Cricket: Sitting pretty with a leggie to stand on

After the write-offs, two former Test players with rosy futures are determined to enjoy their one day in the sun as their counties look towards Lord's: David Llewellyn talks to Ian Salisbury, the rejuvenated spinner in a hurry at Surrey
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WHEN the first whispers began circulating the game that Surrey were contemplating signing Ian Salisbury nearly two years ago, it raised eyebrows, questions and even the odd knowing smirk. His performance in the final Cornhill Test against Pakistan at The Oval that year, 1996 - the only time to date that he has played there for England - had been dismal, one for 116 off 29.3 overs. And he had fared little better when turning out for Sussex at The Oval; there were wickets, but he hardly had Surrey on the run.

"I remember reading about me - before I had actually signed anything with Surrey - wanting to move to The Oval. They said things like, 'He does so badly here,' and, 'How could he ever want to move to Surrey when it is obviously a spinners' graveyard?' The thing is, a year and a half later those same people are now talking very favourably about me and Saqlain bowling at The Oval and what a pleasure it is. We are being talked of like [Pat] Pocock and Inty [Intikhab Alam], even [Jim] Laker and [Tony] Lock. The transformation in those 18 months, from 'Don't sign him' about me, to what I am like now is proof that things can be turned around."

Not just turned around, but turned on their heads, because Salisbury is already among the wickets. Before the present round of Championship matches he was sixth in the averages with 20 wickets at an incredible 17.20. In the Benson and Hedges Cup he has helped to bowl Surrey into a tough looking semi-final at Leicester later this week with a dozen wickets (eight more than last year when Surrey won the cup, after beating Leicestershire at the same stage only at home) at an extremely acceptable 21 or so.

He has had some invaluable help and Salisbury is quick to acknowledge the influence of his mentor, Terry Jenner, who is Shane Warne's guru. Surrey and Sussex went shares on costs to bring Jenner over last month and already it is looking like money well spent. "TJ is great to have around," says Salisbury. "It was good to work with him, because you can still pick up bad habits, even when you are doing well. In fact you are more likely to develop bad habits when you are doing well because they will not be noticed amid all the success. But when it goes wrong, then you spot them. We worked on one or two things and when I told TJ how I was getting my wickets he finally said, 'You are still bowling too many googlies. What are you? A leg spinner. So bowl leg spin.' And he is right. It was good to get some wickets with my leg spinners against Kent recently. TJ will be pleased."

So now, having conquered The Oval with all its spectres of his past attempts to succeed there, Grace Road holds no fears for Salisbury. He knows he can cope. He has been down in the depths and is now emerging, once more into the light. "I've taken five wickets in the one-day game at Leicester before," he said. "And I've taken wickets there on other occasions as well.

"Without doubt, though, it is going to be a hard tie. I think they have some sort of record at home in the cup." They do. They have only lost one B and H tie at Grace Road in the last two years, and that was to Lancashire at the start of this year's competition. And Salisbury also reminds everyone: "It was only two years ago that they won the Championship."

But while he is confident of winning, Salisbury also has his mind on higher things. His Championship performances, which are so early as to seem unseasonal in the light of what is the generally accepted norm - i.e. spinners take more wickets at the end of the season than at the start - are beginning to prompt talk of England recalls.

"You have certain aims in cricket. First, I want to be successful for Surrey; one of my aims was to get my cap this year and I was lucky enough to get that. If I am being successful here then I have a chance. You do have to work hard. I have spent the winter away in Australia working my rocks off. And it is difficult then not to think of the possibility of an England recall because I train and try to do well for the ultimate aim, which is to play Test match cricket. I have not done myself any justice so far. So if I do get another chance I would like to prove to myself, as much as to everyone else, that I can do it." The whisper now is that justice is likely to be done sooner rather than later.