Illingworth's slow burn turns up heat

As England prepare for the Second Test their revitalised spinner is ready to coax wickets from an unresponsive pitch
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The Independent Online
ANYONE jetting in to watch this Test series would struggle to be convinced that South Africa has embraced Test cricket quite as emphatically as the one-day thrash. Not only have the early skirmishes been organised during the rainy season, but the Second Test, which begins on Thursday at the Wanderers in Johannesburg, coincides with golf's Million Dollar Challenge at Sun City, a traditionally powerful social magnet and just a few hours away by car.

This is not the only evidence that South Africa are not quite there where Tests are concerned. Although there is an overwhelming variety of life here it does not extend to the home side's bowling attack, and if the subsidence of last week's biblical floods has driven home one thing, it is that the only animals guaranteed not to march off the Ark two by two would be South African spinners.

The home team are still looking for a spin bowler capable of taking Test wickets. Having overlooked Paul Adams on account of his being only partially educated (in a cricketing sense) the selectors have again plumped for Clive Eksteen, an orthodox left-arm spinner from Transvaal, who last week was damned by Peter Pollock, South Africa's convener of selectors, with the faint praise of "having held up an end for us in the past".

Holding an end up as a stock bowler is not the kind of role Raymond Illingworth would expect of his spinners, though it has definitely become a staple for those less able than Shane Warne and Anil Kumble to get the most out of unresponsive Test pitches. It is a state of affairs which Richard Illingworth, with the renewed pragmatism of one whose Test career has just been restarted like a rusty two-stroke, is fully prepared for.

"If we go into the Test match with three pace bowlers," said England's first-choice spinner in Bloemfontein last week, "I can see myself getting through quite a few overs, especially in this heat. Although you'd like to be attacking, you've got to think about conserving runs too. Mind you, if you're bowling well the two often go hand in hand."

Considering there was a time when just about everyone outside Worcestershire saw Illingworth solely as a one-day specialist whose line in left-arm darts varied about as much as the products off a Japanese conveyor belt, his place as England's first-choice spinner has been quietly but firmly cemented. In the increasingly garish and noisy world of sport, it has been a triumph of quiet persuasion.

Moreover, as Illingworth, now 32, is happy to admit, the makeover could not have been completed without the odd technical tweak. "It's annoyed me being pigeon-holed as a one-day bowler," he says with the characteristic aggression that is a remnant of his time as a fast and nasty schoolboy bowler in Bradford. "So I began to watch other spinners more closely. I remember noticing how slowly Shane Warne ran into bowl and thinking, there might be something in this. So I slowed my approach down and decided to give the ball a lot more air. If a ball is delivered slower it's got more chance of turning."

This alteration has also allowed Illingworth to bowl with his back foot parallel to the crease, a change the England chairman, Raymond Illingworth, suggested he try a few seasons ago. Apart from full credit being taken by the chairman, the move has allowed Illingworth the bowler to get more body into his action and subsequently more revolutions on the ball.

"It helps when you've got someone like Raymond who likes to talk about cricket all the time. He's approachable in ways I never felt with chairmen like Ted Dexter, and he is always willing to pass on his experience. So far he's been happy with my bowling, but if the clockwork starts faltering, I'm sure he'll be putting in the advice."

Happily the tinkering has proved worthwhile and although Illingworth claims he was "quite shocked" after being selected to play at Headingley against the West Indies last June, he feels he is bowling as well as he's ever done. "I thought I might not get a look in, especially as both A team spinners [Richard Stemp and Min Patel] had decent tours of India. But I think I've made people realise that I'm a changed bowler and that there's still some life in the old dog yet."

A threat exists, however, and Illingworth's presence in Thursday's Test team is by no means guaranteed, depending as it does on how much life there is in the pitch. When Illingworth spent the 1989-90 winter here, playing for Natal, the Wanderers groundsman was notorious for producing "green snakepits" for the Transvaal seamers. These days it is known for its inconsistent bounce and last year, Matthew Hart, New Zealand's left- arm spinner, took eight wickets against South Africa on a dry pitch, conditions unlikely to be reproduced after the recent rain.

England, it seems, are keeping their options open. The batting line-up is unlikely to change,despite Ramprakash's place coming under pressure from John Crawley. However, by resting Darren Gough and Angus Fraser from the three-day match, Ray Illingworth was clearly hoping to see which one of Malcolm, Ilott and Martin might form the fourth prong to England's seam attack should the conditions warrant such a selection.

Illingworth the finger spinner is under no illusions, despite the chairman's stated desire to play at least one spinner. "You've got to be open-minded about these things," he said. "If the situation arises, and I can see it happening, I'm sure they won't hesitate to play four seamers."

For a man who has had to be patient for his chance at Test level, there is no hint of disappointment in his voice, something he puts down to the good team atmosphere there has been so far on this tour and the responsibility he now feels because he is an older member of the side. "This team is younger than the other England sides that I have played with, so you feel you've got to be stronger and to know exactly which direction you are going in.

"I've just read a book called The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield, which is all about coincidences and how they are really meant to happen. It's had quite an effect. As I see it, I'll be getting a game on Thursday only if I'm meant to. It's as simple as that."

Possible England XII: Atherton, Stewart, Ramprakash, Thorpe, Hick, Smith, Russell, Cork, Gough, Fraser, Illingworth, Ilott.