowlers like Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, Pakistan could hardly fail to be. They do not only swing the ball but do so at great speed.'

Lamb, South African by birth, but of London parentage, headed England's Test averages in New Zealand last winter, has a fierce sense of patriotism for his adopted country and feels as English as the Pytchley hunting area in which he lives, with his wife Lindsay, son and daughter.

With 27,000 first class runs, a pounds 135,000 benefit and a 10-year tenure in the England team, Lamb ought to be a statistician but asserted he is not. 'I used to set innings run-scoring targets of 25 a time, building to a hundred, but now I aim for 40 and know that by reaching that, I could be in line for a century,' he said.

Lamb has scored 77 hundreds at first-class level, including 14 in Tests, six of them against the West Indies and in 15 years with Northamptonshire, one against every county except Somerset and Durham. He has made a century on 32 different grounds, ranging alphabetically from Adelaide to Worcester, with such diverse places as Bulawayo, Burton-on-Trent, Hobart and Southport along the way.

With more than 1,100 runs at an average of 55-plus this summer, Lamb has scored consistently for Northamptonshire and a world batting rating of 26th puts him behind only Graham Gooch, Robin Smith, Alec Stewart and Gower among England players.

This lofty status was beyond Lamb's imagination as a schoolboy in Cape Province. His ambition to play county cricket was fuelled by English coaches at his school, notably George Sharp, later his Northamptonshire team- mate, and David Steele. 'I never stopped nagging them about my chances of playing. I just would not give up hope,' he said.

Eddie Barlow, then Derbyshire's captain, suggested Peter Kirsten and Lamb should have a summer of exploratory second-team matches with his county. They did, Kirsten joined Derbyshire and Lamb went to Northamptonshire. His philosophy has changed little over the years. 'I look to score off most balls I face. It is pointless to have a passive outlook,' he said, writing his own suitable epitaph on a spectacular career.

(Photograph omitted)

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