Dominic Cork: Swings and roundabouts of a varied career lead to another day at Lord's

Lancashire's old stager is relishing the chance to give another vintage performance in tomorrow's C&G Trophy final
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For Manchester United and Chelsea, read Lancashire and Sussex. At any rate, the two counties are engaged in an absorbing battle, North against South, for what amounts to cricket's equivalent of football's League and Cup Double. They are locked together at the top of the County Championship's First Division, and tomorrow they take the field at Lord's in the C&G Trophy final.

It is an occasion, and an arena, that demands a match-winner. And Dominic Cork, for one, knows how to be a match-winner at the home of cricket. His 7 for 43 against the still-mighty West Indies in 1995 was one of the great displays of aggressive swing bowling, not to mention the finest performance by a Test debutant in England's history, and appeared to presage a great Test career.

Alas, that never quite happened, but Cork is still going strong at the grand old age of 35, and when I talked to him this week he was looking forward to the big match with all the downbeat insouciance of a child on Christmas Eve who suspects that Santa is bringing him a puppy.

He couldn't wait, in other words, and agreed with me that it was a football-style situation. "That's right, and against the same team as well. We've had some great tussles with Sussex, and the team that wins on Saturday will really believe it can do the Double. But a one-day final is not about form, not about the past, just about who plays best on the day."

It is three years since he bought himself out of his Derbyshire contract, after the relationship between club and captain grew decidedly fractious, and moved to Lancashire in the hope of seasons just like this one. "We've made a [Twenty20] finals day twice in my time here, and reached a couple of semis. This year, hopefully, we'll go that one step further.

"The reason I came to Lancashire was that tradition of always being involved at the top level. Remember those great one-day sides, and all the great players they've had; your Clive Lloyds, your Wasim Akrams, your Mike Athertons, and [Andrew] Flintoff at the moment. They play on a Test match ground as well. It's been very nice for me towards the end of my career."

Speaking of Flintoff, had he found it frustrating to have the great England all-rounder (a label that once seemed earmarked for him) as a team-mate, and yet not a team-mate? Even when the centrally contracted Flintoff has not been injured, his appearances for Lancashire have been sporadic, at best.

"No, I've always said that England is a shop window, it's the selling point of the game, and if England are successful it's amazing how county cricket benefits. Just look at how much emphasis there's been on domestic cricket this year following the Ashes victory last summer. At the end of the day I'm proud to be in the same dressing-room [as Flintoff] on the odd occasions we play together. We've had a few chats about what's going to happen this winter, and when he first started - before I was at Lancs - we talked a bit about how I thought he could become a better player. But he doesn't need much help. He's a very self-motivated man."

There can be no doubting Cork's motivation, either, although he is a far more complex character than Flintoff, whose England career was governed by swings of mood as well as ball. In New Zealand in 1996-97, after an argument over field placing, he tossed the ball to his captain, Mike Atherton, petulantly telling him to bowl instead.

Moreover, my colleague Angus Fraser told me the other day that Cork was the only fellow England player he nearly punched, that once on a tour to South Africa he was serving as 12th man and Cork had him running this way and that fetching him things, as if to prove the point that he was playing and Fraser wasn't.

"My answer to that," said Cork, when I dangled Fraser's recollection before him, "is don't dish it out if you can't take it, Angus." Fraser had also suggested that I ask Cork about his hair, to which he apparently takes a David Beckham-style approach, wearing an Alice band one week, having highlights the next. Ask him, said Fraser, whether it's part of a mid-life crisis. So I did. Cork didn't miss a beat. "Angus is jealous because he hasn't ever had a thick head of hair," he said. "He's jealous because I can style mine, and all he's trying to do is wrap it over to stop anyone thinking he's bald."

What Fraser also recalled, more positively, was that Cork, at the start of his England career, was a truly "magnificent" swing bowler. He remains a fine bowler, of course, but there is little sign of the prodigious swing of 10 years ago.

"I don't think I ever lost it," he said. "I think I got a little bit fatigued, bowled through injuries when I shouldn't have and lost form. But I stand by my record. I got 131 [Test] wickets at [an average of] 29 and I'm very proud of that. I'll probably never play for my country again and I would love to have played more than I did, but I'm happy to have success at county level until retirement."

There was one more thing Fraser told me about Cork; that whatever Atherton thought of him (and the then England coach, David Lloyd, was no huge fan at the time either), Nasser Hussain loved having him in the England team because he was cut of the same cloth, a feisty player who used to wind up opponents relentlessly, but perhaps, Fraser thought, to the eventual detriment of his own game.

"Well, when things were going well on the pitch people were very quick to say keep going," Cork said in response to this. "I'm 35 now and I've never changed the way I play cricket, from the time I was 12. I play to win. If people get upset with that, it's their problem. I'm an aggressive cricketer, I like to get stuck in mentally, as well as physically, and there are 11 Australian cricketers very similar to me but nothing's ever said about them because they're very successful. My attitude was highlighted at a time when things weren't going great for the team, but I don't feel guilty about anything I've ever done on the pitch. I gave it my all, I couldn't have given any more."

He recalled South Africa's Allan Donald as the opponent whom he relished needling the most. "When he came out to bat I used to tell him that it's easy dishing bouncers out, but could he take them back? But all that is part and parcel of cricket. What's said on the field should stay on the field. It's a man's game, and two teams trying to outwit each other, whether through talent or mental strength."

In recent times, Cork has deployed the verbals more lucratively, as a notably percipient and direct pundit for Sky Sports. "I enjoy that, and I'd like to do more of it," he said. "Coming towards the end of a cricket career you have to give yourself as many employment options as possible."

It has been a distinguished cricket career, too, and there may well be more distinction to come tomorrow, but I wondered whether Cork ever looks back at all those early hosannas - he was Wisden's Cricketer of the Year in 1996 - and reflects that his subsequent achievements never quite matched up.

"I look further back than 1996," he said. "I look back to 1989, when I turned up at Derbyshire on a YTS scheme. And I'm still playing for Lancashire now. So, no, I'm not disappointed with what I've achieved, I'm proud of it. I have a Test match hat-trick [also against the West Indies, in that halcyon summer of 1995], the first since Peter Loader I think it was, although Darren Gough and Matthew Hoggard have had them since. And I think people have enjoyed watching me play."

And would those who watched really, really carefully, ever have seen Cork tampering with the ball? He had been told by Lancashire that he must not talk about the ball-tampering allegations against Pakistan - which seemed a shame, for he would doubtless have had plenty to say - but there seemed no reason why I couldn't ask him whether he had himself raised the odd seam? So, Dominic, have you ever been guilty of ball tampering?

"Never." Never? "Never."

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