Cricket: Pain of life without the magic

Andrew Longmore finds Dominic Cork is fighting hard to recapture his sparkle
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The Independent Online
Dominic Cork looked an embattled cricketer. Both knees of his whites were stained a brownish green, the front of his trousers was streaked with red from the vigorous rubbing of 23 mostly unprofitable overs and his cricket boots were caked with a day and a half's worth of Worcestershire dust.

And all for what? One wicket, 63 runs and a total of 554 for 8 declared. At the close of the innings, Cork scampered off the field, keen to compose himself for his new role as opening batsman. Two balls from the energetic Alamgir Sheriyar, one prod to gully and a disgruntled former NIB (Next Ian Botham) completed a week as two-faced as any in his tempestuous career with a trudge back through a row of members gently sympathetic to a talented cricketer down on his luck. After all, two summers before, most of the country had wallowed in the "What a Corker" headlines.

On Tuesday morning came the phone call from David Graveney which will force Cork on to the dole queue for the first time in his cricketing life. Cork Stopped. Deep down, he knew it would come. Yet a trick of the mind had persuaded him to believe that 59 Test wickets, seven in his first Test and a hat-trick (Richardson, Hooper and Murray, no rabbits) in his third would stand for something against a turbulent winter and a largely forgotten summer. "This is not the best phone call you'll have in your life..." No winter in the Caribbean then, not even an encouraging little jaunt to Sharjah. Just a Dear John call from the chairman of selectors and a "keep in touch then".

"A fit and ready Dominic Cork is very much an asset to England," Graveney explained later. "But the feedback I've had is that Dominic still has problems. He is certainly not the same bowler he was two years ago. But it's also about his approach to being involved in the team situation and how he approaches his cricket. He has to work on his technique and temperament and we're anxious to help him do that." In place of Cork's mercurial talent, England turned instead to the steadier virtues of Angus Fraser. Not for the first time in recent months, Cork was left to wonder what exactly went wrong.

"It hurt," Cork said. "I was very disappointed not to be selected. In one way, I'm glad it hurts. It means I'm still keen and very dedicated to playing for my country. I'll be thinking all winter about the tour and I'll be jealous I'm not out there, but that's just part of the ups and downs. At the moment, I'm in a little bit of a down, but I feel confident and strong enough to get myself back to where I was."

If the England management had doubts about Cork's mental and physical fitness, Derbyshire had no such qualms. No sooner had Cork been allotted a spare winter than his county filled it with the cares of captaincy; confirmation, according to many, that after a bout of summer madness in Derby the lunatics really had captured the asylum. "I'm not that experienced in captaining," Cork said. "But hopefully I can bring some fresh ideas, motivation and a keenness to do well into the job. That's a good combination. I'm not worried if we lose our first three games, I'm there for the whole of next season and I want to put things right." He can do no worse, for sure.

With its sudden rise and slow, inevitable, descent, the Cork graph has a profile worthy of a Thomas Hardy novel. Man has brilliant success, man gets too big for his boots, man is humbled. It is one of the oldest sporting stories of all. In the summer of 1995, Cork could do no wrong. His figures of 7 for 43, the best by an England debutant at Lord's, swept England to an unexpected victory; at Old Trafford a hat-trick in the opening over of the fourth morning was the first by an England player for 38 years. Corks fizzed across the tabloids, champagne Corky appointed an agent to manage his fame, ended the series with 26 wickets from five Tests and a Bothamesque reputation for making things happen and putting backs up, not always those of the opposition.

Then the magic left, revealing only the unedifying trappings of glory, the pout, the glare and the warpaint, the "show pony" so cruelly etched by Geoff Boycott in an interview last summer. John Barclay, who managed Cork on three successive winter tours, recalls a late evening session in New Zealand last winter. England needed wickets and Cork was the man.

"He bowled hell for leather, balls went everywhere, but nothing much happened. It was a disappointing spell. If you were being unkind, you'd say he was not right mentally, but I thought he was just trying too hard, desperate to bowl a whizzbanger every ball."

Not an instantly warm character, Cork was quickly condemned as a hoax, as arrogant and disruptive. His marriage broke down and he pulled out of the first leg of England's tour to Zimbabwe to look after his young son, returning to tour New Zealand before a hernia operation put him out for 17 weeks at the start of the season. There were rumours of retirement. Vintage Corked. Boycott's attack came just as he was starting to hobble round the house.

"It's a hell of a thing to cope with such success when you're only 24," Barclay said. "A young lad is built up as a god for a bit, all daft, then becomes normal again. He misses a few, he nicks a few and doesn't swing the ball so much. It's a bit like the stockmarket collapsing. If you're setting yourself goals and not reaching them, you're bound to become frustrated, a bit ratty. Expectations, his own and others, were so high. But Dominic is a very high-class performer and I am sure he will come out of all this stronger mentally and technically."

England will hope so. For all the veiled criticism, Cork has been the one remotely plausible successor to Botham, attitude, commitment and all. At the age of 26, his best need not be confined to the "feelgood" videos compiled by David Lloyd, which might get an airing or two on dark winter nights. "They can't take away the fact that I've been there and done a few things others haven't and if I never play for England again, I'll still have those memories. But I want to make some more memories for me and others and the only way I can do that is to be positive, confident and play good cricket again." Cork Still Bobbing.