Fairbrother makes most of limited chance (17 January 1999)

17 January 1999

Fairbrother makes most of limited chance

By Paul Newman

NEIL Fairbrother was quite content to see out his days with Lancashire. Perfectly happy to make the quest for that elusive championship title his last great cricketing ambition. Happy, that was, until David Lloyd had a quiet word in his ear at the start of last summer.

"He told me I was in England's thoughts for the World Cup and outlined what he expected of me," said Fairbrother as he looked back on his outstanding start to this triangular one-day series. "It was a surprise because I did think my chance had gone and, at 35, had decided to focus all my efforts on Lancashire. So then what happened? I promptly missed the next seven weeks with injury and thought the moment had gone again."

But Lloyd was not put off that easily. The England coach had worked with Fairbrother at Old Trafford during the years when he was rated among the best one-day batsmen in the world and was convinced there were still few players in domestic cricket with Fairbrother's ability to work the ball and pace a run chase to perfection. Even his famously fragile hamstrings did not deter him.

"I'm a massive Fairbrother fan," said Lloyd after the left-hander had repaid his coach's confidence by guiding England to victory against Sri Lanka at the Gabba on Monday with an unbeaten 67 to follow his undefeated 56 against Queensland and 47 against Australia last Sunday. His modest 15 against Australia on Friday did nothing to spoil the impression he has made. "He goes in there at four or five and knows exactly what to do," said Lloyd.

It has not always been thus. Graeme Fowler was an early influence on the young Neil Harvey Fairbrother as a fellow left-hander at Lancashire and remembers the youthful basher more than the crafty run accumulator. "As a kid Harvey had the best hand-eye co-ordination I've ever seen," said Fowler. "I remember in one of his early games he kept hooking Sylvester Clarke in front of square and he could dance down the wicket and smash anybody back over their heads."

A golden Test career looked assured. Yet it was one that began with a duck when he was thrown into the gloom of Old Trafford to face Pakistan late one day in 1987 and ended after 10 mainly disappointing games. A successful limited-overs career which has seen Fairbrother average close to 40 in 59 games has only partially eased the blow of missing out in the Test arena.

"I remember the defining moment of Harvey's life," said Fowler. "He had just scored a one-day hundred against the West Indies a few years later and he wasn't picked for the next Test. It shattered him and after that he realised the only way he could play for England was in one-day games so he approached every championship innings as if he was batting for 40 overs to maintain his profile. He seemed to set his stall out to become the ultimate one-day player and has come close to achieving that. Most people play the ball on merit but not Harvey. He just played according to the scoreboard and when it dictated that he should get on with it he would smash everything. He didn't know what a good ball was nor how to be selective, but if he'd played for the West Indies he'd have notched up 90 Tests by now."

Injuries have not helped. Fairbrother has had his fair share and England will hold their breath whenever he bustles between the wickets between now and June, such is his importance to their World Cup hopes.

The man himself feels the problem has been exaggarated. "You get labelled," he said. "I've been labelled a one-day player and on top of that people said I was always injured. I don't think I've actually had that many more than most."

Fairbrother is, fitness permitting, virtually assured of his third World Cup, the first in Australia a huge personal success for the Lancastrian but the second on the sub-continent in 1996 seemingly bringing down the curtain on his international days.

"I scored runs in most of the games here in '92, including the final, but that game turned out to be the most disappointing of my life," said Fairbrother after returning to the MCG for the first time since that day when England lost the Cup to Pakistan. "I look back on it now with a sense of great pride but at the time it was devastating. The only other game that came close to that was the 1993 Benson and Hedges final against Derbyshire. We lost and I was captain."

Those two years, 1992 and 1993, which Fairbrother spent at the helm of Lancashire rank as a rare failure, that Lord's final, in which he and Phillip DeFreitas failed to take 11 runs off Frank Griffith's last over, capping a barren spell in Lancashire's prolific one-day domination.

"My two years in charge didn't go quite as well as I'd hoped," said Fairbrother. "It was a transitional time. People like Allott, Fowler and Mendis had gone and it was time for the youngsters to come through. I could cope with that but what I couldn't cope with was the fact that my game suffered. At the end of the second year I was at a low ebb and felt it was in the best interests of the club that I stood down. It was a tough time."

Fowler has a different theory. "I put it down to OCS - Only Child Syndrome," he said. "Harvey's an only child and he behaves like one at times. He's used to getting his own way but because he's such a talent 90 per cent of the time that's fine. It was just that his manmanagement skills didn't match up to his sublime ability."

Fairbrother does not have to worry about leadership now, simply scoring runs and staying fit. Mike Atherton, the former England captain and a close friend of Fairbrother, is sure he will feature in the World Cup. "He might look a bit wild-eyed but when a calm head is needed he can analyse a situation and adapt to it," said Atherton. "He used to get quite intense and could fly off the handle but he doesn't worry about things so much since he had children. He needs some pace on the ball to work it into the gaps, and it may be felt that he does a similar job to Graham Thorpe, but he will get that in England this summer."

It is a prospect he would relish. "The six weeks I spent in Australia in 1992 were magnificent and I'm sure England this year would be the same. The other night at the Gabba I'd had a drink and a change of gloves, the sweat was dripping off me and I thought: 'What am I doing all this running around for?' But the one-day game has changed and I've changed with it. Another chance to win the World Cup would make it all worthwhile."

Source :: Electronic Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk)