DOMINIC CORK, who is 24 tomorrow, is letting his bowling do the talking at last. As a young man, he may have been admired for his vigorous talent but his energetic sledging was not much liked. At Essex, for instance, they remember that he was always trying to get under the batsman's skin but that he was dismissed as a bit of a showman. This season, Cork is different.
Warwickshire players noticed that he was quieter during their first game of the season against the England A team that toured India last winter. That side had been coached by Phil Neale and by John Emburey and each of them identifies the same significant change in Cork's cricket this season: his bowling is more consistent.
"He's maturing, on and off the field," Neale said. "He's channelling his aggression into his bowling," Emburey added. What has happened is that Cork is bowling a bit faster, straighter and - mostly - to a better length. Keith Brown, the Middlesex wicketkeeper, does not know any English bowler who runs in with such conviction. The difference must be attributed to confidence; Dominic Cork has grown up. England reaped the benefit in the last Test and will hope to again when the Fifth Test begins on Thursday.
His family and his Derbyshire colleagues believe that being married has contributed to his blossoming. He was only 22, young for his generation when he married Jane, and their son was born last September. Cork comes from a close-knit family, and he responds to the stability family life provides.
But cricketers think that the tour of India had a critical impact too. Before it, Cork was celebrated for his Big Occasionness. (He had scored a memorable 92 not out against Lancashire to win the 1993 Benson and Hedges Cup final.) He was in danger of being categorised as a one-day specialist - indeed, he had been capped in five one-day internationals, though without leaving a strong mark on any of them.
Cork himself was sure he should not have been in India at all. He had been told that he was the replacement all-rounder in case of injury in Australia. But, despite an epidemic of it, Chris Lewis was recalled to play for England and Cork began to nurture feelings of injustice. "We had to get him to focus; telling him to play well in India or he might not get picked at all," Neale said.
This was not the first time Cork had to wait impatiently. Good coaches have been defining his ferocious energy ever since he was a teenager.
The Corks are a Catholic family, from the West Country originally, although Gerald Cork became a financial consultant in Newcastle- under-Lyme in Staffordshire. He played cricket in the local league and umpired children's matches on weekdays. His wife, Mary, made the tea and cleaned the kit, and, as they grew up, the children took their place, one after the other, in the delightful rural village team at Betley. Dominic was the third of three boys.
Ask Gerald Cork where Dominic's energy comes from, and he is at a loss: "It was there right from the moment of his birth," he said. But he is in no doubt about the origin of Dominic's fiercely competitive nature: "He was conscious that his two brothers were older than him and he competed with them instinctively. Sometimes it caused frustrations, but he always competed to win."
The family was playing cricket on holiday in Dumfriesshire when a passer- by noticed Dominic's action: very straight arm, nice run-up. The stranger asked Gerald if he had thought about county cricket for the boy - as a Yorkshire committee man, he considered himself a sound judge. Gerald thought Dominic was still a bit young. He was 10.
But he already had an instinct for the game, mimicking players he had watched intently on TV. ("Watch my Willis, Dad.") He was small as a boy, growing fast when he was 16, becoming lanky and ungainly. He ended up 6ft 2in. From his father, he inherited unusually long arms.
The ambition to play professional cricket was self-propelled. He came home from school and announced that he had asked Warwickshire for a trial. Alan Oakman, their coach, was the first to spot Dominic Cork, offering him coaching in the nets, but Derbyshire's Alan Hill was the first to sign him after going to Betley on the recommendation of Bob Taylor, Derbyshire's England wicket-keeper.
Derbyshire acquired Cork's loyalty by offering him a YTS place in the general office. He had only taken his O-levels at the time, and his father and the teachers at the Christian Brothers school in Trent Vale wanted him to complete his education. However, the headmaster, Brother Sheehan, sensed the passion and waived his objections.
Cork played first for Staffordshire when he was 17 and then for Derbyshire Second XI at 18, but the concern of his coach, Phil Russell, was to curb his physical exuberance. Russell would not allow Dominic to bowl when he played for Betley: "Cotton-wool him," he said, to protect him from back injury. It worked: Cork's serious injuries have been to the ligaments in his left knee, but they are not permanent.
The knee troubled him badly in 1994. He was then an established young cricketer, having taken his career-best bowling figures on his 20th birthday (eight for 53 versus Essex), and scored his maiden century (104) at Cheltenham in 1993. In successive winters he toured with England's A team to the West Indies, Australia and South Africa. But, by the end of the 1994 season, his career statistics only hinted at his potential (209 wickets at 27.97 and an average of 23.35 with the bat).
A conversation with him was more revealing than statistics. After watching him bowl 25 consecutive overs against Sussex a year ago, I asked him whether this gruelling performance was designed to test the knee. "No," he replied innocently, "I was enjoying myself." There was something about the man. A spectator at that same match wrote to Derbyshire after watching Cork and Phillip DeFreitas playing with a group of children when rain had stopped play: "It's the nicest letter I've received since I became Derbyshire's secretary," Reg Taylor said.
When he was picked for the Lord's Test, Cork's statistics had already improved dramatically. He was the country's leading wicket- taker (Anil Kumble overtook him only last week). His repertoire has expanded and he has now mastered reverse swing. "It's all he talks about," Emburey said.
Last Sunday, Gerald and Mary Cork had just returned from mass when they switched on the TV to watch their son bowl the first over at Old Trafford. The ball was dry, so was the wicket. Richie Richardson was unlucky; the ball to Murray was straight; Hooper's may have come back a bit. Suddenly, the Test had turned decisively England's way.
"I'll treasure the moment for the rest of my life," Gerald Cork said. But he'll have to share it with the rest of us.
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