Chris Schofield, briefly the great English spin hope, will, at least, be playing in county cricket next season. Surrey, whom he served well in the last month of the season, have given him a year’s contract.
Fighting for a county contract represents a huge comedown for Schofield, awarded an England debut and central contract at just 21. But he now has one, after two years of second team games, minor county appearances and unrelenting frustration. His career with Lancashire began enormously promisingly but, by 2004, he had become a number six batsman and very occasional leg-spin bowler.
Though it is clear Schofield has not realised his potential with the ball, he deserves credit for extracting every ounce of talent he has with the bat. Idiosyncratic and innovative, he is really a number seven rather than number six, but his style makes him immensely frustrating for the opposition. His average of 30 in first-class cricket is testament to the fact he can justifiably call himself an all-rounder. Although he has never made a century from 71 games, the 28-year-old scores a fifty in less than every five innings. Indeed, it was his thrilling 95 during Surrey’s incredible end-of-season final day run chase at Gloucestershire (they ultimately held onto a draw at 471-9) that must have been crucial in the board’s decision to award him a contract.
But it is Schofield’s bowling that has let him down. After being picked after just one full seasons for Lancashire, he did not bowl in his first Test, a crushing victory over Zimbabwe. In his second, he contributed a typically unorthodox 57; but his 18 overs were far too inconsistent and went for 73. In international terms, that was that; his unceremonious axing is often given as a reason for his alarming decline.
Yet, ironically, David Lloyd wanted to give him his international debut even earlier. So taken was he by Schofield’s raw talent and sharp turn that he was in favour of giving the player his England debut in the Fifth Test against Australia in 1999, when he had just two first-class appearances to his name.
From then on, his decline has been dramatic. A loss of form and confidence soon became something far more terminal; as the seasons went by, he had to reinvent himself as a batsman who could bowl and, by his final season, his leg-spin had become a non-entity.
Schofield, however, blames the decline on a lack of overs; for a spinner, rhythm is everything, so perhaps he does have a point. Then again, his bowling was fast becoming a liability – could Lancashire be blamed for their reluctance to throw the ball to him?
Although clearly pushed into the international spotlight too soon, it is easy to see why the English selectors, so desperate for their own Shane Warne, decided to select him. For Schofield has an intrinsic grasp of the art of leg-spin, as even Warne has acknowledged; he is an English spinner that genuinely turns the ball. The problem is that Schofield, even in his generally uplifting performances for Surrey to date, bowls too many full tosses and long-hops. Part of Warne’s brilliance, after all, comes in his ability to tie the batsman down.
An international recall – which he professes is still possible – is pure fantasy, but at least a bowler of Schofield’s talent is no longer honing his art in the backwaters of the English game. Admittedly, he will probably start the 2007 campaign as Surrey’s third-choice spinner, behind Nayan Doshi and veteran fellow leg-spinner Ian Salisbury. But his ability with the bat and Surrey’s refreshing willingness to play three spinners means he should have ample opportunity to forget his tumultuous exit from Old Trafford.