Cricket: Self-made Maddy crafts his opening

Stephen Brenkley hears how sheer hard work is now paying off for an England hopeful

DERBY, bless its green tops, ramshackle grandstand and the ring road which sweeps the perimeter, would struggle to appear in any list of desirablegrounds. Seam bowlers might grudgingly have bestowed some affection on the pitch but, generally speaking, if such places had mothers the old Racecourse ground's could well have disowned it.

Yet the constant twinkle in Darren Maddy's eye grew brighter as he spoke of Derby last week. Since he is an opening batsman it crossed the mind that Maddy had gone barking. But he was deadly serious and it is clear that he will treasure the memory for as long as he plays.

"It was early in the season and it was a real big turning point for me," he said. "The ball was doing a bit and I opened the batting. We had Devon Malcolm, Dominic Cork and Phil DeFreitas to face. I got two forties in the game. I love the challenge of facing international bowlers and it was then that I felt for the first time that I could play this game. I felt comfortable that I could bat at first-class level."

That was two years ago. Maddy actually made 43 and 39 but those innings will always match any century he may make subsequently. In retrospect, that first Championship game of the 1996 season also decided the title as Leicestershire, who won it, beat Derbyshire, who finished second, by six wickets.

Maddy has progressed so much since that it seems only a matter of time before he plays for England. If the demands for interviews with which he was being besieged last week are any guide, he could do so in the summer's opening one-day international at The Oval on Thursday, the squad for which will be announced today. But if not then, soon, for England have no settled opening partnership now.

Of course, the disorderly queue of England candidates and their backers invariably forms at this time of year. The selectors may like the notion of a settled side but a settled side who are not delivering the goods needs pressure for places. Maddy has exhibited his credentials.

After he took Derby to his heart, he went on to establish himself as one of Leicestershire's openers, advanced further last summer when he made 1,000 first-class runs for the first time and on England A's winter tour surpassed expectations. In all matches in Kenya and Sri Lanka his 687 runs made him the side's leading scorer and while the double-hundred early on against Kenya was the highlight, his three half-centuries in the Test series against Sri Lanka A (which included being run out for 99) ran it close. At least this time he made 99. When he first played for an England side, the Under-17s, he had two innings, faced three balls, did not score a run and was run out both times.

His one-day form in the early part of this summer has merely been an extension of all that: two hundreds, a fifty, swelling assurance. Apart from technical ability Maddy appears to possess two main strengths: his fervent enthusiasm for the game and his willingness for hard work. He was brought up with cricket. His dad was a good club player and the Maddy household in Leicester is full of cricket and trophies.

From an early age he was cricket daft and the obsession shows no sign of diminishing. He works and works and works. He recalled that after he scored 1,498 runs in the second XI championship in 1994, a record, he did not immediately take to batting against first-team bowlers. He struggled against the faster, shorter pitched-bowling. He went away to rectify that in the winter, only to discover on his return that he was then regularly stuck in the crease and getting out lbw, departing that way five times in 13 Championship innings. More work followed.

Until England A called - and he worked for that trip by getting Leicestershire's coach Jack Birkenshaw to test him incessantly against spin bowling - Maddy had spent five winters honing his game in South Africa. Net after net would be followed by gym session after gym session. He is, by his own perky admission, hyperactive. He can barely sit still for more than 10 minutes at a stretch and it is a tribute to his discipline that he managed to deal with so many interviews last week in a reasonably stationary position.

It is obvious that he has always been desperately eager to learn from the long list he delivers of people to whom he owes a debt. His dad, Bill, comes top but Ken Higgs, Tim Boon, James Whitaker and Graham Gooch are all mentioned with rampant enthusiasm. "They've taught me to be myself. Jimmy, for instance, is so positive. He'll ask in the morning how you feel and if you say that you're all right he'll come back replying that `no, you're better than all right, you're fantastic'. It rubs off.

"In the winter with Graham Gooch he kept making one very important point. It was about cashing in. As a batsman not every day is going to belong to you. Goochie insisted that when it did you had to make sure you took advantage, to go on from 20 or 30 and then on from your hundred. I hope I've taken that to heart."

Maddy has indeed expanded his game lately, having more shots and playing them. One day, they may say that it was Derby that did it.

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