Ilott swings back to full potency

Derek Pringle says an entertainer can serve England well in South Africa
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FEW sports can match English cricket for relentless melodrama. Where else would a Test match summer of sublime fluctuation be so swiftly forgotten, brushed aside by yet another brouhaha over national identity? But while one young player, Andrew Symonds, takes a deep breath to agonise over his decision to tour with England A and a bankable future as a faux Englishman, another, Mark Ilott, breathes a sigh of relief, as he sets out on his first senior tour in the hope of breaking free of the A team shackles that have defined his status as a fast bowler.

To date, Ilott, now 25, has won three Test caps, all at home against Australia during the ill-fated Ashes series of 1993. With England all but vaporising under Shane Warne's alchemy, it was difficult for newcomers to get noticed. Ilott was thus afflicted and despite troubling the Australians with the swinging ball in his debut Test at Trent Bridge, a game England drew, he gently passed back into county cricket with Essex two matches later. His efforts noted, but not underlined.

Like many young pace bowlers who come tumbling into the game - their ambition stronger than their muscles - Ilott has had to remodel his action and strengthen his back, the legacy of an operation for stress fractures in 1991. He has worked hard and like Ian Bishop, whose return to the West Indies side made them a far more difficult proposition than the one Australia faced in the spring, he has not lost the potency of swing.

The ability should not be underestimated, for it brings more lbws to purveyors of left-arm over than it should - as six of his nine victims in this season's career best nine for 19 against Northamptonshire would attest. He can bowl at a fair old lick too, though he does this sparingly or when the ball fails to swing. It used to niggle him and make him prey to the mental sloppiness frustration can bring. One of his nicknames at Essex is the Headless Chook and, though this is becoming less applicable these days, his enthusiasm can still overwhelm common sense.

It still shows when he bats, though two years of carrying the Essex pace attack has forced him to mature fast and his 73 first-class wickets so far this season, at an average of 24, bear the hallmarks of class and consistency so redolent of that great Essex left-arm swing bowler J K Lever.

Ironically, for a man whose attention span was once better suited to comic-book speech bubbles, it was Ilott's lengthy and intelligent spells during an England A team tour to South Africa two winters ago that began to get him noticed again. Both Dominic Cork and Darren Gough were on that tour, but although neither matched Ilott's prowess with the ball - his 37 wickets at 14 almost matching their combined contribution of 40 wickets - he has yet to be re-selected.

Ilott is puzzled. "Everybody seemed to say that when I cut my pace down in South Africa I got wickets by swinging the ball," he said. "I didn't think that was strictly true, but when we got back from the tour, it was Goughie's extra pace they wanted against New Zealand and he took his chance. I was pleased for him because we're good mates, but I was disappointed to be overlooked as I felt I'd outbowled him on that tour."

Since then Ilott has been close to returning to higher ground, having twice made the 13 for the summer's Tests. He was in mind before the series started, Mike Atherton toying with the possibilities a left-armer's angle might bring to plans of dispatching Brian Lara, before the scorers were forced to go logarithmic.

It wasn't to be, and despite Cork and Angus Fraser being the only two constants in the bowling attack (though neither played in the first Test), Ilott is happy to bide his time a while yet, pleased to be returning to South Africa as part of the Test squad. "There are one or two fine adjustments to make, such as shortening my delivery stride, but I'm confident of continuing my current form over there.

"On the A-team trip, as well as swinging the new ball, I was occasionally able to reverse swing the older one too. Obviously, with their Test players about, standards will be better this time round. But while they have some very good batsmen like Hansie Cronje and Darryl Cullinan, there's no one there that worries you like a Lara or a Tendulkar. Their fast bowling is their real strength, so if the pitches are made to suit them, I'm hoping to benefit as well."

Hospitality aside, the new South Africa can be intimidating,with rumours that areas such as central Johannesburg are now more dangerous than Detroit. If the siege mentality that so often undermines the morale of tours to India and Pakistan should recur, Ilott the entertainer will be to the fore. He is a manic joke teller (the words rarely in synch with rapid mouth movements) and a filigree-fingered guitarist, and his duets with Wayne Morton, the new guitar-playing physiotherapist, could be the main evening attraction once the tour hits towns like Kimberley and Pietermaritzburg.

Watching England's spirited performances has given Ilott renewed desire to be part of a set-up he believes will match the South Africans for aggression. "They will be an extra handful at home, and we know we've got to produce the goods more than once or twice if we are going to beat them." To Ilott, an England cap will always be worth more than a song, even if that song is "Waltzing Matilda".