All-action hero Kirtley stunned to be back in the swing for England

Sussex seamer will relish role as death bowler on global stage after finally discarding tag of 'chucker'
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The Independent Online

From evidence pres-ented in the next fortnight it will be possible to conclude whether England's selectors are inspired or crazy. The highly specialist but contentious squad they have chosen for the inaugural World Twenty20 is based on a hunch as much as certainty.

Some, but not all, of the usual one-day suspects have been rounded up and injury has forced some last-minute tinkering which may turn out to be to the team's advantage. The rest is a cast of familiar but forgotten names, who will leave today for the tournament in South Africa – arguably England's most impor-tant winter assignment. The squad has a bizarre look to it – at least four of its members must have assumed that they would never play for England again and have been summoned purely because of their performances in the world's first domestic Twenty20 competition.

The hope is that they can reproduce this form against some of the best players on the planet,though they have not featured in any of England's previous Twenty20 matches. Immeasurable trust has been placed in Jeremy Snape, Darren Maddy, Chris Schofield and James Kirtley. None can have expected, or even perhaps hoped, to have been involved again.

What happens now willdecide whether England have given another game to the world, only for the world to be better at it. Snape, designer of the so-called moon ball, is 34, and played the last of his 10 one-day internat-ionals in 2002. Maddy, English Twenty20's leading all-time scorer, last played in 2000, Scho-field played the second of his two Tests in 2001, Kirtley in 2004.

They all have stories to tellof misfortune and dramatic, belated achievement, none more so than Schofield and Kirtley. Schofield, the leg spinner, had been reduced to club and Minor Counties cricket before Surrey offered him a lifeline at theend of last summer. He repaidthat faith by being the season's leading Twenty20 wicket-taker.

Kirtley's comeback may be still more resonant. He may be the best death bowler in the land but he is back in an England shirt at 32 after reshaping his action for the second time following accusations about its legality. Not to put too fine a point on it, Kirtley, a thoroughly decent and engaging man, was effectively found guilty of throwing towards the end of the 2005 season. He had already undergone one revamp in 2001. A whole career looked to have been flushed down the pan with a bent arm, let alone one for England.

"The summer of 2005 was a great summer to be involved in English cricket," he said at Hove last week. "I was performing well and thought I had an outside chance of being called up for the Ashes after Simon Jones got injured. Things were exciting, Sussex were challenging, they had won a Championship in 2003 and a one-day division, you wanted more of it. But then it went a little pear-shaped."

The circumstances of the charge being laid were unsav-oury, to say the least. Unbeknown either to Kirtley or Peter Moores, then the Sussex coach, Warwickshire secretly filmed his action from several angles during a Championship match at Edgbaston and handed the tape to the umpires. After watching the film they reported the bowler. But the crucial point was that Warwickshire's suspicions were right. Kirtley's arm was beyond the 15 degrees of flexion permitted under recent ICC regulations, and he could see it with his own eyes.

"The acceptance was the hardest part, and then dealing with the anger," he said. He could have been somebody addicted to the bottle: only accepting culpability can lead to redemption. "It's the greatest taboo in cricket. I was angry with everything reallybecause I felt it was unfair, and I felt aggrieved about how it came to the fore.

"The way it was done wasn't wholesome, but it was Warwickshire's choice about how they handled themselves. We had to change things. It was a fantastic learning process for me in that I learned so much about myself."

Between the end of the 2005 season and Christmas he and Mark Robinson, Moores' successor as Sussex coach, worked in the nets for at least two hours a day, five days a week. Eventuallyit reached a stage where neither could tell the difference between what was considered legal and illegal. But still there were some deliveries back within the range and some outside it.

This was a gruelling time for him. For a bowler to be labelled a chucker and therefore a cheat reaches down to his very soul. In early 2006, Kirtley and Robinson still sought the remedy.

"We needed something to hang our hat on, a key to it," he said. "What did I have to do: keep my head still, adjust my feet, was my left leg bending on impact? What was it, what was causing it? And then more or less by trial and error, late in the process we discovered it."

What they found was that if Kirtley lowered his bowling arm by seven centimetres his arm was no longer crooked. It made him legal, but then he had to become accustomed to it. "It does not look a lot, seven centimetres, but it's saved my career. I was horrible to live with during that time. It put a strain on me and my wife, Jenny. It's often the nearest and dearest who bear the brunt. It was hard at home. I was a little erratic. Was I going to pass? I was still in the 'poor me, why me?' syndrome."

But with Robinson's help, both technical and pastoral, he passed muster before the 2006 season began. A new Kirtley arrived at Hove, a Kirtley with a legal action and a new outlook. If he did not play a huge part in Sussex's second Championship triumph (seven games, 16 wickets) he was instrumental in their victory in the 50-over cup final at Lord's. His 5 for 27 (all lbws) represented a model of accurate swing and seam bowling. Kirtley understandably cried a bit and afterwards his captain, Chris Adams, paid him the most touching of tributes.

