Bicknell not bitter as exile finally ends

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The Independent Online

Martin Bicknell has been here before. Ten years ago almost to the month. Called up by England for the Fourth Test of a five-match rubber, against Australia at Headingley.

"I suppose it's a sort of Groundhog Day for me, in that it will be up at Headingley again," he said yesterday once he had recovered from the shock of his recall.

On that occasion he did play. Although the thing he remembers most clearly is not his bowling, one for 155 off 50 overs - a respectable display of economy at barely three-an-over - but rather spending the first two and a half days in the field as the Aussies piled up 653 for 4 in their first innings.

This time around much has changed. Firstly, the tall Surrey seam and swing bowler is not guaranteed to win what would be his third cap, and the opponents are a fresh-faced, hard-headed South African crew (though just as difficult as the Aussies).

But there is more. The mature Bicknell is stronger, possessed of greater stamina and therefore no longer so vulnerable to injury. The man himself explained: "Age has made me make adjustments to my bowling, so now I can bowl for longer spells.

"I made a conscious decision to change. It wasn't hard to do. In a way I felt I had to because I was that much older. So I shortened my run-up. It was a struggle at first and initially I was not hitting the crease right.

"But it clicked when I was up at Trent Bridge with Surrey early in the season," the 34-year-old recalled. "On that occasion I had a spell of 15 overs and at the end of it I didn't feel tired. Although things were patchy for a while, it all finally came good at Whitgift School last week."

That was when Bicknell claimed the 40th five-wicket haul of a career that began back in 1986. He is now within sight of 1,000 first-class wickets - only two other current county cricketers have got to four figures, Devon Malcolm and Phillip DeFreitas. Bicknell is 29 away from the landmark.

"Throughout this season I have been picking up wickets. I have gone for more runs this year than in previous years - somewhere around 3.1 per over compared with the usual 2.8."

His consistency over the last 10 years has been remarkable, despite the spells when he was injured - too frequently in the mid-1990s - now, thankfully, much rarer.

Indeed since his second and last Test appearance to date, in the fifth test at Edgbaston at the beginning of August 1993 when Bicknell returned even more commendable figures of 3 for 99 off 34 overs - "I thought I bowled really well at Edgbaston." - the trail of figures is impressive.

There have been 532 wickets, 23 instances of Bicknell taking five or more in an innings and three occasions when he has picked up 10 wickets in a match, the most famous being his 16 for 119 against Leicestershire at Guildford in 2000, the sixth best post-war return in England.

Anyone would be entitled to feel anger towards the national side's management for dropping him and never picking him again but that is not Bicknell's nature. "I don't feel bitter," he says. "Of course I was disappointed. I was always the best bowler outside Tests. But I do not bear a grudge."

In fact, quite the opposite. He added: "I still want to play for my country. I still feel I have a lot to offer." That extends to the bat. Two seasons ago he scored his maiden first-class hundred, against Kent at Canterbury. This season two more have followed for the Division One leaders. If England were to pick him to play at Headingley they would be getting more than they, and perhaps the South Africans, had bargained for.