He does something memorable all the time

I don't suppose we will ever know the truth about Phil Tufnell's decision to retire. On the one hand you can take the Middlesex view that they were ready to offer him a new contract and that he only had to wait.

TED CORBETT

Craig White... an example of stress eroding talent. -- Pic. V.V.KRISHNAN-

I don't suppose we will ever know the truth about Phil Tufnell's decision to retire. On the one hand you can take the Middlesex view that they were ready to offer him a new contract and that he only had to wait.

On the other you can believe that Tufnell, never a patient man, tired of hanging around, being expected to bowl his heart out until the club signalled its intentions and not being terribly keen on pre-season training in the frost that has marked the start of this summer.

Whatever Tufnell — or Tuffers, of The Cat, if you want to be one of his familiars — decided that he was better off leaving now, taking up an offer to be part of the "I'm A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out Of Here'' game show and hoping to add television foolery to the newspaper, radio and TV work that is already growing into a major part of his life.

He will probably be richer, able to enjoy himself more and among a better class of lunatic; besides the smell of the grease paint, the sound of the opening chorus and the excitement of the countdown to curtain up is more Tufnell than the starchy, old-hat world of first class cricket.

There is a more important question. Will cricket ever see his like again; or in the modern era of a Test every day and ten one-day internationals a week is their room for a Jack-the-Lad character who keeps fit by smoking twenty a day and sinking ten a night? He says he feels fitter than ever, aged 37, but health and strength in ordinary life never match the requirements of a sporting existence and he is a bit long in the tooth even for county cricket.

Certainly the hectic pace in the international arena means that more players have to be fitter — hence Shane Warne's obsession with his weight and appearance — than ever before. The galloping accumulation of injuries suffered by England in Australia last winter, the number of Australians who have dropped out of matches recently and the injury toll in the World Cup are just the outward signs of the stress now eroding the talent.

Craig White has announced that he is unlikely to be available for England until July after a rib operation and if this serious, dedicated and fit older player is so troubled by injury it is as sure as there are six balls in an over that those who do not look after themselves will not last the pace.

Tufnell did not play at being a naughty boy; he was the ultimate kicker over of traces (a "character'' is the euphemism of choice for those who do not wish to spell out his short comings) and this defect spoiled what ought to have been an even more brilliant career.

What the casual observer often forgets is that Tufnell was the supreme slow left arm spinner, a worthy successor in the line stretching back through Phil Edmonds, Derek Underwood, Johnny Wardle, Tony Lock, Hedley Verity to Wilfred Rhodes, and capable of bowling out any side that showed him less than respect.

That was all drowned in the tales of his exploits. I will not repeat them all here — as much as anything because he has detailed his various excesses in a series of books, newspaper articles and magazines — but they involved a visit or two to magistrates' courts, a series of failed relationships, a scramble out of a back window to ensure that medical examiners could not get to him, a brief stay in a hospital for the mentally unfit, and more than one appearance in front of cricket's disciplinarians. In addition he should have made more of his batting, concentrated harder when he was fielding and bowled more consistently.

He would argue that often he received little support and that there were others around him in that dreadful period in the 1990s when England never achieved their potential and rarely looked as if they might. It was Tufnell's misfortune to make his Test debut as England slumped and did not play enough under the all-seeing eye of Nasser Hussain, his pal in the days when they were both footloose and fancy free. The occasional kick from Hussain as much as the big hug after a wicket might have made all the difference. He was — and, who knows, in the topsy turvy world of comebacks like that made by Brad Hogg he may be again — a vastly better spin bowler than some of those who have pretended to his throne. He had flight and spin and change of pace.

If only . . . but it is no use arguing about what might have been. Tufnell would not have been as good if he had not had the urgent mental promptings which come with all genius; a more consistent Tufnell is too difficult to imagine but with a tiny bit of luck he might have been so special that 121 Test wickets became 300.

Cricket will miss him, although at the moment it is difficult to find anyone who thinks so. "He should only have played Tests in England and then it would have been possible to keep him under control for a week at a time,'' one old selector told me. He equated Tufnell with Fred Trueman, a man determined to have his say, unwilling to give way to the foolish dictates of captains and officials who talked rubbish but mostly a professional cricketer from the top of his undisciplined quiff to his toe nails.

What such people cannot appreciate is that the Truemans and Tufnells of the world — not to mention the Alex Higgins, the Muhammad Alis and the George Bests — are far more attractive to the general sporting population than the average well-behaved pro. They add a dimension to the game that is beyond the strictly regimented player and their personality lights up dull matches.

It was once said to me of Ian Botham, another bad boy who drew in crowds as if he was a people magnet, that "He never played in a match in which he did not do something extraordinary. Beefy did something memorable all the time.'' That was Tufnell. Something memorable all the time.

There was yet one more sign of cricket's ill-health this week.

The Wisden dinner, which has been the marker for the start of the season as much as the April showers, is no more.

I used to look forward to the old-style dinner, dressed in the evening suit, plied with goblets of wine big enough to hold an Olympic backstroke final, stoked with platefuls of good food and finished off with a decent speech or two and a glass of port which bind the gossip together.

The horrors of the war against Saddam Hussain reminded me recently of my most amusing Wisden dinner moment. It was held in a central London gentleman's club not far from the spot where some Middle Eastern madman shot dead a young English policewoman.

The whole area was crawling with cops, the taxi dropped me off half a mile short of my destination and there I joined a small crowd heading for the dinner: journalists, MCC types and one old international who was furious at the murder earlier in the day. He muttered, as men his age are apt to mutter, about the cowardice, that the restoration of cruel punishment was needed to stop such crimes and what he would like to do to the killer if they should happen to come face to face.

A policeman directed us to the back door of the club, down an alley rapidly growing darker as the sun set and as my grumbling friend raised his finger to knock, the door was whipped open . . . by a man who was indisputably Arab in race and origin.

The old international froze and then, I swear, rose about six feet off the ground. No fast bowler in his career had produced such a reaction but he clearly thought that he had met the assassin and that his end might be near.

I am afraid I giggle each time I meet the old cricketer but that will never happen again since the Wisden dinner is now defunct. How sad. Instead I received an invitation to a cocktail party lasting two hours. It must be a sign that the glorious old game is fading. I do hope not.