The rebirth of a White-hot talent

Stephen Brenkley meets a man who suddenly looks international class
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If you thought it was extraordinary that Craig White bowled sustained spells at 90mph in the Third Test you were not mistaken. His is some story and it shifts from white to black with abundant grey between. Craig White's life has been transformed.

If you thought it was extraordinary that Craig White bowled sustained spells at 90mph in the Third Test you were not mistaken. His is some story and it shifts from white to black with abundant grey between. Craig White's life has been transformed.

This was the fellow, you might have mused as another missile was slung down with his rapidly rotating shoulder, who was born in Yorkshire, whose family emigrated to Australia when he was seven, who went to the hallowed Australian Cricket Academy and returned to his roots to play for his native county.

Then, six years ago, four after returning, he was picked for England. It became clear after four consecutive Tests that it was probably too soon and more obvious that the captain definitely thought so. He made sporadic reappearances, was summoned belatedly to the England tour in late 1996, joined a bunch of crestfallen individuals and was ejected.

The seasons elapsed but after a belting domestic one-day summer in 1999 (523 runs, 36 wickets), White heard from what he assumed was an informed source that he was in England's winter limited-overs squad. He sat down to look at Teletext, half expecting a shoo-in. He kept looking and Whites were there none.

He was minding his own business in New Zealand, having agreed to play one-day cricket for Central Districts based in Napier. The phone went and it was Martyn Moxon, the Yorkshire coach, saying that he should be prepared to receive a call from David Graveney, the chairman of the England selectors, within a day if he was wanted to go to South Africa, again as a replacement tourist. Twenty-five hours went by and White was just about beginning to suspect that either the phone lines were down or he was unwanted when Graveney rang.

In South Africa, White seized the day, not only forcing the selectors' one-day hand but persuading them with his form and demeanour that he could play the longer game at the highest level. At the start of the season he was awarded a central contract, making him one of the most treasured cricketers in England.

But none of the above is anything to do with the surprise of White's sudden emergence as a seriously long-term prospect for the England all-rounder's position - if, that is, he can now start to gather some serious runs which have been in short first-class supply for a couple of years. The latest twist in his tale, the one that matters above all, happened a little more than two months ago.

White was out walking in Scarborough where he lives. Without warning he collapsed and blacked out. He must have stumbled because he came round 20 seconds later, yards away, groggy, with a cut chin and a twisted knee. Considering he was outside a pub, the half-dozen people gathered over him as he tried to explain through the mist that he was a cricketer who played for Yorkshire - something that every Yorkshireman claims at one time or another after being in the pub - might have told him to pull the other one. It was the start of a period which may have changed him forever. He was taken in for tests on his heart and brain. The other kinds of Test were light years away. "I thought I might have had a heart attack," he said. "It was a very strange couple of weeks. It occurred to me that I might be dying. I was certainly contemplating life without cricket. The doctors have been able to tell me what it wasn't but not what it was.

"That might leave a nagging doubt but there's no question that the whole episode has changed me. I think I'm more relaxed. I go and play and I don't care too much, I just get on with it when not too long ago I might have been uptight."

White says this not with the tub-thumping air of an evangelist or a born-again Christian but in measured, equable tones. He came back in time for England's victory in the NatWest Series, and was their leading wicket-taker. But it was in Manchester where his credentials were vividly on parade. He was perpetually menacing. He looked like a big-time international cricketer.

He reflected that the collapse had been a good thing, lending him perspective. But his bowling has been more directly aided by something much more tangible, the speedometer which clocked his pace. "It's probably the best thing that's happened to me as a bowler because while I've probably bowled as quick in spells for a few years, this shows it," he said. "And I reckon now I can do it for overs at a time after a match in Zimbabwe in the winter where I bowled nine overs on the trot and didn't slow down."

White is a pleasantly quiet man not given to over-excitement. Level-headed, he calls himself. "I've never liked those players who when things are going well start bragging and then, when they don't, get the sulks. That's not the way to be."

He was born in Morley and when he went to Victoria was subject to some pommie taunts. He never forgot that he was a Yorkshireman - his father talked of it - and there is a picture of him as a 13-year-old draped in the union flag at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. If he sounds Australian to an English ear he sounds a Tyke to an Australian one.

He came back to Yorkshire when he was 20 - as an offspinning all-rounder - and immediately made the team. Ray Illingworth first picked him for England and he was seen as the teacher's pet. The captain, Mike Atherton, hardly gave him a ball. White felt uncomfortable. The feeling was multiplied when he was called to Zimbabwe in 1997. "It was awful. I haven't got the personality to be able to have lifted them by myself and I honestly think some of them saw me as a threat."

This England is a different England. It cannot be coincidence that every player you speak to holds Duncan Fletcher, the coach, in high regard. He does not flap, he deals level-headedly with the situation. In Johannesburg one rainy afternoon he summoned White to his room and told him gently that he had a future with England both in Test and one-day cricket. It was a small thing maybe but it meant a huge amount to the player. "A great man-manager," said White.

"I'm just glad to be playing. I know now that you never know what can happen. Take it as it comes." What will be coming at Headingley on Friday is the ball at 90 mph. We shall all be watching the speedo.