Now this. He is going to South Africa on merit. Apart from rectifying defects in his action, Kirtley has turned himself into a master of death bowling. He has thought deeply about his approach, worked assiduously on perfecting different types of delivery and above all keeps his nerve. He seems sure to play for that reason alone.

"No one in one-day cricket has a better record than I have had in the past three or four years," he said. "I thrive on bowling at the end of an innings. I got the job in the first place because I have a natural ability to bowl a yorker, and when I came into the game it was all about yorkers. Now batters have evolved."

The yorker can still be effective, but batsmen are more adept at hitting it. Kirtley developed an off-spinning slower ball, but right-handers in particular learned to pick it quickly. His mind was made up after returning from Australia in 2003, when Darren Lehmann had spotted it too quickly for comfort. He had to find something different.

First, he had a bash at copying Adam Hollioake's split-finger slower ball but it was not for him. He decided to attempt a slower ball delivered from the back of the hand. His first attempt in the spring of 2003 went 20 yards out of the back of the Hove nets.

"Here was a bloke who was about to play Test cricket for England, who had just come back from a tour of Australia, who was bowling balls out of the back of the net," Kirtley said. "But I worked on it through 2003 and 2004 and by the back end of 2005 I had the confidence to bowl it in games. Now it has probably provided the majority of my success in one-day cricket."

He took 13 wickets in his nine Twenty20 matches this summer and has a further 28 in 14 other one-day matches. He professes himself ready for the next fortnight, if a mite surprised to be going. "If you had told me in December 2005 I would be in an England squad again I'd have thought you had been drinking. I had come to a certain stage of the season several times looking out for England squads, tuned in and gone, 'Ugh, no', but when the Twenty20 30 was picked I'd no idea it was being announced.

"It's a good squad, but I would say that, wouldn't I? I think it will become the biggest international cricket tournament. England will be competitive and whatever the level there won't be too many surprises for Darren, Jeremy and me, because there isn't much we haven't experienced."

It would be fitting if Kirtley came back from South Africa in triumph, because he has been through so many dark days. What he had to overcome was, in its way, more arduous than coming back from serious injury. "I have got no fear now in that I can still learn," he said. "You know you can reinvent rather than think you have always done it one way.

"Bowling at the death, you have to have robustness of character. I've learned to deal with my emotions and not bottle them up. We spend our lives in dressing rooms fresh with testosterone and hugely macho, but it's all right to show emotion or a weakness."

James Kirtley, of course, has demonstrated not weakness but immense strength. He deserves to show the selectors that they are not crazy.

Where they will finish

Group A

BANGLADESH

Tailed off (again) after World Cup, have played only one previous match (won), but have talented individuals who may spring unplanned shock.

One to watch: Nazim Uddin

SOUTH AFRICA

The sound to be heard above the cacophony of noise could be the hosts choking. Player/board splits after Jacques Kallis's odd omission threaten to provoke this quickly.

One to watch: J P Duminy

WEST INDIES

Might be ideal length of game for players who lose heart and attention too easily. Deep, long-handle batting bodes well. Splendid outsiders.

One to watch: Marlon Samuels

Group B

AUSTRALIA

Nothing suggests world domination in Twenty20 except world domination in all else. Expect victory.

One to watch: Matthew Hayden

ENGLAND

Selection of old sweats is calculated gamble. If nous is needed should have it, but will require class too and might not have enough.

One to watch: Kevin Pietersen

ZIMBABWE

A spectre at all ICC parties, a disgrace to international cricket. Scant Twenty20 experience.

One to watch: Vusi Sibanda

Group C

KENYA

Since 2003 World Cup semi-final appearance, poor administration means they have been treading water rather than walking on it. No-hopers.

One to watch: Steve Tikolo

NEW ZEALAND

Though they sometimes defy the blandness of their side with electrifying play, do not have belief to win.

One to watch: Jacob Oram

SRI LANKA

Will miss Muttiah Muralitharan and coach Tom Moody but World Cup finalists are genuine contenders. Batting could take them to the stars.

One to watch: Kumar Sangakkara

Group D

INDIA

Hotfoot from long English tour, may be tired. Short on experience. Led, intriguingly, by M S Dhoni, all old stars missing. Slow bowling is key.

One to watch: Virender Sehwag

PAKISTAN

First serious outing since World Cup tragedy. Team of all talents still in disarray, with Shoaib Akhtar sent home; will probably find way to lose.

One to watch: Mohammad Asif

SCOTLAND

Makeweights with something to prove after World Cup. Did little in English FP Trophy this summer with one win from eight matches.

One to watch: Ryan Watson

Watch England's opening match against Zimbabwe on Thursday, Sky Sports 1 from 12.30pm

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