Irani committed to the work ethic

ENGLAND A TOUR: Young Essex man puts his back into his future as next crop of Test cricketers set sail; The latest all-rounder to catch the selectors' eye has been busy since the season ended. David Llewellyn reports
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Ronnie Irani is engagingly hesitant about his ancestry. "My father's ancestors were originally from Persia," he said, breaking off from a session in the indoor cricket school at Chelmsford as he prepared for the forthcoming England A tour to Pakistan and India. "Parsees. The Iranis are Zorastrians... I think. My father was brought up in Bombay. That's about it, really."

He gives an embarrassed laugh before continuing: "My mother is from Bolton." Now he is on surer ground. "My father came over here to play League cricket, met my mother and stayed here. He played for Atherton cricket club. I am born and bred English."

Where Irani is on absolutely firm ground is when he talks about what his aim is: to play Test cricket for England. To that end he left his native Lancashire two years ago to try to make it with Essex. "We had a strong squad, with lots of all-rounders in my last year - Wasim Akram, Mike Watkinson, Phillip DeFreitas was still there, Ian Austin, of course, and Jason Gallian was just about to break through. I wanted to push myself as an all-rounder, not play as a batsman. I wanted to improve my bowling, but I wasn't getting the opportunity."

He played a handful of first-class games for Lancashire in his five years on their books before deciding to move. He had an Essex contact, Graham Saville, who was also the England Under-19 manager. Hearing of Irani's unhappiness, he suggested that the youngster pack up and head east. "Essex was the type of county I wanted to play for," Irani said. "A county that looked to win."

He was picked for the opening Championship match in his first season, 1994, hit an unbeaten half-century in the second match and has become a fixture at No 6 since. That first season he scored more than 900 runs, last summer he passed 1,000 in the Championship for the first time.

Irani has taken more than 50 wickets for Essex in those two seasons, but his bowling still needs more work, which was why he was at the indoor school in Chelmsford on a muggy autumn morning. Working with two coaches, a video camera and some soft chalk, he sends down a stream of deliveries before retiring to an office to study, frame by frame, each of those deliveries.

"I'm getting inside the line, there," Irani says at one point, then: "My head is falling away there." A few frames and another delivery later: "But I've kept it straight there."

Irani takes his cricket seriously. He wants to succeed. He could just as easily have been putting his feet up after a long hard summer and only stirring himself into belated action when the England A management told him to.

But that is not Irani's style. He celebrates his 24th birthday today as he flies out to Pakistan, and for someone so young displays a senior's sense of responsibility in his preparations.

"It's boring stuff, really, what I am doing today," he explains, "but I want to get better and this is what I have to do - and it's no good me running up against problems with my bowling once we are out there, they have to be sorted out now.

"England A is important to me. It is a stepping-stone to greater things. Hopefully, there will be the chance of England honours coming up soon. I just have to wait to see what happens."

Except that sitting around and waiting for something to happen is just not Irani. That is why he left Old Trafford. "I don't think I would have been called up to England A if I had still been with Lancashire. I think I would probably have just been breaking in to the first XI. I might even have been a second teamer still. That's what I was with them two years ago. Plenty of ambition but nowhere to go. I might have gone stale and chucked it all in."

Had he done that, though, he would not have had a mention on television. "A little while ago, I heard the likes of Ian Botham and Bob Willis saying: 'Irani should go to South Africa'. It made me realise that I must be good enough, to be in consideration for a tour place.

"I didn't ever actually think I would get picked for the senior tour, but the A tour suddenly seemed a possibility. I'll be working hard out there. If it doesn't go my way..." he trails off into a verbal shrug.

There is a lot at stake, notably a place in England's World Cup squad. Irani could easily hit his way into the line-up. He is an awesome striker of the ball as a 47-ball century in the Sunday League match against Gloucestershire last July proved - but he also ended up with 24 wickets in the 40-over competition. He has much to offer.

"The further you get in this game, the harder you have to work to stay there," he says. "I am going on this tour to learn. I am going out there to improve my cricket and I will be going out there with pride.

"It's going to be exciting. Hopefully we will come out winners, that's the main thing." He may be a touch hazy about his past, but there is certainly no doubt that he is putting his back into his future.