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For most English cricketers, winning the County Championship might be a career highlight. Not for Alan Richardson. The seamer central to Worcestershire's unexpected survival in Division One last summer was a member of the Warwickshire squad that claimed the title in 2004. But the memory brings him only pain.
"It was the lowest point of my career," he says. "I didn't feel I deserved a medal. I played seven games and only took six wickets. I knew it might be the only time I was involved in a Championship-winning side, but I didn't feel part of it. Our captain, Nick Knight, was very honest: he said he had no confidence in me. He said I'd be tenth-choice seamer if I stayed. It was hard to take, but you can't really tell a captain who has just led his side to the title that he's getting it all wrong, can you?"
From the rubble of that year, Richardson rebuilt his career. Taking advantage of an offer from Middlesex, he worked hard on his fitness and returned to the plan that served him best: hitting the pitch as hard as he could, just back of a length, in search of seam movement. The following year he claimed 50 wickets in a season for the first time; despite some serious injury setbacks, he has continued to improve. It is a tale of triumph from adversity that is typical of Richardson's career.
ALAN RICHARDSON, born in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, on May 6, 1975, has taken the roundabout route to success. After inheriting a love of cricket from his father Roy, Richardson graduated through the Staffordshire system and joined Derbyshire for 1994. Little could he have known it would be more than a decade and a half before he could truly be said to have fulfilled his youthful promise.
"No one would voluntarily do things the way I have," says Richardson. "I've had some dark days and I've had to take on some shocking jobs to finance my cricket career. I worked as a landscape gardener; I worked nights in warehouses; I screwed studs into golf shoes - we had to do 2,400 a shift. But I did whatever I had to do to pursue my dream of playing cricket.
"Doing things that way - the hard way - does make you appreciate them more. I know how lucky I am to play cricket for a living. It maybe wouldn't do some young players any harm to have some of those experiences. Now, aged 36, I think I'm close to bowling at my optimum."
His time wasn't wasted. Whether he was playing Minor Counties cricket for Staffordshire, Second Eleven cricket for Essex or Northamptonshire, or grade cricket in Sydney, he was learning his trade, honing his skills and maturing as a man and a bowler.
Richardson is an unlikely Cricketer of the Year. He is not blessed with great pace (he's consistently timed at around 83mph), he doesn't swing the ball prodigiously and he rarely uses the bouncer, yorker or slower ball. He has an angular, inefficient action - a windmill, he calls it - that leaves biomechanists wincing. But he does hit the seam. He does generate steep bounce from his high action. And he does maintain a wonderfully nagging line and length. Crucially, by 2011, he had learned to move the ball both ways off the seam.
Last summer was his best yet. His haul of 73 Championship wickets at 24 each made him the highest wicket-taker in Division One; two-thirds of his victims were top-five batsmen. And by playing every game he bowled more overs than anyone in either division bar Monty Panesar. Richardson's role in ensuring unfancied Worcestershire - at one stage bookies quoted them as 20-1 on to be relegated - survived in Division One was monumental. It is telling that he claimed 29 wickets in Worcestershire's four Championship victories, including nine against Hampshire and eight against champions-to-be Lancashire.
It was the highlight of a career that had several times come perilously close to stalling. Released by Derbyshire after two years and one first-class appearance, Richardson spent three years with Staffordshire before joining Warwickshire for 1999. After falling out of favour at Edgbaston, he enjoyed a resurgence with Middlesex before injury intervened. He always baulked at the journeyman tag but, when he arrived at New Road for the 2010 season, he had taken 314 first-class wickets in a 15-year career at an average just below 30. The tag fitted rather too well.
It doesn't now. Finally ensconced in an environment where he feels valued and supported (he credits New Road's backroom staff and the decision to rest him from limited-overs cricket for his sustained fitness), Richardson has become a high-class performer. A tally of 128 Championship wickets over two seasons tells its own story.
"I don't do much differently now to when I was with Staffordshire," he says. "It's quite dull, really, but I know if I keep bowling dot balls, the wickets will come. At Warwickshire I strayed from what I knew and became complacent. I look at photos and I had a double chin. I was out of my comfort zone at Middlesex. I wanted to impress. I made myself fitter than ever and started well. My confidence grew and I became the bowler I thought I could be."
His love of the game is an abiding theme. In an age when many professionals become jaded and cynical, there is something uplifting about Richardson's enduring enthusiasm. "They'll have to drag me off the pitch screaming when they want me to retire," he says.
He might have accepted a place at university after Derbyshire released him. And he might have accepted an offer to become player-coach at Middlesex at the end of 2009: coaching is his future career choice. "But playing was the secondary role and I felt I had some decent seasons left in me," he says. "I've loved the atmosphere at New Road - it's as positive and hard-working as I've experienced. Maybe it's not a question of making the right decision; it's about making the decision right."
Hopes of an England cap may have faded - the closest he came was with the Lions in India in early 2008 - but Richardson can reflect with pride on a career that has seen him overcome many setbacks to establish himself as one of the leading bowlers in county cricket. It's all he ever wanted.
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