D Bicknell bowled B Bunny for a koala

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The scene was straight out of a News of the World expos. Mobs of noisy young men, and the sort of women your mother wouldn't have liked, packed the disco.

Pints of lager in their hands, they clustered round the almost famous cricketer. For a sports star, the situation looked fraught with danger, but he didn't seem to care. Why, he was even encouraging the wilder ones to try their hands at traditional Aussie sports such as sheep-throwing and koala-dunking.

Upright members of the Test and County Cricket Board would have dashed a letter off to Lord's, calling for the blighter's head. (Fortunately, there were not many MCC ties in the club that night.) But Darren Bicknell, the Surrey player who scored 1,354 runs last season, with an average of 52.07, would have had the perfect riposte. He was working.

When you're a county cricketer, but not one of those favoured few on tour or contracted to a club in Australia, winter times are tough. It's small wonder that the Cricketers' Association, the players' union, adopted a militant tone this week after the TCCB rejected its call for a £20,000 minimum for capped players.

Though yesterday's cricketers claim it was easy to find work in the off season, today's employers are rarely so altruistic. If you're going to pay the mortgage, you've got to find a proper job. However good you might be at bowling leg-cutters or hitting a West Indian quickie through the covers for four, few companies find these qualities (admirable though they are), much use when it comes to selling widgets, adding columns of figures or updating a database.

Bicknell, 27, is one of the lucky ones. "Foster's, Surrey's sponsor, offered me a job as a marketing executive, even though I made it clear that I would be going back to Surrey when the season started." He admits that all he really knew how to do was play cricket. "To be honest, the first couple of months were difficult. I went in totally cold."

He was taken on to help with a huge promotion called Destination Australia. Later this year, nearly 1,000 lager-loving Brits will head DownUnder for a free two-week holiday. It's a small revenge for being whacked once more in the Ashes. One of Bicknell's jobs, quite as terrifying as facing Curtly Ambrose off his full run, was to travel with the nationwide roadshow that toured discos from Plymouth to Scotland.

"It's featured Australian-style games to attract people. I gave out prizes of Vegemite, T-shirts and Bondi Beach sand. Although the koala-dunking and sheep-throwing were played with cuddly toys, the Australian Tourist Commission and Qantas didn't really approve. They felt it gave people the wrong idea of Australia."

An arguable point, that, but Bicknell isn't complaining about his bit- part. He has a mortgage, a wife and a 16-month daughter. "It's not easy for cricketers to get any sort of a job. I've worked in a knitwear factory, as a sales rep, a cricket coach and lifeguard. At least marketing is the sexy side of business, and I'm sure what I've learned will be useful in the future."

Not all are as lucky. Adam Holioake and Mark Butcher can't wait for the end of March, when Surrey head for Perth and pre-season practice. Both have spent most of the time since the season ended twiddling their battling gloves. Butcher, 22, had hoped to spend the winter playing club cricket in Perth, but after a few weeks, he had to return because of a recurring groin injury.

At one stage, it looked as if he would need a major operation. Now the prognosis is not so gloomy. "I have been having treatment three times a week and I'm confident that I'm all right now. But the time has been going slowly. I've been wandering about, doing not a lot. I've even been doing housework while my fiance is out at work."

Another problem that cricketers face out of season is keeping fit. Bicknell has been going to a gym at 7.30am three times a week to keep the social effects of his job from telling too much.

Some of his team-mates find jobs that give them the chance to keep in condition. Bicknell's younger brother, Martin, is working as winter coach at the Ken Barrington Centre, a job that Darren did for the past two years.

Gregor Kennis is coaching at the Stewart Cricket Academy, while Alistair Brown, Graham Kersey and Jason de la Pena have been coaching in Surrey schools as part of the club's youth development programme.

"Having a serious injury is frightening," Butcher says. "You realise that you are not as invincible as you thought. The club has helped us out a bit, but it suddenly comes home to you that cricket is a precarious existence. Even Test cricketers are not doing as well as Second Division football players."

Very few have anything to fall back on, except the hope of a benefit season. Cricketers with a grown-up job as well, like Surrey's Dave Ward, who is a carpenter, and Neil Sargeant, who works in his father's building business, are rarities. But as Butcher points out: "Playing cricket is all I ever wanted to do."

So next time you see a figure in your local shopping centre dressed as Bugs Bunny, don't give him a surreptitious kick and head on your way. It could be a Test batsman.

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