Cricket: Tale of scowl and the pussycat

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The Independent Online
DAMIEN FLEMING has one of the most fearsome glares in fast bowling history. He bounds down the pitch after delivery, a distance probably greater than the run-up which preceded it, and fixes the batsman with a chilling scowl. If looks could kill.

With the wide eyes, the thin moustache, the narrow beard and the long face there has been nothing like it since Vincent Price in the House of Wax or the Abominable Dr Phibes. A wild, crazy man seeking revenge on the world, or at least the batsmen in it. Underneath it all, of course, mad Vince was an old softy, and demonic Damo is equally charming.

It is simply the way the Australians are. Cross the boundary rope and they go to work the way they know how. Fleming is a perfect complement to Glenn McGrath, to whom he has become the secondary spearhead in the attack. McGrath lets loose with the verbals, an array growing by the match, but his facial range does not compare with that of Fleming. "If talking to the batsman is your go, then that's your go," said Fleming with a welcoming, easy going smile. "But it's not for me. I like to let the batsman know I'm there, that's what bowlers do and it helps to be close to him while I'm doing it. Do I look fierce?"

He may need his most effective sneer as well as the smooth, late outswinger and the more sparing but convincing in-swinger for the rest of this World Cup. Australia's defeat against New Zealand in Cardiff on Thursday has changed the predicted complexion of Group B and heightened the significance of their match against Pakistan in Leeds today.

Given the pertinence both of the long history of Headingley and the shorter one of this tournament it will be probably a match for seam and swing bowlers. Fleming, McGrath and Adam Dale must prove the equals of Shoaib Akhtar and Wasim Akram, or Australia's progress to the next stage will be cast into doubt.

It is a task which is not beyond them. At 29, Fleming has become (and become quite rapidly) a leading exponent of his craft, grimace or not. He is almost a reborn fast bowler. Barely two years ago his career could have been dead and buried, but like Dr Phibes it has risen again. He is ahead at the moment in a strong Test pecking order because of his control over movement, and he is a one-day swinger with an average of 24.

"There was a time when I was at a really low ebb," said Fleming on the eve of the New Zealand match, which may, presumably, have caused its return. "I looked at my career and wondered what I could be doing by the age of 30. At the time that might not have been playing cricket so I applied to go to uni to do a commerce and sports course. After three days I was picked for Australia again so that had to be put on hold. They were very understanding."

His burgeoning career had been blighted by injuries to his bowling shoulder and his hamstring. The shoulder first caused him trouble as a promising 16-year-old bowler and forced him to miss a season. But then he had seven clear, fully fit years. All his limbs were in prime condition.

On his debut for Victoria he took 6 for 37 against Western Australia, where he was born, and four years later he was called up by the Australian touring side in Pakistan. He became the fifth bowler in history to take a hat-trick on his Test debut - and then the shoulder went.

Although he appeared in three Ashes Tests later that winter (being picked ahead of McGrath and acquitting himself well) it was to be a long haul back. Suddenly, the Fleming body began to fall apart quicker than a torso in a blazing wax museum. His action appeared to disintegrate along with it and two seasons ago he was dropped by Victoria.

"It was a worrying time and I knew if I was going to continue I had to work hard. I knew what I wanted to do, it was doing it," he said, reclining on the bed in his Cardiff hotel room. What Fleming did is a tribute to his perseverance and innovation. He is ready to pay handsome tribute to all his colleagues (Ricky Ponting's desire for the ball in the field "embodied the side's hunger" and Steve Waugh's resilience as a batsman "embodied that characteristic in our team") but Fleming amended his bowling action in the way that Nick Faldo once rebuilt his golf swing.

First, he shortened his run from a normal, race to the moon and back sort of fast bowler's run to no more than a gentle amble round the block. No more than 15 paces, he thought, but in action it seems around 12. He also got his left leg going through straighter down the pitch and his body swivelling to the left off it. That change has been responsible for the easier follow through which takes him closer to the batsman. Eyeball to eyeball.

The shoulder caused him further difficulties during the last winter when he tore a tendon - but not before he made a significant breakthrough by taking nine wickets on the Perth glass top in the second Test.

Fleming took the injury in what is now his comfortable stride. He rested it and exercises it daily by manipulating a small weight. Presumably he practises the mad Vince scowl while he is at it.