Eternal youth takes its turn

Close Up: Mike Watkinson; At 34, Lancashire's captain is preparing for his first England tour. Derek Pringle analyses an old-style professional
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UNLIKE the swallows that also head south at this time of year, relative newcomers to England's touring parties have usually beenfledglings rather than wise old birds; cricketers with youth and spark, rather than tough minds and weary bodies. But as Joey Benjamin proved last year at the ripe old age of 33, getting on tour was not difficult; it was getting a game that was the problem.

It is a dilemma that Mike Watkinson, England's latest "late developer" is fully aware of. Most tours, and South Africa, where the party arrives on Thursday, is likely to prove no exception, are notorious for the "lost" players whose early form leads to their being all but forgotten. But if slow recognition has made Watkinson impatient, he does not show it and he is typically phlegmatic when he admits he will just "try and get the best out the role given me in the filler games, in a bid to play in the Tests".

At 34, the selection of England's latest off-spinner would seem to contradict the selectors' youth policy. But Watkinson came late to spin so he has been able to combine the cool head of experience with the excitement and energy of one fascinated and regenerated by the possibilities of his new art.

The change has been both beneficial and rejuvenating. "Ever since I started at Lancashire, I've always bowled a few offies in the nets," Watkinson explained following his most recent weekly session with the county's coach, David Lloyd. "But apart from 1986 when the club wanted me to concentrate solely on spin [something that didn't work out with the balance of the side] it's only been in the past couple of years that I've bowled them more or less exclusively in Championship cricket."

The sudden arrival of such a fully formed player has come as no surprise to many. There has always been a cricketer of substance present, albeit one whose no-nonsense and selfless approach have rarely attracted rave notices outside the shire of the red rose. But if it's never too late for a date with fate, switching disciplines has certainly enabled Watkinson to fit more easily into the Raymond Illingworth jigsaw, based as it is around bowlers for whom a bat is more than something to take guard with.

"He's an old time pro," Lloyd explained. "He takes a lot of pride in his preparation and performance and in doing an honest day's work. His main asset as a bowler now is that by being tall and getting a lot of body into his action, he gets bounce and spin and bowls wicket-taking deliveries, even on pitches that aren't taking much turn. He's a dangerous batter as well, particularly coming in at No 8. It is not pretty, but if it's in his slot, he'll lose it."

Watkinson's route into the county game, though not simple, was typical for a Lancashire lad brought up in Bolton. His school, Rivington and Blackrod High in Horwich, played cricket so infrequently that he joined Westhoughton, a club in the Bolton League, before moving to British Aerospace to appear as their professional player.

The move took care of his summer weekends and gave him an outlet for his burgeoning abilities with bat and ball, while his weekdays were taken up working as a draughtsman for a local structural engineering firm. His relationship with the firm survives still and his old boss is to be chairman of Watkinson's benefit fund next year.

Difficult though it is to envisage in these days of watertight registrations and contracts, Watkinson played his first game for Lancashire in 1982 as a part-timer. Jack Bond, then team manager, gave him his chance after spotting him in the leagues, where he had won the professional's prize the season before.

Watkinson has earned everything that he has achieved in the game and unlike many county professionals he takes nothing for granted. When he made his Test debut last summer, he formally introduced himself to Robin Smith, asking the surprised Hampshire batsman if he had anything against him, the pair having never spoken since first playing against each other over a decade earlier. For once even the normally forward Smith seemed completely flummoxed, though both now consort over pints of lager as old friends.

Always immaculately turned out on and off the pitch, Watkinson's appearance often belies the witheringly dry wit redolent of his Bolton upbringing. Once, when interviewed following Lancashire's triumph over Worcestershire in the 1990 Benson and Hedges Cup final, he was asked as man of the match what it felt like to have brought home the bacon. "Bacon!" he replied. "We've got the whole bloody pig."

But while such one-day triumphs are always pleasing, it is the Championship, last won outright in 1934, that all of Lancashire craves. With the obsession mounting, Watkinson suddenly found himself captain following Neil Fairbrother's resignation at the end of 1993. Results have improved since, and although Watkinson allows David Lloyd to do most of the hyping and griping in the dressing-room, he is a respected and commanding figure on the field.

"He's a quiet bloke," Lloyd said of his captain, "but when he says 'owt, you tend to listen." Even Mike Atherton has been known to seek his counsel, and one of the more amusing moments of the last Test series came during Watkinson's debut, when in front of a packed Old Trafford he briefly forgot himself and promptly took charge of the team, resetting the field Atherton had given him.

Such forthright attitudes have led to both Lancashire's stock and his own rising. Last season, the club finished fourth, having already lifted the Benson and Hedges Cup earlier in the summer. However, despite two good Test matches against the West Indies (in common with the rest of the team, he came unstuck at the Oval), where five wickets on his debut and his match-saving 82 at Trent Bridge were crucial, his chief stumbling block may be the role Atherton has in mind for his spinners in South Africa.

If England look to defend, a questionable tactic against the dour South African top order, there is a danger that the Lancashire captain could be edged out. But both Watkinson and his mentor, David Lloyd, believe the pace and bounce of the early Test pitches will be reminiscent of the Old Trafford pitch a few years ago, the crucible in which his new-found success as a spinner first took shape.

"I'm a firm believer that you don't pick a bowler to contain," Lloyd reckoned. "Winker's a clever bloke who won't get overawed and is adaptable to most situations. Athers won't have to worry about him, he travels well. If they don't pick him early on they'll miss out. He's a very dangerous player."

Old-timers as first-timers on tour

Septimus Kinneir (Australia, 1911-12, aged 40). Earned selection after scoring century for the Players near end of previous season. Played in First Test at Sydney but never again.

Rockley Wilson (Australia 1920-21, 41). Raconteur schoolmaster at Winchester. Played in final Test of his only tour when Australia wrapped up the series 5-0. Not called on again.

William "Dodger" Whysall (Australia 1924-25, 37). Prolific opening batsman for Nottinghamshire, but competing with Hobbs and Sutcliffe for England place. Played three Tests on the trip. Died of blood poisoning at 43 after fall on dance floor.

Percy Holmes (South Africa 1927-28, 41). Sutcliffe's opening partner at Yorkshire, he had played one home Test in 1921. Appeared in all five Tests on tour, and then once more in 1932 before retiring the following year.

Basil D'Oliveira (West Indies 1967-68, 36). Emigrated from South Africa in 1960, played for England in four Tests of 1966 home series. Played 44 Tests, averaging 40, and caused a hullaballoo the last time England were meant to tour South Africa in 1968-69.

Tony Lewis (India and Pakistan 1972-73, 34). Had rare honour of being captain in his first series. Made an unbeaten 70 as England won first Test by six wickets but they went on to lose series 2-1.

Robin Jackman (West Indies 1980-81, 35). Surrey bowler's South African connections caused cancellation of the Guyanan Test. He eventually played two Tests in that series and two more at home in 1982.