Cricket: Why England need Tufnell to show his passion for the game: Rob Steen on how the troubled spinner is coping with pressure on and off the field

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A MONTH ago Phil Tufnell's chances of playing Test cricket this summer seemed slim. A period of escalating domestic turmoil culminated in a court appearance and an pounds 800 fine for assaulting his daughter's mother. His county, Middlesex, gave him time off to sort out his private life and Ray Illingworth, England's chairman of selectors, said he would not consider picking Tufnell for the forseeable future.

The drubbing South Africa gave their hosts at Lord's changed all that. Three weeks later, Tufnell is in the England squad for today's second Test at Headingley. And however publicly critical Illingworth was of Tufnell's behaviour, the only relevant issue now is that England need the country's best spinner in their team.

The question that should be answered over the coming days - provided he makes the final XI - is how much Tufnell's problems have affected his game. Mike Gatting, his captain at Middlesex, has certainly not detected much change. 'He has handled disappointments on the field a bit better than in the past, although he still gets carried away sometimes. But that's him - on the whole he's been very quiet and just got on with it.

'He gets frustrated with all the newspaper talk but I keep telling him that people are bound to bring it up, just as they did with Botham. It's all part of life in a goldfish bowl. Putting it all behind him has to be a long-term programme. Happily, there are a lot of people helping him.'

Another Middlesex colleague, Angus Fraser, concedes that he was unsure how to approach Tufnell when he returned to the side five weeks ago following compassionate leave of absence. 'The temptation was to leave him alone, let him get on with it. But he needs to be around people, to be made to feel at home. He doesn't have that many close friends off the field, and a lot of his good ones are in the side.'

Gatting has succeeded in bringing the best out of Tufnell by communicating in a language he understands: firm, honest, consistent, sparing the rod for the most part but unafraid to wield it when necessary. When Tufnell threw a wobbly at Abbeydale Park three summers ago after a tricky chance had been missed by a fielder Gatting had just repositioned, he was dropped for the next game.

Yet Gatting also recognises that beneath the gor-blimeys and the couldn't-give-a-toss veneer lies a turbulent, passionate character in constant need of reassurance, and never more so than of late.

The Middlesex committee's determination to dispense with their roughest diamond was heightened when Tufnell refused to play for the second XI, then bowled half-heartedly when ordered to turn up. Gatting nevertheless remained a forceful advocate.

'I did fight hard to keep him but then you do try a bit harder with gifted players. I do tend to treat him differently to other members of the side but it would be a boring old world if you had to handle everyone in the same way.'

Superficial evidence suggests that Tufnell has been labouring since his return. Fourteen wickets in four Championship outings have cost 38.14 apiece, with the most productive analysis 4 for 61. Illingworth will have taken greater heed of the 51 maidens in 209.4 overs and the so-called 'economy rate' of 2.5 runs per over.

In any case, Gatting maintains that the figures mean little. 'The selectors were right to bring him back because he's a matchwinner. He has bowled a lot of overs lately, which has to be to his benefit, but without much luck.

'He could easily have had five wickets at Old Trafford instead of three. He could have got Neil Fairbrother out at any time between 100 and 200. I don't think he has been affected at all by lack of match practice because he's just one of those lucky, talented blokes who can just come on and bowl.'

Fraser bears that out. 'He slides back into the groove so easily. First game back, two-for-thirtysomething in the Sunday League. Besides, not getting wickets doesn't mean you're not bowling well.' Fraser can also envisage how not bowling at all - which was Tufnell's lot for much of the Caribbean tour - could have exacerbated his frustrations off the field.

Tufnell's reaction to England's victory in the Barbados Test four months ago was typical. Amid collective jubilation, there he was moping in the dressing-room, bringing to mind Frank Worthington's admission that the result was always secondary to his satisfaction with his own contribution. Most team players would never dream of being so nakedly honest.

''His figures didn't look that good,' Fraser sympathised. 'Even though he'd taken important wickets and bottled up an end for long periods, you could sense that he wished he'd done more. He is selfish in that respect but, unlike a selfish batsman, that can only be beneficial to the side.

'When he came back it gave us a lift because he's someone you want on your side. He's very competitive, so from time to time he gets upset and we do have the odd head-to-head, but we're all like that. I know I've effed and blinded at a few fielders in my time. Better that than someone walking off the field and thinking: 'I couldn't give a shit'.'

(Photograph omitted)