Headleyfor the heights

First steps in Test arena prove simple for a bowler in the family business while a team-mate struggles to settle; Andrew Longmore finds England's new hero maintaining a stern perspective
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The Independent Online
Dean Headley still remembers the little man with the gentle smile. He was 11 at the time, but aware enough of his own pedigree to know about his grandfather George. "He was very small, only about five feet five tall and quiet. I was a bit in awe of him because I knew what he'd done."

George Alphonso Headley died two years later, leaving CLR James to spread his reputation as the Black Bradman and his son Ron to continue dynastic tradition. Ronald George Alphonso Headley, a left-handed opening batsman, played twice for the West Indies in 1973 and his son, Dean Warren Headley (he was spared the Alphonso), made a startling debut for England at Old Trafford, the one notable success in an otherwise dismal defeat. Father, son, grandson; the feat will require a new category in Wisden.

As he drove back down the motorway, England cap safe, Headley had conflicting thoughts: personal triumph balanced by collective failure, rising confidence restrained by the knowledge that Test cricket would not always seem so easy. Too many England bowlers have made significant debuts only to fade. Headley himself has proved more than once that he can flatter to deceive.

His first ball in the County Championship, for Middlesex in 1991, took a wicket; his first day brought a total of five. His first eight games for England A produced six five-wicket hauls; his first Test the wicket of the Australian captain in his third over and seven more besides. "If my cricket carried on like my debuts, it wouldn't be too bad." It has not always done so. Headley is 27 and in search of lost time.

A niggling side strain kept him out of Kent's attack against Leicestershire in the County Championship last week. Provided he comes through the Sunday League game today, he will join his England team-mates for another bout of team-building. His fitness will be watched with interest by Matthew Elliott and Mark Taylor, who - along with the unfortunate Michael Bevan - were surprised by Headley's ability to whip the ball sharply across the face of the left-hander.

The England selectors will hold their breath too. From being a fringe member of the international squad, Headley has become critical to England's calculations for the Fourth Test at Headingley on Thursday. At Old Trafford, the debutant was unexpectedly handed the new ball on the opening morning and so comfortably outperformed his more experienced seam-bowling colleagues, the only question on Saturday night was why he had been ignored by the Test selectors for so long. Headley carried the attack, making the breakthrough in the first innings and hauling England back into contention briefly in the second.

It was a bravura performance, as impressive a Test debut in its way as that of Dominic Cork against the West Indies two years before. Like Headley, Cork took eight wickets in the match, but a match-winning 7 for 43 ensured bigger headlines. A bigger head too. Headley's wickets were evenly spread in a losing cause.

"I was more pleased with my bowling in the second innings when the wicket wasn't doing so much," he said. But, standing at the end of his run, ready to bowl the first ball of the match, his first in Test cricket, what was running through his head? "Try to get the ball up there and bowl lines. You shouldn't try to change your bowling just because it's Test cricket. I'd decided to stick with what I knew." And that first wicket? "Second, third over, I think, couldn't tell you, to be honest. That settled me down. Taylor. Good catch by Thorpe. Won't forget that."

The tone is quiet and mildly Midlands. Headley is nicknamed Frog by his Kent team-mates, something to do with a joke about a wide-mouthed frog. They think he talks too much anyway, which will not surprise some at Middlesex where Headley learnt his early cricket. The parting of the ways, in 1992, reflected a difference of opinion. Headley thought he was worth more than Middlesex did. Kent stepped in to pick up the pieces.

Headley puts his transformation from promising county fast bowler to England international down to Darryl Foster, Kent's Australian former coach, to his own growing maturity and to the natural stepping stone offered by the England A team. In Pakistan and Australia, Headley was the leading wicket-taker, but his progress was delayed by a series of injuries, first to his hip and, earlier this season, to his back.

A well-publicised spat with the England captain over his inability to bowl an outswinger, conducted in newspaper columns across the Southern Ocean last winter, did not help. Headley refuses to comment, bar saying that an innocent remark was blown out of proportion. The criticism has substance, though Imran Khan never had much of an outswinger. Headley slants the ball into the right-hander and relies on one or two to straighten off the pitch, a method of attack which has worked efficiently enough round the counties for the past two years. Now Australia will be better prepared.

"The hardest part of Test cricket is in the mind," he said. "You have to bowl fewer bad balls, make the batsman play more, just be more consistent. You cannot afford a bad spell. I'm under no illusions that it's going to be like this all the time."