Fairbrother's race against the clock

Lancashire's great one-day batsman is in pursuit of another high score at Lord's today. Derek Pringle reports
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The Independent Online
Today is Neil Harvey Fairbrother's sixth appearance in a Benson and Hedges Cup final, a record he shares with his captain, Mike Watkinson. Over the years, Lancashire has come to mean everything to Fairbrother, so despite a hat-trick of previous wins in this competition, Northamptonshire can expect little in the way of indifference from the little left-hander when hostilities begin this morning.

At 32, Fairbrother - named after his mother's favourite player, the dashing Australian Neil Harvey - is one of the great one-day batsmen. It is a tag that has followed him from the moment he made a third-ball duck in his Test debut against Pakistan in 1987, an experience made all the more edifying for being in front of a full house at Old Trafford.

"I think it's been an unfair tag," says David Lloyd, the current England coach, who until his appointment to that office worked with Fairbrother at Lancashire. "Mind you, he can be a frustrating cricketer. I've seen him play several edge-of-your-seat innings to get a hundred, only for him to smack the ball up in the air when he should have made the opposition pay with a bigger score.

"I've heard it said that he hasn't got a tight enough technique. Well he got 204 against Middlesex on a pitch that Lancashire were docked 25 points for in 1994. Not bad for a man reputed to have a poor technique, especially when the likes of Mike Gatting and Desmond Haynes struggled to get double figures."

Likewise, his 366 made against Surrey at The Oval in 1990 is a record for that ground and the third-highest score in the history of the Championship. Unfair or not, it is batting against the clock for which Fairbrother is rightly revered, and his 51 limited-over internationals outweigh his Test appearances by a ratio of five to one.

Although batting in one-day cricket is much maligned, it broadly falls into three categories: hitters like Sanath Jayasuriya; anchors like Mike Atherton and Mark Taylor; and run-a-ball men like Fairbrother, Dermot Reeve and Mark Waugh, before the latter took to opening the innings.

In fact, Fairbrother's international one-day average of 37.53 just pips Waugh's, which despite the recent advantages of opening the innings, is 37.28.

But apart from having a broad range of strokes, the main factor that sets batsman like Fairbrother and Waugh apart is the ability to absorb massive amounts of pressure. After all, these are the cool customers who come in cold and are expected to score at more than a run a ball. Not surprisingly, reputations such as theirs are not easily forged.

This is especially true during run chases, where a clear and decisive mind is as crucial as a gambler's instinct for calculating risks and speedily weighing odds. More often than not they succeed, pacing their own as well as the side's innings to perfection.

For over a decade, whenever this small but sprightly batsman has marched to the crease, opponents have tended to wilt. His career average in this competition, invariably batting when at least half the overs have gone, is an impressive 52.73 - a consistency made all the more remarkable considering it contains just a single century.

He is not invincible, however, and before the increased length of Lancashire's batting line-up, he would allow failure to gnaw away at him. It is a characteristic that forced him to resign from the Lancashire captaincy, a job he cherished and had always wanted to do.

According to Lloyd, he is a complex character who lives on his nerves. "As captain, he was so caring he wore red roses on his underpants. He became so worried about everyone else that the job began to devour him.

"In the end, he decided to keep his sanity and call it a day. Mind you, he is an enormously popular player and whenever someone puts one together, he nearly always features in the best-ever Lancashire teams."

A fellow left-hander, Graeme Fowler, believes he has never seen better hand-eye co- ordination in a batsman. His secret, when he first comes in, is to play the ball as late as possible. With most bowlers in England being right- arm medium pacers, he is a master at using the angle to deflect the ball to third man and keep the scoreboard ticking over with singles.

When he is set, he hits the ball by and large where he wants, favouring aerial routes if necessary. With the rain rule pushing England's run-rate through the roof, his brilliant 75 not out against South Africa in Melbourne during the 1992 World Cup was one of the innings of the competition, and one he believes rates along with his hundred against the West Indies at Lord's as his finest he has played.

When not playing cricket, he follows football and rugby league, and along with Atherton is a regular winter visitor to the other Old Trafford. Like most of Manchester's sportsmen, he lives in nearby Cheshire, whose verdant swathes are better suited to the family life he now leads.

However, before a life of carpet slippers becomes too tempting, he is desperate to win more honours with Lancashire, with today's final being the first of the season.

"I'm still as nervous now as when I first played," he admitted yesterday. But as both he and Lancashire know, that is no bad thing.