DeFreitas: 'I should still be there'

Middle-aged hero
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The Independent Online

When the time comes they will probably have to carry Phillip DeFreitas from the arena kicking and screaming. Cricket is all he has known, all he has wanted to know and all he wants to know.

"The way I look at it, without cricket Phillip DeFreitas doesn't exist," he said. "It's my love, it's in my blood. You ask me what frightens me and I'll say my career finishing. It still frightens me."

So he is doing his damnedest to prevent the unpreventable. At 37, nearly 19 years since he began playing as a professional, DeFreitas would say that he is bowling better than he has ever done. Indeed, he does say it, and he would not be alone. The adolescent hothead has become the feisty veteran.

Last summer, he was defiant in a losing crusade as captain of Leicestershire. The club were relegated twice - Championship and one-day league - but DeFreitas was outstanding. He missed only one match, took 54 Championship wickets and bowled more overs than all but three other seamers in the land, to all of whom he was giving several years. He may be the last cricketer to score 10,000 runs and take 1,000 wickets in first-class matches.

His form and his craving to bowl are the more remarkable because it is eight years since he last played for England. He was only 29 when he played at Headingley, withdrew from the squad for the next Test and was never called on again. "It crossed my mind last season when they were in trouble, but I knew I wouldn't get in because of age," he said. "On performance and merit I should have been there, and to be honest I still think I should be."

DeFreitas is England's last playing link with the winning of the Ashes. He was 20 when he was selected for Mike Gatting's tour in 1986-87, and made an immediate impact. It could, maybe should, have been the beginning of an all-conquering career, but DeFreitas never felt entirely welcomed.

"I should have played more than 44 times for England," he said. "I started around about the same time as Steve Waugh, but every time I walked into a dressing room I knew that if I didn't perform I'd be out. After that Ashes tour my name should have been on that teamsheet no matter what happened, and England would have had a far better cricketer. In that respect I wish I was starting out now."

He was a handful as a young cricketer, as he readily concedes. The celebrity, easily won, went to his head, the guidance, away from the pitch, was in short supply, a shy lad from London was overwhelmed. The incident in which he poured a salt pot over Jonathan Agnew's lunch and Agnew responded by throwing the contents of DeFreitas's coffin over the dressing-room balcony became part of Grace Road legend. DeFreitas left soon after.

But he was always destined to return. Leicestershire, like the game itself, is in his soul. He was on the MCC ground staff when they played Leicestershire II. "We drove in, I looked around and, although it sounds freaky, I knew that this was where it was all going to happen for me. I felt at home straight away and I always knew I'd be back and would finish my career here."

He can never have expected to be captain. DeFreitas is not the captaincy type. But last winter, Leicestershire were in disarray, Iain Sutcliffe turned down the job and went to Lancashire (the place where DeFreitas once fled) and there was simply nobody else left to ask.

"I said yes immediately, and whether I'm a good or bad captain I try to get everybody involved," he said. "The big thing is that I've been there, done the wrong thing, had to apologise. Certain players will try to get away with murder, come up with all the old tricks. I'll say, 'Excuse, me, but I invented that'.

"I'll help them. It's important to recognise what's going on in their lives. If a youngster comes in and is down it could be because his parents are splitting up, or something big. We need to help, and youngsters must be aware that they can't expect to have everything given to them.

"When it comes to the cricket I don't mess around. There are a lot of people working nine to five in shit jobs that they don't want to do, but must, to eat. We are very privileged people, we're being looked after, so you don't mess around."

He has set no retirement date. He expects still to be playing at 40, "and if my body was still in shape I'd play at 50." Why? "Determination, goals, just the joy of it."