Yorkshire galvanised by Clark's winning ways

An Australian coach has turned youthful potential into performance and moulded a winning unit from a group of serial losers
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The voice of Wayne Clark, the Australian coach nudging Yorkshire towards their first Championship title in 33 years, sounded like a whiplash when his fast bowling protégé Steve Kirby allowed an off-drive of middling power from John Crawley through his fingers on its way to the boundary fence. "Get hold of the damn thing," said Clark, punctuating his conversation with the Yorkshire cricket chairman, Bob Platt, in the football stand.

Clark, a 47-year-old from Perth who played 10 Tests in the Packer era, doesn't miss much, which means that there will be considerable heart-searching before the start of the second day of the Roses match here this morning.

Kirby, though, is unlikely to feel the brunt of it. At 23, the Leicestershire reject is surely a point of light in a summer of bleak under-achievement for English cricket. This just happened to be one of the less distinguished days of the slim, red-haired paceman who came into this pivotal and potentially historic game with an impressive 25 wickets in four Championship matches. Before lunch, he added two more, including the scalp of Mike Atherton, but overall he will not have invaded the imagination of the watching England coach, Duncan Fletcher.

What he continued to represent, however, was the potential of young, unheralded cricketers to prosper in the kind of competitive environment which Clark has created here.

The fact that Clark is Australian, and that in his first season Yorkshiremen are beginning to talk again, after all the years of bitter civil war, of the days of Boycott and Illingworth, Close and Trueman in that last title success in 1968, surely provides fresh momentum to the argument that more than anything English cricket needs the impact of new men and, if not new ideas, a regenerated passion for the game's most basic values.

Kirby asked for a trial at Yorkshire, took wickets in the second XI and with Yorkshire's bowling weakened by Test calls and injury, he was given his chance. Trueman, the old curmudegon, would probably have sent him packing after a brief inspection of his slender flanks. When the old Yorkshire weren't arguing about such car pool topics as whose turn it was to buy not the petrol but the oil, they were were laying down the law on immutable truths of the game. Trueman's favourite was that fast bowlers needed the rump of a shire horse. Kirby is a totally different animal but, according to the Clark dictum, he is worth more than his weight, which is just as well because in the view of one Headingley veteran, "you'd see more meat on a blackbird".

"Steve bowls fast and in the areas that put pressure on the batsmen," says the coach. "He fought for his chance and he has taken it well." Clark adds: "Players have to be mentally and physically refreshed when they approach a game. You can do nothing about the weather and nothing about the way a wicket wears. You must teach them to control the controllables."

It is a familiar refrain, at least on Australian lips. As England slip further under the shadow of Steve Waugh's superb team, the tourists increasingly express disbelief at the defeatism of their hosts. Shane Warne declares: "If England started to bowl a bit better, bat with a little more confidence, and improve their fielding, who knows they could have a chance." Normally you would take that as a withering put-down. This summer it seems more like a despairing cry for a touch of competition.

Certainly it was clear on a day of some surrealism here – large parts of the ground were uninhabitable because of preparations for the fourth Test – that Clark has guided Yorkshire to the top of the Championship table with relatively modest resources. Ray Illingworth put it a little more cruelly on the dawn of the Roses action. "They're not a bad lot," he declared, "but if we played them on uncovered wickets we'd give them an innings start."

Clark has nursed impressive performance levels from such as Kirby and the batting hope Anthony McGrath, and he is unlikely to question his resources at this point of a season of achievement which could not have been anticipated when his disaffected predecessor, Martyn Moxon, walked out of Headingley at the end of last season.

But when you remember the team of '68 you are disinclined to pick an argument with the formidable Illingworth.

Boycott and Phil Sharpe, one of the world's great slip catchers, opened, Doug Padgett, John Hampshire and Ken Taylor were obdurate and prolific in turns, and then you came to the human bastion known as Brian Close. He used to show you his bruises and giggle, and once berated an underling for failing to take a catch which had bounced violently off his shining head. Jimmy Binks was a superb wicketkeeper. Illingworth and Don Wilson were cunning and at times unplayable, Trueman was indefatigable almost to the end and the late Tony Nicholson simply despised batsmen.

Against that cast, Yorkshire were less than overwhelming yesterday as Lancashire meandered towards 300, thanks largely to an excellent knock by John Crawley, another batsman fallen by the English wayside despite a Test average of 37 plus. Darren Gough, playing only his second Championship game, claimed the wicket of a more unlikely Lancashire hero, the Italian-passport carrying Joe Scuderi, but not before he had scored 56 and only because Craig White picked his feet up sufficiently to catch him on the square-leg boundary. At the bowling crease, White can only have increased the gloom of England's Fletcher, which can only have been marginally relieved by Gough's late ransacking of the Lancashire tail. White's bowling was lifeless to a worrying degree.

It meant that Yorkshire's push for the title was somewhat becalmed; the returning luminaries had scarcely stiffened the challenge, and when Headingley became animated under the blue sky it was generally as a result of the enthusiasm of the likes of young Kirby and the spinner Richard Dawson, who cleverly accounted for Crawley.

If Yorkshire do manage to re-create their link with a glorious past, it will be an extraordinary victory for the power of a new man and a new approach. You may say that the fact that Wayne Clark is an Australian is a coincidence. But with how much conviction?