DateLine: 13th February 2006
The dearth of English spinning talent allowed Shaun Udal to make a belated return to international cricket against Pakistan in November 2005. His Test debut came 11 years after his last ODI, with only India’s Robin Singh enduring a longer wait between the shorter and longer version of the international game. His return, alas, was not terribly successful, with the Pakistani batsman finding his bowling relatively easy to both attack and defend. His first ball in Test cricket was smeared through the covers for four, and although Udal kept his composure, it was something of an omen. His first wicket came by tempting Salman Butt into driving at a deliberately wider ball, with Geraint Jones pocketing the rebound after the edge had cannoned off Marcus Trescothick’s head. Like most English spinners, Udal can hold a bat, and while he and Jones remained together in the fourth innings of the First Test at Multan (where they put on 49 for the eighth wicket) England seemed to have a chance of victory. In the next match at Faisalabad he struck Shoaib Akhtar for six over midwicket in compiling an undefeated 33, although his return of one wicket in each match just wasn’t up to standard, and he couldn’t even be relied upon as a defensive, run blocking stock bowler. He played in the last ODI of the tour, after earlier playing 10 limited-overs matches between 1994 and 1995, before Neil Smith and then Robert Croft replaced him as England’s one-day off-spinner. His Test debut would probably have come much sooner had a torn side muscle not compelled him to leave the 1994-5 Ashes tour. Although an A Tour to Pakistan in 1995-6 showed he was still in the larger England picture, he followed this with some ropey seasons for Hampshire in the Championship.
By the end of the 1990’s he had recovered his form, and the arrival of Shane Warne at Southampton ensured drier home pitches, as well as the Victorian’s advice and encouragement to bowl a more aggressive line and to develop a couple more tricks up his spinning sleeve. The dividend which Warne’s arrival brought to Udal was ironic, as initially it was thought that it might have spelt the end of his time on the south coast. His hair is now closely cut and receding, although the reddish tinge to it remains. The fiery temperament which this is often thought to indicate to was seen in, of all places, the Surrey league in 2003, when Udal was banned from the league for three years after becoming involved in a physical altercation with another player, after he had been branded a cheat and his deaf team-mate had been mocked for his disability. He had been banned before after allegedly assaulting an opponent while playing for Camberley, although the common consensus is that he is not a volcanic personality, and that he has often been the target of big mouthed opponents jealous of his greater achievements in the game. Although his 36 years meant that many questioned his selection for the Pakistan tour before he’d even left Heathrow, the fact that his off-spinning rivals like Gareth Batty and Richard Dawson had posted mediocre seasons while Udal had taken his 44 First-class wickets at 18 in 2005 means that his selection was a reasonable one. That the Hampshire man probably was the second best English spinner in 2005 says more about the inability of English cricket to produce top class spinners than it does the efforts of the hard working Udal.
(Article: Copyright © 2006 Matthew Reed)