Cricket: New hero for the new era

Stephen Fay finds Alex Tudor is ready to fulfil his huge potential
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The Independent Online
ALEX TUDOR'S knee is OK and his fingers are crossed. A niggle kept England's most promising fast bowler out of Surrey's game against Scotland last week, but he is fit to play at Bristol today. He is also hoping for a morning call from David Graveney telling him that he is in the squad for the First Test at Edgbaston on Thursday.

He has done all he can and says: "My line is that you get the wickets and leave it to the selectors." Tudor has got 38 wickets in eight Championship games this year, at an average of 19.76. He has been inspected by Graham Gooch, Graveney himself, and Mike Gatting, and they would have been churlish if they had not liked what they saw - except possibly against Leicestershire. Tudor took 7 for 77 at Grace Road, his best haul yet, but he was not happy. There were too many four balls, and they are not in the game plan. His emphasis this season has been on economy and patience. "You need to be stingy," he says.

Tudor is 21 years old, 6ft 5in tall and filling out. His manner is open and obliging; the vowels belong to London, and he has a laugh that bubbles up from deep inside when he talks about the ribbing he will get from people who knew him not so many years ago as a gangling child. Thinking of them, he says: "If I do get the chance to play at Edgbaston, I'll be much more nervous than I was in Perth."

Tudor's Test debut was in Perth last November, when Australia beat England in three days. Before the game he had talked to Ian Botham, who told Tudor that he should beware of getting carried away on a pitch which has been laid and prepared under the supervision of the Fast Bowlers' Union. "Botham said to hit them on a length and the pitch would do the rest," he explains. "I felt confident; it was a good feeling and I wasn't nervous - only a little nervous."

In Australia's first innings he took the wickets of both Waugh twins and Ricky Ponting, finishing with 4 for 89 from 20.2 overs. Steve Waugh was impressed: "He was quick," he said. "They should have picked him for [the Third Test in] Adelaide. Got his confidence up. He's got plenty of potential."

Tudor would have liked to have played in Adelaide ("I was on a high"), but he understood why he didn't. "They're two different types of pitches. In Adelaide you've got to bowl straighter." Instead, the selectors chose Tudor for the Fifth Test in Sydney ("picked him on the wrong pitch," Waugh said). That was a harder part of his learning experience; he took 2 for 64 off 12 overs in the first innings; 0 for 8 off five in the second.

But he considered himself fortunate to be there at all. His Championship season last summer had been interrupted by a stress fracture in his foot and he ended with 29 wickets at 25.41, but his 182.2 overs had cost more than four runs each. One of those overs, bowled at Andrew Flintoff at Old Trafford, cost 38 runs, the most expensive in first-class cricket history. (Two no balls gave Flintoff a sequence of 6-4-4-4-4-6-6-0; Tudor had, however, taken 5 for 43 in the first innings.)

Tudor worked hard in Australia, though not in the nets. He believes his older brother's talent was destroyed by too much time in the nets when he was a teenager. He got two stress fractures that curtailed his career: Tudor may be being loyal, but he reckons his brother could have played for England.

In Australia, Tudor acquired a good pair of binoculars and studied Glenn McGrath, whom he considers the finest fast bowler in the world. He was absorbed by the flick of McGrath's wrist when he bowls his faster ball, often a short bouncer. "I asked him if anyone had shown him how to do it, and he said he just picked it up. I try it now when I bowl my short ball and it seems to work." But the principal lesson to be learned from McGrath was more prosaic. "Watch him and you see him nag away, nag away and finally get a nick."

Tudor believes he has a good cricket brain and what it tells him is that, if he is to become one of the best, he must be able to bowl straight and bowl maidens. His way of learning this is to go to The Oval on a day off, wrinkle the wicket-keeper out of the dressing room, go into the middle with a single wicket and a marker to show where he should be pitching the ball: "I bowl for half an hour and just try to hit it."

This has paid off so far. He has already taken more wickets than last year, but the most heartening statistic is that the economy rate is down from just over four an over to just under three. "It wasn't easy. I'm the sort of guy who loses it very quickly, but it's getting a lot better," he says.

Tudor already appreciates the pitfalls of English cricket, in which the reputations of young men can be made and dashed in a couple of seasons. He refers to Jacques Kallis, whose early Test career was a mixture of personal underachievement and perseverance by the selectors. "If he were English he might not be around any more," he says.

What a dismal lesson. A young man with a cricket brain knows it does not make sense, but also that it has been the way of the world. Perhaps it is about to change.