Reformed Cork seeks positives from back injury

England bowler copes with disappointment of heading home from Pakistan by setting sights on return against Sri Lanka
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Dominic Cork checked out of the Hotel Pearl Continental in Lahore yesterday, heading for the airport and a British Airways flight home. His bags were lighter than when he arrived (his confidence in Pakistani cuisine was such that he took with him several packets of biscuits and a consignment of tinned tuna) but there was plenty weighing on his mind. He has never had back problems before, yet the strain he suffered more than two weeks ago, in England's match against the Patron's XI in Rawalpindi, has gradually got worse. A cortisone injection last Thursday failed to ease it, and there was clearly little chance of him contesting a place in next week's second Test in Faisalabad.

Dominic Cork checked out of the Hotel Pearl Continental in Lahore yesterday, heading for the airport and a British Airways flight home. His bags were lighter than when he arrived (his confidence in Pakistani cuisine was such that he took with him several packets of biscuits and a consignment of tinned tuna) but there was plenty weighing on his mind. He has never had back problems before, yet the strain he suffered more than two weeks ago, in England's match against the Patron's XI in Rawalpindi, has gradually got worse. A cortisone injection last Thursday failed to ease it, and there was clearly little chance of him contesting a place in next week's second Test in Faisalabad.

For a man so hyper-competitive, it had already been immensely frustrating to sit out the first Test match. So when I miraculously reached him on his mobile phone on Monday - albeit at roughly the 47th attempt - I asked how disappointed he would be to turn his inflamed back on the tour and watch the rest of the series on the telly? "Well, I want it to be a positive thing," he said. "I want to get the back properly checked out and treated to make sure that I'm fit and raring to go to Sri Lanka in January."

Cork has not always been this eager to find silver linings in clouds. If anything, he has inclined the other way, somehow finding stormy cumulus in a pure blue sky. He is not, however, the man he was. He has put a traumatic divorce behind him, remarried, mellowed, assumed the captaincy of Derbyshire, and, thanks to a wrist operation, regained the capacity to swing the ball. He is again captivating crowds with the sort of talent that once had him, inevitably yet damagingly, billed as "the new Botham". Thrillingly, he contributed, with bat as well as ball, to England's historic victory over the West Indies this summer. All of which makes it so unfortunate that this mysterious back problem has kiboshed his tour to Pakistan, the more so as he seemed so full of beans at the Heathrow Hilton, just a few hours before his departure for Islamabad.

Let us turn the clock back to that Sunday lunchtime. Tall, lean and resplendent in his England blazer, Cork cut an impressive, indeed heroic, figure. He seemed genuinely confident that England could win in their first Test series in Pakistan for 13 years. "Pakistan are a very good side, especially in their own backyard," he said. "They don't seem to have any fear. But we've got real self-belief now, too. I saw it this summer for the first time in an England side. You could see it in the body language. It used to be said that only I had that sort of body language, but this summer I saw it in people I didn't think had it." Such as? "Such as Caddick. I knew he was a dangerous bowler, but he really came out of his shell."

The men behind this transformation, Cork believes, are the England captain, Nasser Hussain, and the coach, Duncan Fletcher. "Nasser is a passionate man and that makes a big difference. After we'd won the series at The Oval he was in tears in the dressing-room, and I can't think of many captains who'd do that. Duncan is very different, always very calm. But he talks a lot about intensity, gets us to stay intense. And he gets the bowlers working in tandem. Him and Bob Cotton [the bowling coach] have been great for me. Instead of thinking 'it's my turn, I'll do it,' they've got me thinking 'hang on, me, Gough, Caddick, White, Flintoff, we're working together. My pressure might get him wickets, his pressure might get me wickets.'

"Also, Duncan pulls out the positives, even when we're not playing well. At Lord's this summer we bowled poorly in the first session, too short and wide. They were 80-odd for nought and we were really dejected. So Duncan complimented us for fielding well. It's not mollycoddling, it's helpful. Win or lose, he stays very calm, and I think you have to be like that as national coach."

This could be construed as a dig at Fletcher's predecessor, David Lloyd, who didn't really 'do' calm. But Cork insists he is finished with skirmishes off the field (although he is still not averse to a good barney on it). "Geoff Boycott, Allan Donald, David Lloyd, they've all made negative comments about me, and five years ago I might have got into a slanging match with them, but now I think the only way to prove them wrong is on the cricket field."

To fully appreciate the maturing of Cork, we need to go back, perhaps even way back, to his cricketing adolescence. "Cricket took up my whole weekend from the time I was about 10," he said. "My mum and dad were members of the local cricket club, Betley in the North Staffs and South Cheshire League, and I used to play school cricket on Saturday mornings for my school, club cricket on Saturday afternoons, under-19s cricket on Sunday mornings, and cup cricket on Sunday afternoons." His idol was Ian Botham. "He showed no fear. That's what I liked."

