September 11, 2012

Farewell Robert Croft the thinker spinner

Edward Bevan
He has been a great servant for club and country - now Croft's job is to help cultivate Glamorgan's next generation

After bowling 30 overs on a hot day in Colchester recently, Robert Croft announced to all and sundry at breakfast the next morning: "I needed help to walk down the stairs today." It was a throwaway remark, but we all knew that retirement was beckoning for a man described by his captain, Mark Wallace, as "possibly Glamorgan's greatest player".

Some might argue that Alan Jones, with 34,000 runs, or Don Shepherd, with 2100 wickets, deserves that accolade more but there is little doubt that Croft's record is unlikely to be surpassed. In a 23-year-career he has scored over 10,000 first-class runs and taken more than 1000 wickets for the county - something no other Glamorgan player has done - to go with 6000 one-day runs and over 350 wickets.

Croft was just nine years old when he first walked into the St Helen's ground at Swansea, and by listening and learning from others he began to develop that classical offspinner's action with excellent control and variation of flight. He entered the Glamorgan environment as a teenager and progressed through the Colts teams before making his debut against Surrey at The Oval as a 19-year-old in 1989. He failed to take a wicket in the first innings but later on Graham Thorpe became his first victim when he mishit to mid-on.

Surrey's Test venue has happy memories for Croft, apart from the time when he and Steve James were dropped by Glamorgan captain Hugh Morris, now England's managing director, after they arrived at Lord's expecting to play against Middlesex instead. The two players were not enamoured of the decision but performed well and were quickly restored to first-team duties. It might have been a chastening experience but they admitted that it had been a "wake-up call" and said it increased their determination to succeed.

Two years later, in 1996, Croft played at The Oval in entirely different circumstances, and instead of performing in front of a few dozen spectators he won a first cap in front of a full house as England played Pakistan in the third Test of the summer. It was the start of an England career that won him 21 Test caps and 50 in one-day internationals.

He has always been a deep thinker about the game, eager to seek out advice from former players, and his appointment to the Glamorgan coaching staff is one from which young players will benefit. When he started his career it was then customary to join the opposition in the bar at the close of play and not disappear - as most teams now do - from the dressing room back to the hotel. As a young player he would linger, and as soon as the opportunity arose he would quickly be in the ear of John Emburey or Eddie Hemmings, fellow practitioners in the art of offspin.

Shepherd, a Glamorgan legend, was Croft's mentor, along with Jones and Tom Cartwright, who did so much for the development of young Glamorgan players. "All the years I have known Robert, there has never been any need to tinker with his action. He has been wise enough to speak to lots of people along the way and he's always sifted what he's been told and sorted it out himself," Shepherd said last week.

With Croft taking up his new coaching duties during Glamorgan's most recent match, against Yorkshire at Headingley, Ray Illingworth came across for a chat and stayed for over an hour. He was soon asked questions by Croft such as: "How many wickets did you take with the arm ball? What was your grip on bouncy pitches? Did you take the new ball bowling offspin?" It was interesting to sit nearby and eavesdrop on Croft and the former England captain discussing the various aspects of spin bowling.

A passionate Welshman, Croft was elected to the Gorsedd of the Bards at the National Eisteddfod of Wales in 1999. Once asked if he was English when playing Test cricket, he replied: "No, I regard myself as a British Lion"

There was another memorable game for Croft at The Oval, which must have been one of the most extraordinary ever played. In a 50-over contest, Surrey made 438 for 5 - then a world record - with Alistair Brown smashing 268 from 160 balls. Croft, who was captain at the time, heard the comments of a Sky Sports summariser - covering another game - who said in the interval, "The best that Glamorgan can do now is to jump in their cars and head back down the M4."

Croft responded by telling his players to "go out there and tee off". He opened the batting and struck Martin Bicknell for five successive fours in the first over, reached his century from fewer balls than Brown (it took Croft only 56 balls) before being dismissed for 119 from 69 deliveries. As his batsmen adopted a similar approach, Glamorgan appeared at one stage to be favourites, but they were dismissed with one ball left and only nine runs short of victory.

Croft toured with England on four occasions, the first a joint expedition to Zimbabwe and New Zealand in 1996-97. He took eight wickets against a then-strong Zimbabwe team before playing an instrumental part in the victories in Wellington and Christchurch, with a spell of three wickets in 14 balls in the second Test and a seven-wicket match haul (his Test best) in the third, as England won the series against New Zealand 2-0.

The following winter, after a home Ashes series, he toured the West Indies, playing in only one Test in Guyana. Despite taking six wickets in that match, followed by 11 in the next warm-up game, he was then left out for the Barbados Test, a decision that baffled many. He eventually retired from international cricket after the 2003-04 tour of Sri Lanka to concentrate on the Glamorgan captaincy, having previously pulled out of the 2001 India tour due to safety fears.

A passionate Welshman, Croft was elected to the Gorsedd of the Bards at the National Eisteddfod of Wales in 1999. Playing in a Glamorgan game at Colwyn Bay, he was flown by helicopter to the Eisteddfod pavilion and received his bardic robes before returning for the start of play. Once asked if he was English when playing Test cricket, he replied: "No, I regard myself as a British Lion."

There will certainly be a tear in the eye when he climbs the pavilion steps for the last time after Glamorgan's final game of the 2012 season against Kent. But he will still show the same enthusiasm and dedication as he joins the coaching staff and also helps promote the club within the marketing department. After Glamorgan's decline in recent years, Croft is now ready for the new challenge of helping to revive their fortunes from off the field.

Edward Bevan is the cricket correspondent for BBC Wales