Shaun of a new life: Warne and a Test debut at 36 change the world for county stalwart

New season will be Udal's 20th as a professional - he is as excited as he was for the first

Shaun Udal is about to begin his 20th season as a professional cricketer. The durability alone is admirable, but in none of the previous 19 has his status been so high.

"I keep having to pinch myself even now," he said as he and Hampshire put the finishing touches last week to their preparations for the 2006 summer. "If you'd told me eight months ago that I would captain my home county to victory in a big Lord's final, then play for England in a Test for the first time and then help to win a Test match and level a series by taking four wickets for 14 runs on the last afternoon, I wouldn't have believed you."

Nor would other adherents of such a multi-faceted proposition have been exactly thick on the ground. Udal's career has been less revitalised than reborn. He can talk with sense, maturity and the knowledge that people will listen, both about Hampshire's realistic prospects of landing the Championship for the first time in 33 years and the general state of the domestic game post-Ashes.

These were things that would simply not have happened. Twice during his long career, which started in 1989 after two years in the second team, there has been sufficient reason to think that by now Udal and professional cricket would have parted company. In the Nineties, after a brief period of being touted as the country's next international finger-spinner, embracing 10 one-day internationals and a Test tour of Australia, he drifted for too long.

There were four consecutive ropey seasons, two of which were downright dreadful. "I was enjoying the social side too much, cricket wasn't my No 1 priority," he said. When the phone went one morning and it was Hampshire's director of cricket, his heart sank. He thought the sack was coming. Instead, he was offered the vice-captaincy.

The responsibility brought him out of his rut, but his personal ambitions remained unfulfilled. He and Hampshire were marking time. He took soundings from a few close friends about retirement, and in essence they told him not to be so bloody daft.

There had been several key influences in Udal's career, and he speaks with fondness of Mark Nicholas and Robin Smith, both mentors and Hampshire captains. But it was unquestionably the advent of Shane Warne that changed his life so late in the playing day.

Warne was not only keen to play for the county in a way that could not have been expected from someone who had achieved so much internationally, he fuelled the enthusiasm and self-belief of others. He told Udal that Udal could bowl, and he told anybody else who cared to listen - which is everybody when Warne is speaking - that Udal could bowl.

The result has been remarkable. In two consecutive seasons, Udal has taken 39 wickets at 22 and 44 at 18, way better than his career average. He bowls the ball above the batsman's eye line now - up and down, as he calls it - instead of flatter (so the batsman has to move his head) and has lowered his arm to impart more revs. "I keep thanking Warney, he says it was always there, it just needed bringing out. But spinners can and do reach their peak in their mid-thirties."

Meanwhile, he has looked both an elder statesman and as fit and eager as anybody else in the side all at once. When Warne has not been around he has led the team with aplomb.

Warne will not arrive at the county until early May, so Udal will be in temporary charge again. He relishes it - Hampshire have not lost in 19 Championship games in the past two years while he has been in charge - but is always quick to say how much he has learned from Warne.

"It's a different game from the one I started playing in and the Championship is better now," he said. "Four-day cricket and central contracts have helped that, and while a lot of people are against, I think two overseas players has helped to compensate for the lack of England players caused by central contracts.

"I also think the good Kolpak and EU players are very much worth their place. I know we've been criticised for this, but these are good, committed players. My argument against is those who come over, take the money and run. You have to bring something to the game."

By now, Udal the doyen and sage of Hampshire and England was warming to a theme. He considers that there is too much bad-mouthing in the game and that sledging during the match is too infrequently followed by post-match chatting. (One of the Hampshire team rules for this season is that every player after the first day of a Championship match and after all one-day matches will be expected to spend at least 45 minutes in the bar afterwards.)

"I'm ashamed to say that I got involved last summer with David Hussey. I started it, and as soon as I opened my mouth I regretted it, and I've regretted it bitterly since. When he reached fifty he told me that was for me. I suppose it was an important match, but it was precisely the thing I'm against in the game. I'm always telling our younger players that - and the importance of talking to other cricketers. That's how you learn about this game."

Hampshire have an obvious Championship chance this summer after finishing second last time. Warne alone will see to that. Udal will have earned much respect for his handling of the side last summer, and he can now bring the gravitas of being a Test cricketer. He became the fourth oldest post-war debutant in Multan last November. His three ordinary Tests in Pakistan were followed by an extraordinary one in India.

Recalled to the side at Bombay after a debilitating virus, he bowled like a novice on the second day. It verged on embarrassing, and Udal knew it. "It was a heap of rubbish, I had no rhythm, I couldn't get my run-up sorted, my hands were sweaty and I just couldn't hold the ball." The wisdom of picking a 37-year-old was suddenly looking misplaced: four overs went for 27 runs. Udal apologised to Andrew Flintoff on leaving the field.

That night he worried, he rang Robin Smith and Warne. The next morning, a comforting chat with bowling coach Troy Cooley was followed by a strange epiphany. "As I walked out, my grandfather who died years ago came into my head. He was a determined sod and a tough nut, and till a few days before he died he was throwing balls at me. I don't want it to sound freaky, but as soon as that happened I was much more relaxed."

Geoffrey Udal, who played four first-class matches in the Twenties and died in 1980, would have been proud of what followed. His grandson bowled a steady defensive spell to restrict India in their first innings, hung around as a nightwatchman and then ripped out four Indian batsmen, including Sachin Tendulkar caught at short leg, to help secure a famous victory by 212 runs.

"I would probably have retired a couple of years ago if things hadn't gone my way. I didn't really believe I would play for England, I just hoped." It all started almost 20 years ago, and the really exciting part for Udal now is that it isn't finished yet.

First-class acts: Reasons to watch the county game

1 SHANE BOND (Gloucestershire)

Possibly the world's fastest bowler. Sadly, this has been a well-kept secret due to injuries since 2003. If the Kiwi former cop stays fit after a May arrival, his trademark swinging yorker will be the scourge of the land.

2 MARK RAMPRAKASH (Surrey)

After 52 Tests it seems madness to talk of an unfulfilled career. Ramps merely gets on with scoring handsomely crafted runs. More than 26,000 in all, 1,568 last summer. At 36, more to come.

3 PHIL JAQUES (Worcestershire)

Part of a lost generation of Aussie batsmen due to team's constant strength. When he made 94 on ODI debut in January he was dropped. Yet, dangerous and formidable, hewill take the pressure off Graeme Hick.

4 MOHAMMAD ASIF (Leicestershire)

Quick enough, with swing and bounce, he could become Pakistan's attack leader. Huge potential. Additional worry is he will use the early season to gain experience for the Test series.

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