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Brilliance of Bicknell finds little reward

David Llewellyn talks to the history man resigned to life in the shadows

He is the first bowler to take 50 wickets this season, but if England's selectors remain true to form, the name of Martin Bicknell will still be among the last on their list of candidates for the Third Test against the West Indies at Old Trafford in 12 days' time.

He is the first bowler to take 50 wickets this season, but if England's selectors remain true to form, the name of Martin Bicknell will still be among the last on their list of candidates for the Third Test against the West Indies at Old Trafford in 12 days' time.

It is no more than Bicknell expects. "It would not bother me if I were never considered for England again," said the 31-year-old, only hours after his heroics for his county Surrey at Guildford, where in destroying Leicestershire singlehandedly he produced the finest match return by an Englishman in this country - 16 for 119 - since Jim Laker claimed 19 Australian wickets at Old Trafford in 1956.

"I have got to the stage now where I think it has gone, even though things do seem to have been getting better and better in my career and I seem to be producing better things as time goes on."

When Surrey won their first Championship for 28 years last season Bicknell's 71 wickets at a top-class average of just 17.95 were as instrumental as anything else in helping them get their hands on the silverware. They did not impress the national selectors, though.

Bicknell is passionate about Surrey. He has been putting his body on the line - and the treatment table - with astonishing consistency for them since he first appeared for the Brown Hats as a 17-year-old.

"I am happy to be playing in a winning side," he stressed, adding, tellingly: "I am enjoying my cricket." This is no gnarled old pro whose views are wrinkling with cynicism as his loftiest ambitions remain unfulfilled, Bicknell is a genuine cricket lover. His approach to the game remains as fresh now as it was all those years ago. And so too does his cricket. He is no mean batsman and already this season he has scored three fifties in the common cause.

Given all that, and the fact that opponents and umpires are unanimous in their first-hand experience that he is the best bowler of his type around, it is surprising that he has represented his country only twice, during the 1993 Ashes series. He did not distinguish himself hugely in either Test, but then again, nor did he disgrace himself. England lost both matches, at Headingley and Edgbaston, and Bicknell was never seen again in an England sweater. "It has been that long now that it is not a great loss if I don't play for England," he said matter-of-factly.

Over the last few years the selectors have cited his propensity for injury as a reason for his omission. These days the player can refute the charge. In the last five years Bicknell has missed just four Championship matches. And should the selectors attempt to introduce the try the age clause Bicknell would be quick to point out that he is younger than Andrew Caddick, and only a few months older than Alan Mullally, while Angus Fraser was 33 when he played his last Test for England against Australia in Melbourne in 1998.

He is alleged to have been considered for the Second Test against Zimbabwe last month. But nothing came of it. "I think I am at the point now where if I haven't been considered, then I won't be," is his stoical response. "I am just very happy playing for Surrey." And they for their part are very happy to have Bicknell playing for them. While his nickname is Bickers, few would argue that Bicknell has been one of the most consistent seamers of the last five years.

In fact, a glance at his Championship record since his debut in 1986 says that he has been consistent from the outset. Since 1989, the year Surrey awarded him his cap and he repaid them with 65 wickets, Bicknell has passed 50 Championship wickets on eight occasions and been in the forties twice.

And had it not been for injury, those two summers - and the 1994 season when he captured a meagre 27 wickets - would have followed the usual course. In all, Bicknell has more than 800 first-class wickets to his name - a landmark he passed earlier this season.

"Of course it helps playing in a winning side. People talk about team spirit, but that rarely manifests itself in a losing side. But we now expect to win trophies at Surrey. If we were to finish second in the Championship this summer it would be a bit of a disappointment for the boys after experiencing winning the title last year. A year on we know what it takes and I think that makes us a better side.

"You get into the habit of winning. You recognise which are the important moments of the game. I think as a team we are doing that. We understand what is required and when and how to step up a gear and win matches."

And so to Wednesday and the big NatWest quarter-final against Lancashire - a side against whom Surrey suffered a dramatic collapse in a different cup competition a few years ago.

Bicknell acknowledged: "While we want to win the County Championship, and that remains the most important thing for us, we want to win the NatWest Trophy. It is a major trophy. We have won everything else."

And he is confident. "We are on a bit of a roll. I think as a side we have improved in the one-day game immensely. We will be looking to keep our form going in it.

"In Saqlain Mushtaq we have the best slow bowler in one-day cricket in the world. His variation makes him very difficult to score against. And we do bat all the way down the order."

They do indeed. Right down to this modest, unassuming, hugely talented man of Surrey. He cares for his county and is content to remain a fan of his country. But if he goes on in this rich vein of form he may well make his country a fan of him.