Cork joined Derbyshire on a youth training scheme, and presaged great deeds by taking a wicket with the third ball of his opening over in first-class cricket, against the touring New Zealanders in 1990. He almost repeated the feat in his first one-day international, against Pakistan in 1992, when Ahmir Sohail nicked the third ball of his first over to Allan Lamb at first slip. "But Lamby dropped it. He said he didn't pick it up, maybe because he had sunglasses on when it was, er, quite dark." Did Cork remonstrate? A grin and a flash of characteristic dry wit. "No, I said 'don't worry sir'."

He had every right to feel intimidated by his team-mates, not least because among them was I T Botham. "His last game for England was my first, which was great for me. To watch Botham throughout the 1980s and then play in the same side. I've got a picture of him in my study, drawn by Jack Russell. I'm still in awe of the bloke, to be honest. It tingles to think what he did."

Imagine how overwhelming it must have been for Cork when people began to talk about him as the new Botham. Even Botham said he might be the new Botham. And no wonder. For in his first Test match, at Lord's against the still-mighty West Indians, in 1995, he took 7 for 43 to become England's most successful Test debutant ever. In the third Test, at Old Trafford, he took a hat-trick, clinching it not with the wicket of some sacrificial tail-ender, a Courtney Walsh, but (with Richie Richardson and Junior Murray already despatched) of the highly capable Carl Hooper.

"I'd already got Carl Hooper out on my hat-trick ball for Derby against Kent, and I remember thinking there was no way it could happen again. It seemed to take 20 minutes for him to come out of the pavilion, and when I got to the end of my mark I thought 'just get it straight and don't bowl a no-ball'. I remember seeing the ball almost in slow motion, and thinking 'don't hit it, don't hit it'. Then I thought I was going to turn round and appeal and the umpire would say not out. But Cyril Mitchley stuck his finger in the air and I didn't know what to do. I wanted to do a lap of the ground, actually. But I just fell to my knees and thought 'Oh my God'."

It was the first hat-trick by an England bowler since 1957 (Darren Gough, of course, has since followed suit) and Cork was duly engulfed by a torrent of ferocious hype and expectation. "The press were outside my house, outside my mum and dad's house, and it was all a bit mind-boggling, to be honest. My agent, Jon Holmes, was absolutely brilliant and helped me a lot, but still I felt under extreme pressure. You're third change in your first Test, opening the bowling in your second, get a hat-trick in your third, and suddenly you're a regular in the England side. It was hard to deal with."

And by his own admission, Cork did not deal with it particularly well. Before long, his reputation for being aggressively histrionic on the pitch, and uncommunicative off it, outstripped his reputation as a cricketer of prodigious talent. In his autobiography, Allan Donald wrote: "We all thought Cork was just a big show pony who didn't like the verbals when directed at him. He was all talk and nowhere near as good a bowler as he thought ... [he] just likes to get under your skin, rather than bowl you out." This quote is not unfamiliar to Cork. "But I would back my own ability to get any batsman in the world out," he told me calmly. "Maybe Donald is jealous of the way I burst on to the scene, I don't know."

Donald was not too wide of the mark, though, when he referred to Cork's propensity for baiting opponents. Indeed, Cork is delighted to acknowledge it. "At the end of the day it's a type of war," he said. "So if a little word here and there can help you get on top, you do it. I've had some verbals with Waqar Younis, for instance. But you don't have a word with Steve Waugh because it helps him. With him, you give a little bit of praise. You say 'Great shot, Tugger' and he's thinking, 'why's he saying that?'

"With [the South African all-rounder] Brian McMillan, it was different. Him and Jonty Rhodes were batting together at Headingley two years ago, a very healthy partnership, and I knew McMillan had been in motorcycle gangs in Johannesburg. So I said to him 'Come on Brian, you're a biker, but if you're a really big man I'll bowl a bouncer and you'll hit me out of the park.' The next ball we put a man back on the hook ... he had a go ... out. It changed the whole emphasis of the game."

Cork has not always reserved his verbals for the opposition. Notoriously, in New Zealand in the winter of 1996-97, he argued with his captain, Michael Atherton, over the positioning of a fielder, finally chucking Atherton the ball, suggesting bluntly that he should bowl himself.

It is characteristic of Cork now, as opposed to Cork then, that he merely smiled when I brought this up. "Yeah, it happened, but I've been brave enough to say sorry. I was having a lot of problems on that tour. I'd recently split up from my wife, and my girlfriend's dad was dying. Also, I'm not the sort of guy who says 'how high?' if someone tells me to jump. I say 'Why?' Not to be difficult but because I want to understand. I certainly had nothing against Michael. I broke down and cried in front of Michael when I was left out of the one-dayers after the home series against Pakistan, and I would never have shown him my emotions if I didn't respect him a lot. That was in the middle, at The Oval. Even Wasim Akram came up and put his arm round me. I said, 'everything seems to be going wrong for me, Waz'."

Last night, as he made the premature journey home from Pakistan, Cork might have been forgiven further twinges of self-pity. But he has come a long way in the last few years, and I'm not talking air miles. In fact, when he puts his bad back behind him, as it were, might he yet achieve his ultimate ambition, to captain his country? "Ha, ha, ha. I don't know. I'd be that excited I don't think I could take the field." A long pause. "But you've got to have dreams."

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