Watkinson in the slow lane to the top

Mike Carey on a late developer who is coming into his own with a vengeance
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The Independent Online
Although he would be the last person to make much of it, Mike Watkinson appreciates his good fortune in being picked for - and then left out of - the macabre Edgbaston Test. He was around long enough to absorb the atmosphere surrounding the England team and to pick up the dressing room vibes, but his omission spared him the grimmest of baptisms on that grotesquely inadequate pitch.

Instead, he was able to walk out three weeks later on home territory at Old Trafford, reassured that thousands of fellow Lancastrians were urging him on and, even more importantly, knowing that he would be bowling his mediumish off-spin on the type of pitch that groundsman Peter Marron had been preparing all season and one that he would enjoy.

Result: a memorable England victory, runs and wickets for Watkinson and a performance that owed much not only to the mental and physical toughness of Graham Thorpe and Robin Smith but a great deal to the sheer exuberance and pride of Watkinson, Nick Knight and another relative newcomer, Dominic Cork.

If this is what it takes to create a new-look England, then give us more. Not everyone in recent years has looked as delighted as Watkinson and the others to be playing Test cricket and some of them are now occupying high-profile media positions and telling us how the game should be played.

Put that point to the Lancashire captain and he looks slightly pained. He cannot imagine anyone not relishing every moment of Test cricket and its varying challenges. For him they include, among other things, wondering how to bowl at Brian Lara ("should I simply try to achieve a few dots or have I got the nerve to attack him?") and at his age - he was 34 last week - it is something he had not dared to contemplate at the start of the season.

Maybe he should not have been too surprised. Things have tended to happen late rather than early in his cricketing life. At 21, an age when many an uncapped (and sometimes untalented) youngster is arguing over the colour of his second sponsored car, he was still playing as a professional in the Bolton Cricket Association.

Lancashire were aware of him, a 6ft 1in seam bowler who could also strike the ball cleanly and vast distances. But they knew and he knew that he was some way from maturity and he was happy to carry on learning his trade by bowling 25 overs every Saturday afternoon and working out how to winkle out batsmen.

A season of Minor Counties cricket with Cheshire helped the learning process, then Lancashire gave him the occasional game as an amateur. He first appeared in 1982, bowling seam up and batting at No 10, but it was the decision to add slow bowling to his repertoire, made in 1986 after lengthy discussions with Jack Bond, the team manager, and Peter Lever, the coach, that was to change his life.

He had two built-in advantages, long, concert pianist's fingers which enabled him to give the ball a genuine grip and his height, which enabled him to make it bounce. The rest was up to him. He worked hard at maintaining a good off-stump line, talked to any other slow bowlers up and down the country who would give him the time of day and developed the art of bowling round the wicket which was something that even a craftsman like Lance Gibbs never quite mastered.

Nowadays the quicker stuff is mostly confined to one-day games and, with an astonishment he does not attempt to conceal, Watkinson finds himself bearing the mantle of Jim Laker, Fred Titmus, David Allen and all those other high class off-spinners at a time when, deep down, he appreciates more than anyone that he is still learning.

For all that, David Lloyd, the current Lancashire coach, regards him as the best in the country. "Because he started life as a seam bowler, like Eddie Hemmings and one or two others, he tends to get more body into his action which can only be a good thing," Lloyd says.

"He is a late developer and he'll get better and better as an off-spinner. He's learned how to bowl a good line depending on conditions and when everything is right he bowls at a pace which makes him hard to attack, like bowlers like Derek Underwood and Don Shepherd. He is a bit of a dry bugger, doesn't say a lot, just gets on with it but he's always willing to listen and learn."

For Watkinson the learning process should continue this week at Trent Bridge, a ground where England have never beaten the West Indies. It would make sense, therefore, for Ron Allsop, the master craftsman groundsman there, to produce a pitch similar to Old Trafford - dry, even mainly grassless, turning sooner rather than later - and with it an opportunity for Watkinson to cement his place in the side.

Wisely, Watkinson makes no predictions for this Test but says: "At Manchester the conditions were perfect. The ball turned and in all honesty we wouldn't have minded it turning a bit earlier in the match. Something similar at Nottingham will do us and if it happens we'll be content to let the West Indies pick the bones out of it."

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