New brushstrokes of brilliant White

First Test: To England's all-round advantage, a born-again talent has applied reverse swing to his reputation
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The Independent Online

Barely a year ago, the idea that Craig White might play Test cricket for England again was being floated seriously only in the White household. The proposition that he would become the team's most important member was probably put forward only at the annual conference of Fantasists and Daydreamers, where it was overruled by the committee on the grounds that it may bring the organisation into disrepute.

Barely a year ago, the idea that Craig White might play Test cricket for England again was being floated seriously only in the White household. The proposition that he would become the team's most important member was probably put forward only at the annual conference of Fantasists and Daydreamers, where it was overruled by the committee on the grounds that it may bring the organisation into disrepute.

Ah, but White is, at last, the stuff that fantasy and dreams are made of. Summoned to the one-day squad almost by default late in last winter's tour - they had to find somebody who was playing and available - his career and his life have been reborn.

During the First Test against Pakistan in Lahore last week he made his highest international score of 93 and then, on a pitch where seam was as dependable as British trains, he took three wickets and a smart catch.

By his own admission, he was distraught that he could not make an extra seven runs - "There's a big difference between 90 and 100, people don't notice the nineties" - but it followed his returns of five wickets in an innings in consecutive matches against West Indies last summer.

Three matches, three influential interventions: White is the all-rounder for whom England have been searching. He adds a dimension which promises rich fruit, and the prospect of a fully-fit Andrew Flintoff batting somewhere near him may yet yield a more plentiful harvest.

Chalky White was, of course, the all-rounder for whom the nation was searching more than six years ago on his initial selection. When Raymond Illingworth, then chairman of selectors and manager, the nearest thing England have had to a supremo, announced his inclusion there was general astonishment. This was followed by little acceptance and scant patience.

How Illingworth must be laughing now at those who doubted him. His tenure did not turn out auspiciously, hamstrung as it was by ultimately poor preparation, but he knew cricket and cricketers, and in White he spotted the rudiments of an accomplished one.

But the Yorkshireman who was brought up in Australia was branded. Too soft, they said, which was peculiar considering that background. The odd recalls were never accompanied by a sense of belonging in the international arena, but were always played to the strains of a career drifting towards unfulfilment.

Then came South Africa in February, and Duncan Fletcher, England's new coach, must have seen what Illingworth did all those years before. There was more to Chalky by then. He was a bowler of genuine pace - he can reach 90mph and he can give Darren Gough a run for his money - and he had mastered reverse swing.

A mysterious black-out he suffered in the summer when he was shopping near his home in Scarborough impeded his belated, sparkling progress but briefly. It also further concentrated his mind.

What has become clear since his return is that he is too soft for international cricket like Steve Redgrave was too uncommitted to the Olympic cause. A quiet demeanour, allied to the contrast of the Tyke-Oz combo, have been badly misinterpreted. Chalky believed in himself but he had trouble finding disciples.

He bears scrutiny on the pitch. The turned-up collar and the constant touching of it to ensure that it stays like that are agreeable affectations, as though he would not think of bowling with his collar down. He is not a sledger, but he will have a word and you would not want to lock horns with his stare for long.

"I've always said I can bat and throughout the year I've always said I'm capable of making Test hundreds," he said after his 93. "Now I've proved I can do that. OK, I fell a bit short...

"The last three years I've tried to concentrate on my bowling, tried to sort that out because I knew that if I was going to play for England that had to be of prime importance, a bowler-batsman rather than a batsman-bowler. While I was working on my bowling I probably neglected my batting a little bit and it showed. I'm just starting to work out now what it takes to get them both going."

For all his adherence to hard work, White is an instinctive, natural cricketer. When he was sent to the Australian Academy - he emigrated with his parents as an eight-year-old - it was as a wicketkeeper.

The innings at Gaddafi Stadium was the more proficient for its structure. When he came to the crease England were 225 for 5 and still in danger of mucking it up. White responded by immediately unveiling some aggressive sweeps and square drives. He smashed a six over cover. This was what Nasser Hussain, England's captain, must have meant when he said that he wanted his side to be hard. This was hard cricket all right.

After showing them he meant business he consoli-dated, annoyed Pakistan with his patience. He plays correctly, too, without unnecessary panache. Without being extreme, there is a touch of the Steve Waugh about him.

"I had a plan," said White. "I thought that if I hung around occupying the crease I was going to get out, so I tried to put the pressure back on them. The hardest thing is getting in on a turning pitch, and the quality of their attack means that you've got to counter-attack, then you can sit in and build a partnership."

Which is what White and Graham Thorpe did. White was the aggressor, Thorpe the accumulator. The 166 they put on was the highest sixth-wicket partnership in the 56 Tests between England and Pakistan. There is a danger of reading too much into that when England had so far failed to read almost anything into Pakistan's spin.

It was a slow, low pitch which was hard work for both bowlers and batsmen, but it favoured batsmen. White and Thorpe demonstrated, how-ever, that England had not only thought about what they must do - sides of recent vintage have done that - but were prepared to put theory into practice. It was intelligent cricket and it took the game out of Pakistan's reach.

"We have given them something to think about," said White. "They thought it was going to be pretty easy, feeling we couldn't play spin, and they'd scuttle us for 200 and then make 500. We've reversed that and given them a shock."

His disappointment at failing to make a maiden century was plain. He was 89 not out on Thursday when bad light ended play. He hardly slept, and then in the morning tried to turn Saqlain backward of square for one only to see the ball pop up to short leg.

"I was devastated. All the hard work gone. It's been my dream to get a Test hundred and to get so close to it, well... I've proved to myself that I'm capable of doing it and hopefully in the next couple of years I'll get another chance."

He will. White is 31 in December, so there are a few years left. But when we see him now we should also think of the years we have missed down at the Fantasists and Daydreamers convention.

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