Cricket: Woodman has the cutting edge - Richard Budd on the Devon fast bowler who has come to thrive in a world of silence

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The Independent Online
CRICKET is a sensual game. The spectacle of enviable athleticism; the aromas of linseed, liniment and mown outfields; and the sound of a sweetly cracked cover drive or the death rattle when leather clatters ash provide pleasure for players and spectators alike.

Mark Woodman is one of the country's top amateur fast bowlers, but he has never heard the satisfying snick of a thin edge or the anguished cry of a batsman whose off-stump he has uprooted. Woodman, who will open the bowling for Devon against Staffordshire at Lord's today in the Minor Counties one-day Holt Cup final, is, uniquely among his peers and first-class cricketers, profoundly deaf.

For reasons never explained to the total satisfaction of his highly supportive parents, John and Mavis, he was born in a cocoon of silence from which he will never emerge. However, Woodman, a boyish 25-year-old with a mop of white-blond hair, has overcome the obstacle nature placed in his way and achieved an admirable level of sporting excellence.

If he, like other deaf people, sometimes finds life in a hearing world occasionally frustrating, he is equally capable of making cricket frustrating for those able to hear. At Canterbury in this year's NatWest Trophy, he induced Mark Benson to play and miss so often that the Kent captain's discomfort was almost palpable from the pavilion.

His final figures against the Benson and Hedges Cup finalists were 12-1-16-1. When his Somerset-bound captain, Nick Folland, who coincidentally once taught deaf children, said afterwards: 'You bowled well today, Woody,' Woodman held up three fingers and shrugged. He was right. He deserved two more wickets.

Woodman was born deaf, but he was also born to play cricket. Before he was a teenager, his niggardly line and length had impressed Ken Palmer and Peter Robinson at Taunton's indoor school. At 20, he joined the senior Devon club side, Exmouth, was called up for his full county debut from their second team, marked his arrival in the little-big time by bowling Graham Roope (then of Berkshire) and has been ever- present ever since. He has even made the Exmouth first XI.

Woodman has never been handicapped by his deafness, either on or off the field. If anything, it has aided his concentration. Despite its genteel image, cricket is not played in silence: it is a game of nicks and clicks, of 'wait' and 'come one', difficult enough to master with a full set of senses. Yet, through personal application and the co-operation of his team-mates, Woodman has adapted to its demands.

Potential problems are overcome by the conspicuous use of hand signals, which his colleagues employ as readily as their usual calls and shouts. Woodman's own alertness is an example which others would, at times, do well to copy, though Peter Roebuck was not the first to recognise the irony that the only one of his new team- mates who ran turning blind was also the only one who is deaf.

Off the park, Woodman is hugely popular and there is no question of kid gloves, just plenty of kidding. By making 'Woody' the butt of the dressing-room pranks, they ensure he is always part of things. It might become a little tiresome, not to say confusing, to have your soup laced with vodka or be told you are eating rabbit when you have ordered chicken, but Woodman generally enjoys the joshing.

The day after the rabbit incident, he was fielding on the boundary when he recognised one of the perpetrators: he put his hands up to his ears, wiggled them and started hopping around furiously.

Woodman is no batting bunny (he made a championship-best 37 a few weeks ago), but it is to his bowling that Devon will be looking today. He delivers the ball with such accuracy that he is capable of slowing the opposition run-rate to little more than a trickle, a prime requisite in the limited-overs game and never more so today against Staffordshire's free-hitting openers, Steve Dean and David Cartledge. That contest within a contest really is a prospect to get the senses working overtime.

(Photograph omitted)