December 3, 2015

I saw Footy before he became the real deal

Rookie England left-armer Mark Footitt began as a wayward tearaway in his early years, but he has since blossomed into a wicket-taking bowler

Not too many were queuing up to face Footitt in his club cricket days © PA Photos

Given the thrillingly muscular spectacle provided by left-arm pacemen of late - the Mitchells, Trent Boult, Wahab Riaz, Mohammad Irfan et al - it's somewhat ironic that the man England have picked to fit this template began life bowling with his right arm. Then one day, aged 10, he decided to have a crack in the nets with his left. It came out a lot better, and much faster, so he stuck with it (although to this day he still throws right-handed).

Back then, Mark Footitt was playing for Kimberley Institute CC - a club spawned by the town's Literary Institute in 1878, two miles from where DH Lawrence would be born seven years later - in Nottinghamshire where he was an occasional Under-12s team-mate of another surprise inclusion in the Test squad for South Africa, Samit Patel. After he moved to the idyllic Papplewick and Linby CC just north of Nottingham, it soon became apparent that his exceptional pace was not some physical precocity soon to be clawed back by his peers. This was the real deal.

Of course, nothing sets tongues wagging like pace, and the buzz around "Footy" soon spread, so much so that when he was selected, aged 15, to play for Nottinghamshire U-19 in a practice match against Scotland U-19, the BBC's regional news programme Midlands Today sent a camera crew along. Footitt castled one opener (the bail landing by the pavilion) and bowled the Scotland captain an accidental beamer that scudded into his hand and finished his tour.

It was typical of Footitt v 0.1: fast and erratic, the combination of which got him a professional contract at Notts but few opportunities. It also meant scant success in club cricket, although batsmen weren't exactly queueing up to face him. This was certainly the case in the Ashes summer of 2005, when, as an unknown 20-year-old and England U-19 colleague of Stuart Broad, he was brought in as a net bowler prior to the fourth Test at Trent Bridge and proceeded to pin a less-than-amused Justin Langer, while Kevin Pietersen decided he didn't need to face him as Australia had no left-armer. It wasn't long before Duncan Fletcher was namechecking Footitt, highly unusual for someone with a solitary first-class appearance.

As an unknown 20-year-old and England U-19 colleague of Stuart Broad, Footitt was brought in as a net bowler prior to the fourth Test at Trent Bridge and proceeded to pin a less-than-amused Justin Langer

It was also a name I heard a lot when, the following summer, I joined Wollaton in the Nottinghamshire Premier League. Much as when visiting a new country you would find out if it had deadly snakes, my due diligence involved asking whether there was anyone quick about. After a pursing of the lips and narrowing of the eyes, it was the same name each time: Footitt, the precise quantification of his pace usually modified by another f-word.

And effing quick he was. It wasn't therefore the optimal fixture for an inner thigh-pad strap to rip off while you readied yourself for a new-ball barrage. Inevitably, one nipped back and thudded heavily into my hams (soon beetroot-coloured all the way round), raising a grin from both bowler and his captain, Phil DeFreitas, who combined pro-ing at Papplewick with part-time bowling coach duties at Notts. However, where Daffy hit a proverbial beer mat, Footy's beehive was more like a scrappy frame of snooker.

It says far too much about English cricket that a selection choice between Footitt and our own opening bowler, Colin Elliott, a quinquegenarian dobber some 30-odd years older and 30-odd mph slower, was even a debate. That year, Colin bagged his wickets at 18.5, with an economy rate of 2.77. Over the last four years of his time at Notts, Footitt took just 49 Premier League wickets at 33.4 apiece, without a single five-for and at an economy rate of 4.66 per over. Bizarre.

My club captain, Paul McMahon, was a colleague on the Notts staff and thus saw the best and worst, part-explaining Footitt's club performances as the result of a Readers ball that didn't swing, and slips unlikely to catch snicks at 90mph. He remembered a 16-year-old Footitt pushing the wicketkeeper 25 yards back on a lightning-quick Old Trafford pitch, and he recollects playing when Footitt took his maiden first-class five-for, against West Indies A, at a time when, due to the vagaries of fitness, form, rhythm, and the direction of the wind, "a few people felt that he was a 'once a season' bowler". "But this game at Trent Bridge was one in which everything clicked and he looked irresistible, taking five wickets in no time: two clean-bowled, three lbw; four Test players," McMahon said. "Peter Willey turned to me at square leg and said out of the side of his mouth, 'Where the f*** have you got this one from?'

Footitt began as a right-armer, but found that he bowled faster with the other arm © Getty Images

"However, probably the quickest I ever saw him bowl was on a cracked, up-and-down, late-season pitch against Somerset 2nd XI a month later. Some early exchanges with Peter Trego got his dander up and he was curving the ball back into the right-handers at alarming pace. Trego was the one bloke who looked to get in line with him, and received a broken forearm as his reward. The rest of the batters - and, to be honest, some of the slips too - just obviously didn't fancy it." (Interestingly, the defining innings in that match was played by Somerset wicketkeeper Jos Buttler, who kept Footitt at bay in the course of scoring 71 just five days after his 16th birthday.)

By the time the "once a season bowler" was released by Notts in 2009, aged 24, he had 22 first-class maidens and 23 wickets to his name. Not that it was a flying start at Derbyshire. However, having a disc removed after the 2012 season helped Footitt find his mojo, dropping on the right strength and conditioning programme for his action, getting on the park, learning the game and gaining confidence from knocking over good players. Fairly straightforward, really. Bowling exocets isn't rocket science.

The rest is history: 160 first-class wickets at 21.3 over the last two seasons and an impressive winter training programme with England Lions swept him into the preliminary 2015 Ashes squad as a proxy Mitchell. This winter, having secured a big move to Surrey, he will be pushing hard to make the Test XI in South Africa, and perhaps curve one on to the "radiators" of an old adversary from the Notts Prem, ex-Mansfield Hosiery Mills pro Faf du Plessis (123-ball 124), and a recent Derbyshire team-mate, Hashim Amla.

Yet arguably the most heart-warming aspect of this story is the simple, trend-bucking fact of Footitt still plying his trade. When he turned 27, a few weeks after a second back operation, he had bowled less than 600 overs in first-class cricket, taking 72 wickets. You'd have needed major crystal ball-tampering to have foreseen him making an England tour three years later.

After all, cricket is littered with stories of teenage pace-bowling sensations whose frail bodies or fragile minds see them fade into league cricket obscurity, a slow slide into embittered, beery apocrypha. With a name as northern as flat ale, Mark Harold Alan Footitt could easily have become another pub-haunting what-might-have-been spinning semi-credible tales of a prodigious youth when he had them all hopping about. How marvellous, then, that he eventually blossomed into the bowler so many hoped the young tearaway might become.

Scott Oliver tweets here