Cricket: Resurgent Loye up and running

Iain Fletcher finds a rare talent ready to resume the road to fulfilment
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The Independent Online
WHEN Malachy Loye and David Ripley walked to the wicket at Northampton last Sunday one Waqar Younis was standing at the end of his run with a new ball in his hand.

The batsmen were armed by the knowledge that each had reached a personal milestone on the previous evening: Loye the second double-century of his career and Ripley 150. But all their hard work and heroics would count for little if the game was lost. An early breakthrough would expose the Northamptonshire tail and probably give the Champions victory.

Ripley survived until after lunch, when a mini-collapse gave the Welshmen a sight of victory. But there, frustrating them with the stubborn broadness of his bat, was Loye. His undefeated 322 saved the game and sent him home to bed "knackered, bloody knackered".

"Once the game was saved I thought I might have a go at Hick's 405 but I was too tired," the 25-year-old explained as he contemplated his innings. "When Devon [Malcolm] came in I was determined not to throw it away, not after 11 hours, so I went down the wicket to him and encouraged him to swing the bat." Malcolm duly obliged and Loye walked off the pitch and into the county's record books with the highest individual score, beating Raan Subba Row's 40-year-old record of 300.

Born in Northampton to Irish parents, Loye is not one to revel in the plaudits. His career has had more highs and lows than a weather map and then, less than a month ago he witnessed a shooting on the streets near his home. "It was dreadful to see," he said, "and makes you want to enjoy playing cricket rather than just going through the motions."

At one stage, though, it appeared that going through the motions was the only option available. His progress up the cricketing ladder had looked assured as he went from a debut at 18 in 1991 to a successful England A tour to South Africa in 1993-94. His abundant talent and desire to attack made him compulsive viewing but a freak injury halfway through the 1994 season cost him more than just his place in the side. In a benefit game he attempted a catch off the former West Indian Test player, Roger Harper. He ended up shattering his thumb and nearly ruining his career.

"It was unreal, Harper hit the ball like a rocket and I misjudged it," he said. "It hit me on the thumb and when I looked on the floor there was this white thing. I bent down, picked it up and realised it was the bone from my thumb - then I passed out. The injury probably cost me another A tour."

Worse was to follow. The surgeon had to cut out the exposed nerve, leaving Loye with no feeling in his thumb. The news that the nerve would grow one millimetre a year and would re-attach itself was no comfort, Loye was unable to feel the bat and what had been an excellent season had turned into an unmitigated disaster. "I went to New Zealand that December but I still couldn't feel the bat, or it was more of a constant numbness," he said. "I came back and spent 1995 in the seconds and scored runs but the thumb was still numb. It was depressing, real head in the hands stuff. Then one day I woke up and could feel a tingling sensation, it sounds stupid but it was magnificent - I knew that I had something I could work on."

A tighter, more disciplined style of batting in 1996 suggested that the higher levels were once more within his compass. Despite not playing a full season he scored over 1,000 first-class runs for the first time and set himself to improve in 1997, only to fall victim to another injury, this time to his back. "That was frustrating,", he explained, "I felt that I was starting to make up for lost time and then my back gave out. It had been sore during pre- season but it just went."

Last season was also disappointing for the county, particularly considering the depth of the squad. Perennial underachievers is not a tag that any team wants but it can be used about Northamptonshire with justification. Losing semi-finalists in the Benson and Hedges was the highlight of last season and this year they failed to reach the quarter-final stage.

"It's difficult to see why we don't do that well," said Loye. "I think part of it is that for years we were carried by Curtly [Ambrose] in all forms of cricket, much more so than people realised. Maybe we don't gel as well as we should as a unit, like the South Africans do."

Whatever the reason, Loye has again proved his quality and temperament. If he did not feel nervous approaching 200, what about 300? "No, not really, I was a bit anxious and bloody tired." As were Glamorgan's bowlers.