8 November 1998

Why Cork has to turn the screw

By Scyld Berry

LAST summer England had a hard core of nine players who carried them over the line, just ahead of South Africa. The signs so far on this tour are that this number may be reduced to six or seven, as Australian conditions have exposed the quirks and flaws which county cricket tolerates all too readily.

Dominic Cork is one such member of last summer's mainstays who has yet to adjust, but must do so, because he and Alec Stewart are the two most pivotal members of the party. Following his fifty yesterday, he has been inked in to bat at No 7 in the first Test side, between England's specialist batsmen and a tail so unproductive of late that the Australian bowlers will swarm at them like flies round a dead 'roo; and also to be the last but not least of the four seamers who will have to take almost all of the Australian wickets.

To match up to the world Test champions in their own country would be challenge enough for any swing-bowling all-rounder on his first major tour of Australia, where the ball seldom swings as it does in England. For Cork, at this stage of his life, the task will be as steep as any in Ashes history; and if the likelihood is he will fall short in one department or the other, it does say something for the calibre of this man, who has packed so much success and failure into his 27 years, that England supporters can yet live in hope.

Among his other pressing concerns at the moment are the rebuilding of his personal life since his divorce - in cricketing parlance he is just off the mark rather than nearing his hundred - and his future as Derbyshire's captain. "I'm not making any comment about Derbyshire until the end of the tour" is not a surprising statement from Cork, as his county indulges in yet another feud. But his follow-up is: "I'm not accepting any calls from Derbyshire."

While bowlers can take wickets in anger, batsmen seldom make runs with cluttered minds, and it will take all of Cork's ability to compartmentalise if he is not to be distracted by affairs at home. After another none too impressive spell against South Australia last evening, the question remains: will he buckle down to being one of three seamers who will keep the game tight in between shock bursts from Darren Gough? Or will he be tempted into breaking ranks and pursuing the glory which he has dreamt about since he installed a photograph of Ian Botham in his bedroom and watched videos of the 1981 Ashes series?

Cork's response is to offer exactly the pledges which an England supporter would want to hear. But then there is always a large element of PR in Cork's public utterances: even more so than in the case of most England cricketers today.

"I'm not tearing in and trying to bowl too quick. I'm trying to hold back and swing the ball. It's got to be a tight line on and outside off-stump out here." It was not, however, until Western Australia's second innings that he realised any short ball at the WACA will be clattered off the back foot unless it is head-high; and if England are to come anywhere near the Ashes, they will have to pitch the ball up in the first Test at the Gabba, while praying that the Australian bowlers have not readjusted in the eight days after their return from Pakistan.

If Cork is to be not only tight but penetrative enough to take 20 wickets in the series (as each of England's four pace bowlers must), he will have to swing and reverse-swing as he has not done since the tour of South Africa in 1995-96. Australia's batting will reign supreme if the ball comes straight through. If it moves around, those same batsmen are vulnerable, as on that morning at Edgbaston last year when they were 54 for eight.

"I've always been able to swing the ball away," says Cork, "but there's always a case for having more weaponry in your armoury." He is a lean, intense, highly competitive, yet somehow brittle man; and here again we have this gap between the player's own public assessment of his cricket and the objective reality, which has to be that for the last three years Cork has usually delivered everything but outswing.

Bob Cottam, who began part-time as England's bowling coach last summer, can supply this objective reality. "Before the Lord's Test, Corky asked me why he wasn't swinging it, and I got him to put his wrist behind the ball instead of clamping his fingers over the top of it." In the match which followed Cork did "get some shape on it", as the jargon has it, but still not that outswing which began on middle-and-leg stump and paralysed West Indies in 1995, when Cork took the record England figures of seven for 43 on his debut.

England's draw at Old Trafford has been identified as the turning-point of last summer's series against South Africa. Behind the scenes the defining moment occurred at close of play on the first day at Trent Bridge, when South Africa maintained their ascendancy by breezing to 300 after being sent in by Alec Stewart. When the players entered the dressing-room, England's new captain remonstrated with Cork for his under-performance.

Before the start on the following days Cork worked hard with Cottam to change the position of his front leg in delivery and recover that elusive swing. The result was that Cork revived his away-swinger, albeit only on the line of off-stump, took four for 60 in South Africa's second innings, and kept England's target in attainable bounds. Cottam won a winter tour contract.

Although it is not a statistic confirmed by Wisden, Cork has been involved in more rows and controversies than any England cricketer since his hero. He has had the star performer's ego, without the results to go with it since 1995-96. But it is only right that he should have the chance to draw a line beneath his brash past, and attempt a mature new future. For only if Cork can excel in his two roles in this series, returning to the side's hard core, will England do so too.

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