MAIN ATTRACTIONS OF '96 : Fairbrother's one-day wonderland

Cricket World Cup: Lancashire batsman joins the touring party to prepare for a job he was made for
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The Independent Online
AN enduring image of the last Cricket World Cup final is of Neil Fairbrother limping forlornly off the pitch under the Melbourne floodlights. With his despairing, flailing top edge into the Pakistani wicketkeeper's hands, English hopes had disappeared.

"It stays with you a bit when you get so close in that sort of match," said Fairbrother last week. "I'd love to get another chance to go just one stage further and win it. We have the players and the spirit there to do it."

For 90 minutes at the MCG four years ago, Fairbrother, in his scurrying, urgent manner, ensured that England stayed in touch with a demanding run rate. He and Allan Lamb put on 72 in 14 overs and the target of 249 hove into view. It recededabruptly. Wasim Akram removed Lamb and Chris Lewis in successive balls with venomously late swinging deliveries - perhaps the most abiding memory of all - and Fairbrother pulled a hamstring. He batted on in pain, and with a runner, for a few overs but on 62, the top score for England, he made his terminal lunge. The hamstring has troubled him ever since.

The Lancashire batsman joined the England party in South Africa last week as one of four limited-overs specialists put on stand-by for the 1996 World Cup in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. With the recent addition of Phillip DeFreitas to that number and the arrival of Jason Gallian into the main touring party, a total of 22 players may be competing for the 14 squad places in the tournament.

The necessary culling will be carried out during the seven one-day internationals which England will play against South Africa by way of warm-up between 9 and 21 January. Fairbrother is unlikely to be discarded, for he has developed a reputation as the one-day player par excellence, a rapid, dominating batsman capable of inspired improvisation and a fielder of similar attributes.

He was barely considered for the Test series against the West Indies last summer yet he was an automatic inclusion in the squad for the one- day rubber which preceded it. His last innings for England at the Oval was entirely characteristic: an unbeaten 61 from 52 balls, a mixture of delicate nudges, scampered singles and rumbustious drives.

"Unfortunately, there's got to be something in the perception of me as purely a one-day player at international level," he said after a stringent test in Port Elizabeth confirmed he had maintained his fitness since the end of the English season and was ready not only for the topcricket ahead but the long- distance travelling during February and March. "If I could put my finger on what the difference was I'd do something about it. When people ask me I just don't know, but the figures are there."

They read that in 15 Test innings he has scored 219 runs at an average of 15.64 and that in 44 one-day international innings he has accumulated 1,226 at 39.44. Fairbrother the one-day batsman neither needs nor wants time to settle at the crease. His way of dealing with the pressure is to put the bowlers under pressure constantly. "If the ball is there to be hit then I just hit it," he said. "It doesn't seem to have happened quite like that in Tests. I'd like to redress the balance but I'm happy to be involved at any level.

"It's going to be hard after three months away from the game. I've been a bit rusty in the nets but I feel very fresh, I'm up for it."