Bond takes the slow road back

Cricket: New Zealand arrive with their fastest bowler on a recovery mission and working hard for a stress-free future
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The Independent Online

A cluster of New Zealand players stand at the back of the room during the pre-tour press conference at Lord's. Chris Cairns is easy to identify. So is Daniel Vettori, but you have to ask to make sure about Shane Bond. New Zealand's real fast bowler is an anonymous figure in England - so far.

Stephen Fleming, New Zealand's captain, tells reporters that the three-Test series, which starts at Lord's on 20 May, should be so close that it could be won by a couple of players performing brilliantly in single sessions. Bond at his best seems capable of that. By the end of the series the clean-cut look and short, dark hair could have become instantly recognisable.

Or not. Because Bond has not played international cricket for a year. His comeback last winter was delayed by a second dreadful stress fracture of the back, and his recovery was unfinished when New Zealand's 14-man squad arrived in London last week.

Bond has done what a broken bowler has to do. He has changed his action to save his back. The problem was common enough: an open chest and side-on hips. He walked through a new action, then started to bowl it, and now his head and chest are both side-on, to reduce physical stress at the point of delivery.

Bond has come unscathed through a few one-day games, and although he is still self-conscious during the first couple of overs of a spell he no longer worries about the action: "The issue is whether the back's going to go again, especially when you've spent so long out of the game."

At 6ft 2in, he is the smallest of New Zealand's cadre of promising, young fast bowlers, but the fastest by more than a yard. He has made his mark in only 10 Tests, but 43 wickets at 24.30 are testimony to a real threat.

His one-day performances have been even more striking (51 wickets at 19.00, including 6 for 23 against Australia in the World Cup). He would rather play Tests, though he appreciates that his average is history. It clearly does not guarantee him a place in the XI for the first Test less than three weeks away.

Fast bowlers come as fiery or placid, and Bond belongs to the placid school, polite and straightforward. "I got picked because I had extra pace. I offer something different. I am competitive, especially when I've got the ball in my hand, but I'm not the nastiest fast bowler out."

He is, though, one of the élite who can top 95mph, and it came about because, when he was 24, he decided he would never play for New Zealand and joined the Christchurch police. When he took some holiday a year or so later, he found that he could bowl a yard and half faster. He attributed this to job security: he could go back to the beat if it didn't work.

His Test debut was against Australia in November 2000, bleeding 135 runs for one wicket. Things could only improve. His found his experience of uncomfortable situations on the beat helped him deal with them on the cricket field. Bond - Shane Bond - doesn't fluster in a crisis.

His experience of English conditions is limited, however, to a month with Warwickshire in August 2003 when Shaun Pollock went off to the Tests. (He took 12 wickets at 27.50 in three games). English spring wickets may well favour his rivals.

Two fast-medium bowlers, Cairns and Jacob Oram, are in the side as all-rounders, which leaves only two places among the other four pacemen - Chris Martin, Daryl Tuffey, Kyle Mills and Bond.

It is a case of abundance over experience. The six attacking bowlers have only 112 black caps between them, and more than half (59) belong to Cairns.

Bond is an optimist, which will help this month. He believes he probably bowls best on flat wickets in the sun, which may not be much help in the three games New Zealand will play before the Lord's Test. "If I show I can bowl all day I think I've got as good a chance as anyone else," he says.

He will need to find a new length, a bit fuller than he is accustomed to bowling, to get the ball to swing. Fleming was notably cautious about Bond's chances of playing in the First Test.

But New Zealand have kept the faith, and Bond has been on contract throughout his Year of the Bad Back. He adapted easily to the money and the lifestyle - "no more shift work; I'm my own boss now". He resigned from the Christchurch police only a couple of months ago after a two-year leave of absence, but he doesn't regret the time on the beat. "It helps you keep your feet on the ground."

As he gets up to leave, Bond smiles and says, as New Zealanders do: "No worries." Not quite true in his case, but at least Shane Bond's almost back on the park.