Cricket: Yorkshire's advancing Australian

Phil Shaw assesses the belated blossoming of Michael Bevan, the White Rose's latest foreign import
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The Independent Online
A quiz question for anoraks everywhere. What does Michael Bevan, Yorkshire's Australian batsman, have in common with Brian Clough and Frank Bough?

The answer, the Test and County Cricket Board may be relieved to know, has nothing to do with sleaze. It is that all three played for Billingham Synthonia - not some exotic orchestra, but a Teesside club with cricket and football sections - though it is within the context of another trio that Bevan inevitably finds his debut season on the county circuit being evaluated.

The 25-year-old left-hander from Canberra had scored fewer runs at the half-way stage of the season than either of the first two overseas players in Yorkshire's history, Sachin Tendulkar and Richie Richardson. Since neither the Indian prodigy nor the West Indies captain exactly set the broad acres alight, Bevan's contribution caused disappointment bordering on exasperation.

When he was signed, it seemed a case of third time lucky for the White Rose. Here was a player of proven international ability, Allan Border's successor no less, who was neither too young to cope with the drastic change in life style, as many felt Tendulkar to have been, nor past his peak, as it became clear that Richardson was.

Moreover - and this appeased many who argued that the old birthright qualification had been a source of pride and cohesion - were there not strong similarities between the competitive, some would say belligerent, mentality of cricketers in Yorkshire and in Australia?

Theory and practice, however, have proved uneasy bedfellows in Bevan's case. After starting with two tons on Yorkshire's South African tour and another against Cambridge University, he compiled only 337 runs in his first 12 Championship innings.

Then last week, returning to the North-east at Middlesbrough, came what could be a turning point: his first century, against Gloucestershire, followed by another, unbeaten hundred in the Sunday League. With Martyn Moxon incapacitated until next month and another season of promise threatening to disintegrate, Yorkshire urgently require Bevan's resurgence to be sustained.

While making no excuses, and admitting that a season as professional with Billingham plus two at Rawtenstall in the Lancashire League ought to have inured him to such factors, Bevan believes the cold and damp of the British spring did not help. "Any Aussie coming here, and I don't care who it is, would have found it hard on the pitches we played on earlier in the season," he said. "They were predominantly bowlers' wickets.

"I realise that if you're going to be a good player you have to play on all types of pitches. I like to hit through the ball and go for my shots, and I didn't expect to come over and start blazing away immediately. But the bottom line for me will be whether at the end of the year I can walk away and say, 'I've averaged 50 and done my job'."

He currently averages 35, so the improvement will need to be considerable for Bevan to reach his target. There are, however, encouraging precedents: instances of foreign players, such as Mohammad Azharuddin in his Derbyshire days, who were almost broken by the bowler-friendly conditions of April and May yet who prospered on the slower, flatter pitches and in the warmer weather of the second half of the season.

Whatever he may lack in terms of application - he has a tendency to get set and then get out - the man from New South Wales does not sound short of confidence. "We've got nine matches to go, and I'm sure I can score a lot of runs. It could be it was just a case of waiting for an innings like the one at Middlesbrough. Maybe I'll be able to take it from there."

If indeed Bevan's concentration might not have been as good as expected, his observations on the relative strengths of English and Australian cricket offer a possible explanation. "What I've found here is that a bit of intensity is lacking," he said. "We play just 10 Sheffield Shield matches back home, but every one is tough and competitive.

"Playing so much can only be to the detriment of the game in England. Bowlers, especially, do a lot of work and need a rest, but they're playing six days out of seven. To my mind, that's too much. There are certainly as many good players as in Australia, but there are other factors which affect standards."

Should Bevan fail to build on his spree at Acklam Park, it is likely to reinforce the traditionalists' view that the No 4 slot might as well be filled by an uncapped Colt. Yorkshire do, of course, have an academy, at Bradford, from which graduates are starting to enter the first-team reckoning, so it could be that overseas players prove no more than a temporary expedient.

A product of the Australian Institute of Sport in Adelaide, Bevan acknowledges the potential coming through from Park Avenue. "It's a great idea providing they're brought up in the right way," he said, "but the crucial thing is how they handle them."

Bevan may not be around to see how the young ones fare. His contract with Yorkshire is for this summer alone, after which he returns Down Under to try and regain his place from Greg Blewett for the Test series with India and Sri Lanka. There are those in the Ridings who maintain the county ought then to go for a bowler, and join the bidding for Alan Donald, but the greater need is still for a top-class batsman.

Moxon's absence, coupled with the fact that his three middle-order batsmen have amassed a mere 210 runs in their last 21 innings, has highlighted an enduring weakness. Starting on Thursday against Hampshire at Southampton, where a week ago he might have been tempted to jump on a ship and head home to sunnier climes, Bevan has both the inclination and the opportunity to prove he is the player Yorkshire thought he was.