Saturday, November 12, 2005

A Scoreline I Never Thought I'd See

Butt c Jones b Udal 74

Two of my most prized possessions are items of sports memorabilia. A white England shirt worn at Old Trafford in 1994, and a very large blue jumper worn in Australia in the following winter. When I was much younger, I remember watching a Middlesex vs Hampshire NatWest Trophy quarter-final on the BBC (1992, I think). Hampshire won; their star player that day was a young off-spinner called Shaun Udal. I wrote to him, and received a letter back quite soon after, including two signed photos. He was going to be playing in my home town not long after, would I like to meet him there?

As it turned out, he wasn't able to make it, as his wife gave birth just a few days before the match was due to start. This wasn't a problem, though, because later that winter he invited me down to Hampshire, where I met him and his family; saw the match ball he kept from his best first-class figures (8-50 against Sussex), and the scorecard of his brother, who earlier that season had taken ten wickets in an innings for his club. Later, when Hampshire were playing in my area again, I got to meet the team in their dressing room. It must have been one of the greatest games of dressing room cricket ever - me batting, Malcolm Marshall bowling, David Gower and Robin Smith fielding. Not too long after that, I managed to meet the team again in the dressing room at Headingley. In short, I've had many, many happy cricketing memories because of Shaun Udal.

His career had never been quite as fortunate - for a while between 1994 and 1996 he was on the fringes of the England team, but despite superior statistics, cannon fodder of the likes of Ian Salisbury, Robert Croft and Peter Such were picked ahead of him. Later in his career, despite finishing above Gareth Batty in the averages every single season, it was Batty who was favoured, as England were determined to favour youth. So, with him entering the twilight of his career, despite being possibly the best English spinner of his generation, it seemed his time might have passed.

When I was in Philadelphia in September, however, BBC News gave me one of the most unexpected headlines I'd seen - "Udal surprise choice for England tour". Finally, he was getting his chance with England - and not before time. It quickly became apparent, with Pakistan loading their squad with spinners, that Shaun was in line for the second spinner's slot, and about to make his Test debut today. That he did, where he started with an excellent spell, claiming his first Test wicket. It may have come in unorthodox fashion - caught by the wicketkeeper after bouncing off first slip's head - but given the way that he found his way into the Test side, maybe it was fitting. And most certainly richly deserved.

Shaun, as a friend and a cricketer, congratulations. Your patience has been rewarded, and you fully deserve to enjoy your time as an England player.