As I write this, Leicestershire are en route to Hyderabad to take part in the Champions League T20 tournament. They booked their place in this series by dint of reaching the English domestic T20 final at Edgbaston back in August, which they of course went on to win.
As the crowning achievement to a superb domestic T20 campaign it is a fitting reward, and all Leicestershire fans will wish them well ahead of their first match against Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday.
The financial rewards are, of course, very welcome, and so is the shiny FLT20 trophy residing in the display cabinet at Grace Road.
But that the departure for India followed hard on the heels of yet another crashing defeat in the LV= County Championship serves as a reminder that as a season of contrasts the difference between Leicestershire’s T20 form and its performances in Championship and CB40 matches in 2011 could not have been more stark.
In the Championship, Leicestershire finished at the bottom of Division 2 by some considerable margin – compare their 88 points to the next team above them, Kent, who amassed 149. They won only one game, against Glamorgan at the start of the season. Among their defeats, scores of 34 all out against Essex at Southend, and 48 all out at Grace Road versus Northants, are but only two moments in a long litany of failure which Foxes fans will be keen to have scrubbed from the memory banks.
The team are not incapable – with a couple of exceptions it is virtually the same lineup that won 7 matches last year, finished fourth in Division 2 and was in with a shout of promotion – but if anything their performance as a unit in the four-day game seems to have gone backwards.
Over the last few days, the only part Leicestershire has played in the greater scheme of who ended up where in the table was as a potential spoiler to Middlesex eventually ending up as division champions. There were rays of hope for next season for the Foxes: first innings centuries for Greg Smith and Ned Eckersley (who also took six catches behind the stumps during the visitors’ first dig), and useful 50s for the two as well as a much needed 80 (from a personal as well as a team standpoint) for James Taylor in Leicestershire’s second innings as the Foxes strove for at least the moral victory of making Middlesex bat again.
Wayne White put his back into the bowling to give Middlesex some palpitations on their way to a negligible target of 124, but as a win for the visitors was never in doubt, it was a case of sweeping up the shards of a team’s shattered respectability.
Last year, I seem to recall, ended on a note of hope for the new season, too, so you’ll excuse me if I take a pass this time on the Michael Vaughan method of taking the “positives” out of the situation.
As with so many of Leicestershire’s championship endeavours in 2011, the bad more often outweighed the good – one instance in this match just gone being that Leicestershire’s extremely indifferent bowling in the last 30 overs of Middlesex’s first innings allowed the visitors to score an additional 182 runs after being 320-8.
I realise I might sound curmudgeonly about all this, given the team are embarked on what will be, for many of them, one of the biggest adventures of their young lives, and with the promise of riches for the club at the end of it.
Indeed, it’s easy to gloss over failures in other formats. T20 gets people through the turnstiles, money into the club’s coffers, entry into international tournaments and sponsorship and publicity.
For a small, struggling club like Leicestershire, this is immense. Through the combination of numerous initiatives, cuts in expenditure and success in the T20, the club is in considerably better financial shape than it was last year.
The 40-over competition is also popular with the fans – there have been some decent crowds at Grace Road for the CB40 matches – but despite this it is widely disregarded as the least important of the three domestic competitions, and Leicestershire very quickly gave the impression of not really caring about the format either, given the frequency with which players were rested.
But continued under-performance in the four-day game can only hurt the club in the long run. Future England players are judged by their performances in this format. Warwickshire are likely to take a second tilt at prising James Taylor away from Grace Road over the winter, and given the clubs’ relative performances this year, one could hardly blame him for going. While the likes of Greg Smith and Ned Eckersley are talented but callow enough that rival clubs will wait a couple of years before brandishing their chequebooks, Leicestershire’s continued poor performance will not encourage these players to stay should a county with a Test ground come calling.
Success in glitzy T20 tournaments is all very well, but the goal of promotion to Division 1 of the County Championship should take precedence over everything else. There is, of course, the feeling that Division 2 breeds reduced expectation – sure, there is the sop of a trophy for winning it, but the reward of promotion looks distinctly second-best compared to hoisting the trophy amidst the kind of scenes we saw at Taunton yesterday. The irony is, of course, that Lancashire ended up 2011 County champions with a team appreciably no better than Leicestershire’s in terms of “star quality” – but they triumphed through a combination of consistency, self-belief and unwavering determination to attain that one clear shining goal that they never lost sight of.
Leicestershire need to get themselves into a position where that goal can become a reality, and that means promotion. Hopefully the money that’s come as a result of their T20 success can be used in this direction. Andrew McDonald will not be with us next year. I’ll be very surprised if James Taylor hasn’t played his last championship game for the Foxes. There’s talk of finding a senior batsman to add some much needed experience and stability to the batting and to act as a mentor to the youngsters (HD Ackerman filled this role admirably a couple of years back when Cobb and Taylor were still wet behind the ears). Martin van Jaarsveld is one name that’s been bandied about, and Nic Pothas has recently become available after being released by Hampshire. Either of these would be very welcome additions indeed.
I, like other Foxes fans, will be sitting on the edge of my seat over the next couple of weeks, cheering the team on in their Indian adventure, willing them on to another final and another trophy. One can be nothing but immensely proud of them for their success in T20 this year. But one would hope that once their plane touches down back in the UK, when they leave behind the heady atmosphere of a steamy subcontinent, the bright lights of the Indian stadiums and the crowds and the adrenaline, and return to a chilly, misty, leaf-strewn Grace Road, that their attention turns once more – and with some urgency – to next year’s County Championship.
And that should include trying to figure out what went so catastrophically wrong in 2011, and what can be done to fix it.