Spin doctor Strang grows in stature

DEREK PRINGLE Cricket Correspondent; Leg work paid off for Kent's modest all-rounder, he tells Adam Szreter
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For anyone watching Paul Strang bowl for Kent at Lord's this afternoon and wondering why England have not found a leg-spinner they can rely on, the answer is simple: old police-height regulations for new recruits.

Strang was born in Bulawayo 27 years ago this month, but his father was born in Somerset and brought up in Dartmouth. Now a businessman, in those days Strang Snr only wanted to be a policeman.

"He couldn't make the police here because he was an inch too short," his son explained. "Over there the height restrictions weren't so bad. He was about 17 or 18 when he emigrated to Rhodesia, as it was then."

Fortunately the British police saw the error of their heightist ways in 1991, which was completely irrelevant to Ian Salisbury's becoming, the following year, the first leg-spinner to play for England since Robin Hobbs in 1971. Salisbury was playing for Sussex then but today, if selected, he will be opposing Strang in the Surrey team.

Strang Jnr first played cricket in England in 1989, for Aston Manor in the Birmingham League. In the same year he captained the Zimbabwe Under-19 side in New Zealand, but international cricket was put on hold when he went to university in Cape Town. He emerged three years later with a social sciences degree and moved into marketing, but breaking into the Zimbabwe side was not so easy.

"Things had changed a lot while I was at university," he explained earlier this week in a break from training at the St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury, the town where he has made his temporary home. "We'd become a Test side, so guys had their foot in the door two or three years before I did."

He finally made his debut in 1994, and came to England's attention with four wickets in a famous victory for Zimbabwe in the World Series Cup the same year. He struggled early on in Test cricket - "I bowled reasonably well but my average was about 90 for 10 wickets, which was ridiculous. Then after the World Cup I came into my own. I suppose the pitches helped me over there, I started maturing maybe, and doors started opening for me."

The first door he went through was the one marked "Exit" at work and he became one of only a handful of full-time professional cricketers in Zimbabwe, a move which has more than paid off. "I think in the last year I've got about 30 Test wickets at 25, which is what I'd like."

He was the leading wicket-taker in the two-Test series with England, and he is a good enough batsman to have made a Test century in Pakistan. He is also, as you have probably guessed by now, a brilliant fielder and general all-round good egg. At least that is the view of John Wright, the former New Zealand batsman who is now Strang's coach at Kent.

"He's been a very good signing for us," Wright said. "As a bowler he offers us great variety and adds balance to our side. Sometimes it may be only two or three wickets, but they're key wickets, or it's 40 or 50 runs. I think he views it as a great opportunity to be playing county cricket, he enjoys it and he's fitted in as though he's been here for the last five or six years."

So how, and why, did Strang become a leg-spinner? After all, his brother Bryan, who also plays for Zimbabwe, is a seamer. "When I was about eight or nine my father took me to a coaching course held by Peter Kirsten [the former South African Test player]. I vividly remember him showing us, `this is off-spin' - he was doing it underarm - and `this is leg-spin', and I started bowling it in the nets at my junior school.

"I read every book I could find on leg-spinning - Richie Benaud's books and all that sort of stuff - and taught myself how to bowl the googly from the diagrams. Then I came on a schools tour to England in '88 and saw Abdul Qadir. It was the first time I ever saw another leg-spinner, and then I knew I had a long way to go."

By now Strang has earned the right to associate membership, at least, of a highly exclusive international leg-spinning club. "They've all been very helpful," he says, "but there's not much we can teach each other.

"It's like driving a car: they just drive the car a bit better than I do. Shane Warne's been great, Mushy's [Mushtaq Ahmed] been very good, [Anil] Kumble, unfortunately, I haven't had much of a chance to talk to."

Full membership is not far away, and when it comes Strang will probably have added the flipper - the ball that shoots straight through - to his repertoire. "It's something I've been working on for two or three years," he says. "It took me two or three years to learn a googly and Warney told me it took him two years before he bowled his flipper very well, and he loses it quite regularly."

Strang played at Lord's for the first time less than three weeks ago, when Kent lost to Middlesex in the NatWest Trophy. Today, the atmosphere should be different. "It's good to be part of a team that's going to Lord's for a final," he says, "and I just see myself as another member of that team.

"There's a tendency for some teams to rely a lot on their overseas players, but fortunately here at Kent I'm just another guy. I bowl a bit of leg- spin, score some runs and stop the odd ball in the field. They're a nice bunch and, obviously, it'll mean a lot to me if we can actually take some silverware home with us."