Contract kid ready to be the hit-man

Stephen Brenkley meets the Lancashire leggie in the grip of a legend's deeds
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The Independent Online

As he stood on the brink of his first full season in English county cricket last week, a leg-spin bowler assessed his prospects. "I have the will to win and I'm confident about the way I play," he said. "Some people have called me arrogant, but in the long run I just want to appear in a winning team."

There was a little more where that came from, and the sight of bushels having lights hidden beneath them was not exactly glaring. "I know people will be looking towards me, expecting things, and I'll have to get on with it. I'm pretty sure I can do it, but if not then I'll just go back and work some more. But I'm not too worried."

This was the day after Shane Warne, leg-spinner of near-mythical genius, had been confirmed as one of the five Cricketers of the Century. But it was not the boisterous blond from Ferntree Gully having a ripping yarn about what might lie in wait when he bowls for Hampshire this summer. This was Chris Schofield, the gangly kid from Rochdale, who has been thrust suddenly into the public consciousness by his inclusion in the squad of 12 players to be offered central contracts by the England and Wales Cricket Board.

Schofield has played 12 first-class games for Lancashire, six for England A, and in relative terms he is probably barely fit yet to spin the peroxide for Warne's shampoo. But the cockiness of youth apart, it did you good to hear him speak.

Ten years ago, no matter how assured his essential nature, no leg-spinner, let alone an English one, would have dared to utter such phrases. More than likely he would have had his wrist placed in a vice a few months after birth and told in no uncertain terms that in this country that part of the body was to be like upper lips: stiff.

Warne has changed all that, so that every other country, if not owning up to searching for the next Warne, desperately craves wrist- spin. Schofield has been touted for three or four seasons as the English boy most likely to, and if it demonstrated imagination on the selectors' part in elevating him after so little experience, the reasons have been abundantly clear for some time.

He has gathered champions for his cause quickly. David Lloyd, the former England coach, has been the most prominent, and the suspicion is that had he had his way he would have picked Schofield in the Test team in Australia two winters ago. Television commentators generally, not all of them from Lancashire either, have talked him up. His figures from the A tour, on which he took 23 wickets at 26.43 - still exceptional for a young leg-spinner - were positively hyped.

The likelihood is that Schofield, now he is in the elite 12, is not there for show and will play in Test matches for England this summer. Since the first of those is against Zimbabwe next month, and May and most of June are fairly lean months for spinners of any hue in England, it is to be hoped and desired that England do not pick him early only to drop him if he fails to turn the ball square.

Schofield is naturally the focus of some attention, which was beginning to fray him at the edges slightly at Old Trafford last week. But he is the sort who looks as though he could easily become accustomed to the publicity, might even have the personality to attract it.

He began as a leg-spinner when he was 10, 11 or 12. He cannot be sure of the precise occasion when the ball first turned square from the back of his hand, but it so astonished the older players he bamboozled that it was obvious he had something. The flexibility of wrist has remained and Schofield seems blissfully unworried that it might have disappeared.

He is a different bowler from Warne. Who isn't? Schofield likes to aim at the traditional leg-spinners' target of middle and leg with a view to making the batsman play. The action is similar to one he started out with, though he is deliberately squarer on and holds his left arm higher to ensure greater balance. "I like to run in six paces now, when it used it to be eight, build up momentum and then explode at the crease. I'm not worried about turning it, I know I can turn it."

Variety is not Schofield's weakness, consistency is. This is a 21-year-old with a wrist that can already purvey a leg-spinner, a slow leg-spinner, a top-spinner, a googly (a good one), a back-spinner and a flipper.

He went through the hand contortions necessary in executing these tricks as he described them with matter-of-fact relish, and if the leg-spinning doesn't work out he could always make a handy living dealing cards. But the fancy-dan stuff is not enough on its own.

As John Crawley, his Lancashire captain, said: "The important thing now is for him to master the basic skill of the leg-spinner - to bowl the basic leg-break so that it lands in the same spot six balls an over. To do that he's got to bowl and bowl."

To his credit, Schofield is aware of the shortcoming ("But that's not to say I can't bowl six good balls an over or four good overs in a row") and the reason why it separated Warne from all other leg-spinners. "You don't copy players like him or Anil Kumble but you can learn by watching them, how they carry themselves when someone's trying to get after them, what they respond with."

Schofield, who still lives with his mum back home in Rochdale, where he plays a lot of snooker and is inestimably proud of his highest break of 75, will be quite a lad to watch. He is an animated player and batsmen will know of his presence. As they do with the Warne.

In three of his 12 matches for the county he has taken eight wickets, and he has demonstrated a happy facility - also like Warne, since you ask - for dispensing summarily with the tail. Proper batsmen take a little longer.

"England are trying to rebuild a winning side. I think I'll play for them this summer," he said. There spoke, maybe, a cricketer fit for the 21st century.