Cricket: Tufnell at last settling to the rhythm of life

Richard Edmondson on the England spinner who is enjoying maturity as a family man and mastery of his cricketing art
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The Independent Online
THE NEW man that is Philip Tufnell strode over to meet me amid the flower boxes at Southgate Cricket Club in north London. A Test match recall was the smallest reward he deserved after forsaking the destructive life of alcohol and tobacco and nestling comfortably, for the first time, into the role of father of the family. Before he discussed this renaissance Tuffers had a question of his own. "Got any fags on you?"

Now that Oliver Reed has gone, many treasure Philip Clive Roderick Tufnell as one of the few natural hellraisers left in public life. The appalling news for them is that the Cat has changed. He now declines nights out and returns home happily to Lisa and two-and-a-half-year-old Poppy. He even changes nappies. "But not the squidgy ones," he says by way of mitigation.

Despite his new, brushed-up image there remains an assumption of Tufnell's character. You can see him as the sort of scamp of a boy who would steal birds' eggs. From both nests and Tescos.

In fact, he was rather worse than that. He was in court by the age of eight and sniffing glue by the time his contemporaries were making Airfix kits out of the stuff. He thought teachers and those in authority were "tossers".

In terms of a future career, it looked like he might become the bloke who spins the fairground waltzer. But sport, as it often has done, saved him. "Cricket was the saviour for me," he says. "I'm not saying I'm Malcolm Marshall or anything like that, but that was a place where I could dictate and I could control. That kept my sanity.

"I didn't know where I was going in my younger days, bouncing around from pub to pub. A lot of people in their teenage years and early 20s do that. But perhaps I gave it a bit of an extra crack. Off the pitch everything might have been swirling around in my life, but cricket gave me a focus, a path."

And now, aged 33, it is testimonial time and his autobiography* is out. As he approaches the First Test against New Zealand at Edgbaston this morning, Tufnell has found a contentment missing for so long. "I'm still not a pipe and slippers man by any means but I'm much happier in my cricket and home life," he says. "I still go out for a drink with the boys, but I try to do it at the right times these days. That might not have been the case before. I've done a few silly things in my time, but I like to think I've moved on and I hope I've learned from them.

"I might not have done myself any favours, but if I hadn't been like that it might have taken something away from my bowling. You just don't know. But perhaps I could have played a few more games [for England] without this reputation."

While Tufnell has dragged himself kicking and screaming to maturity rather late in his private life he has found a gentle change also occurring to his bowling. "As I've got older I've found it easier to keep control and not get down on myself when things go wrong," he says. "If it's not coming out properly I can now try a few other things rather than just getting shitty with myself.

"And I've become a little more easy-going about who the selectors pick. When I was younger I was too wrapped up and I'd be down even if I bowled one bad ball. Sometimes that attitude can take you over. I don't sit in the hotel room at night churning over it any more. I'm a bit more rational about it rather than beating up the walls or taking it out on the bed."

Tufnell has been the scourge of furniture around the world for almost a decade now. He made his England debut in the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne in 1990, when Dean Jones attempted to limit his international career to one cap. Tufnell finished with combined figures of 0 for 98. There have been 33 further Tests since and a total of 100 wickets at 36.36.

Throughout Tufnell has striven to reach twirling perfection, a goal he continues to pursue. "Through my career I've just forever been trying to find that perfect rhythm," he says. "I'm always tinkering just trying to get that groove. It's coming out pretty well at the moment but you're never entirely happy. With me it's just trying to get that feel. I'm definitely an aggressive bowler and that's why I've never been a good net bowler. I enjoy the game situation. It fires you up and that's when I bowl best. It gets my body language going. You see it in the skip that I've got when I'm a bit zippy.

"I don't have to get myself up for a game of cricket, whether it's playing for England, Middlesex or a park game. The preparation for that can be a wild time. I like the feeling of bowling to the big guys - the nervous thing with the big crowd and a great stage."

Tufnell is more comfortable playing for his country these days. The infant nerves are more easily controlled. "When you're selected you're picked for your qualities, but sometimes you can forget that and forget to do the things that got you there in the first place," he says. "There's a danger of going into your shell: almost to be seen to be doing the right thing rather than playing your own game. You should stay true to yourself. Don't change your game just because you're playing for England. The main thing is to enjoy it. You don't worry about what other people are going to say, think or write. That's when it starts going wrong."

The cruel news for doctors who warn of the perils of cigarette and alcohol abuse is that Tufnell has not felt better for some time. "The body's still good and I'm still enjoying it, my team-mates and the act of going up and down the country playing county cricket," he says.

"I wake up looking forward to bowling and winning the game, but I'm not a guy who thinks too much about the future. I enjoy the day, the moment. I don't even like thinking about who's coming in to bat next."

Tufnell is pleased to have been given the opportunity to repay those who have, once again, placed faith in him. "You just keep competing in this game and hopefully give the selectors a nudge," he says. "Keep plugging on, keep taking wickets, keep performing well, keep your nose clean. Better not put that last one in, eh? How about keep going along the straight and narrow?" Then Philip Tufnell was off down the sort of straight and narrow path that he has found so difficult to follow until recently. He took his Silk Cut with him.

* What Now? Phil Tufnell, The Autobiography (HarperCollins pounds 16.99)