Steve Kirby, Yorkshire paceman

Floored by an unlikely fast route to success
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The Independent Online

It went like this for Steve Kirby. On a wet day in January, he was sitting in the office at West Cotes Flooring in Leicestershire rueing the loss of a big client. He had known better weeks selling lino. The phone went. The caller's name was Steve Oldham and he did not want a carpet either. He was in the market for a fast bowler.

Kirby had written to Oldham several months earlier. By his own account the note went: "Dear Mr Oldham, Please, please give me a chance." The director of the Yorkshire Cricket Academy was proposing to do just that. He invited Kirby to a net the following week.

This was all Kirby had wanted to hear. For 18 months he had feared that his dream of being a professional cricketer had ended at the age of 24. He had spent five seasons at Leicestershire after being discovered in his native Lancashire. He had overcome sacroiliac instability (a chronic bad back), had remodelled his action, had learnt to bowl fast again.

Then the county released him. He spent the summer of 2000 in the Lancashire and Ribblesdale League and was encouraged enough to implore Oldham for a final chance. It started badly.

On the evening of his first net he had to travel up to Yorkshire from Surrey. The traffic was heavy. There were only 30 minutes practice time left. Two things then went Kirby's way: Oldham was sympathetic and "I floored a few people in the nets". At the start of the season, Yorkshire were impressed enough to give him some games in the second team. They were impressed enough by his 12 wickets in two matches to start talking contracts. But Kirby was back at his flooring job on 8 June when the phone went again. It was Oldham again.

What he had to say was astonishing. Could Kirby come to play for Yorkshire first XI the following day? Kirby thought it was a joke. With good reason, since Yorkshire's Championship match against Kent was in its second day.

But Oldham eventually convinced him that Matthew Hoggard, who had started the game, had been called away as a late inclusion in England's one-day squad. Special dispensation had been given for an extra man. Yorkshire's selectors, Kirby was to find out later, had not been unanimous in their choice.

He rang his boss, Karl Nicol, to ask for the time off. Nicol refused. Kirby's heart sank. Nicol said he was joking. Indeed, he was there at Headingley to watch a sensation. (The lino business probably suffered again.)

Kirby was given his first bowl on the third afternoon. There were no wickets in his first brief spell in county cricket but in his second he bowled Robert Key. The next morning, he won the match for Yorkshire. Kirby's figures were 7 for 50 from 24 overs. Two matches later it got better. He was up against his old county, Leicestershire. His match figures did the talking for him: 12 for 72.

This was the stuff dreams were made on. Kirby kept on taking wickets. He bowled with decent pace and was taking it away just enough to keep the batsman honest. He also developed a reputation for sledging. Mild-mannered to the point of diffidence off the pitch, he was a terror on it, a red-haired, beanpole terrier.

Against Lancashire he got Michael Atherton in both innings. During the course of one of these he told England's former captain: "I've seen better batters in my fish and chip shop."

"I won't stop being aggressive but I know I've got to channel it better. I did go over the top sometimes but I thought Mike was quite amused by it. I shall always treasure the memory of getting him out. Just to be bowling at him was unthinkable." By the end of the season, Kirby had taken 47 wickets at 20.85. Yorkshire were county champions for the first time in 33 years. "It meant so much to the people of Yorkshire." He was picked as part of the first intake for England's new cricket academy.

Last week he arrived home after a successful first term. He ended by taking four first- innings wickets in England's innings victory over the Australian academy.

"I've learnt so much about fitness and the need for bowlers to be able to bowl on flat pitches. For instance, I'd like to be able to bowl reverse swing. I'm never going to be the fastest in the world and I've got to learn to stop trying to think I am." Kirby must endeavour to ensure he does not suffer SSS (second season syndrome) but the chances are that the world of flooring will have to live without him.