Leicestershire 2011 season preview

Having been beaten into submission by the relentless 7-week slog of the just-finished World Cup, and with the IPL due to start up this year’s edition of the batshit commercial crack-fix that is T20, complete with cliche-spouting commentators, adverts after every over and uncoordinated cheerleaders (whatever happened to the ladies of the Washington Redskins?), I am much relieved that Leicestershire’s County season starts tomorrow.

County cricket might not be anything to write home about for many. It’s often difficult – especially given I support a struggling Division 2 side – to explain why it means so much to me. In fact to many heathens who ask me to explain why I love county cricket, most of the time I don’t even bother.

I know it’s not an ideal situation for a club’s finances – especially given that Leicestershire posted a record £400,000 loss last year – but sitting in a semi-deserted ground with a handful of other mentalists earnestly discussing the merits of watercress, the odds for the 3:30 at Kempton and the relative strengths of West Indies teams through the ages is my idea of nirvana.

As Duncan Hamilton says in his wonderful book A Last English Summer, if people started turning up to county matches in large numbers I suspect I’d probably be like the moody teenager whose favourite cult band has sold out and hit the big time, and my enthusiasm would be dampened accordingly.

I like finding a quiet spot to watch the game, listen to the conversations around me, chat with the regulars, or talk to no-one if I choose. I will either make a pig’s breakfast of my scorecard or leave out filling it in till I get home. I will follow the game with the attention of a laser beam, or sleep like an old dog in the sun. On any given day at Grace Road, I will do most of these things.

Last year, most of the conversations at the ground revolved around one thing. Let’s just say the atmosphere was a little fraught. Thankfully, the civil war that was tearing the club apart is over. The last remnants of that conflict – legal action brought against the club by the departed Chairman and CEO – have recently been resolved.

This year, I could do without the Sky News cameras rocking up and reporters on the boundary earnestly discussing the club’s imminent implosion.

The good news is that, if anything, the squad seems to have been strengthened as a unit, and while there was definite room for improvement – Leicestershire did not register a single home win in T20 last year – the club battled right up to the wire in its tilt at promotion into Division 1 of the County Championship. Their attempt was unsuccessful – Leicestershire finished fourth in the Div 2 table – but it gave players and supporters alike much heart, something that was sorely needed at the end of a difficult year.

The curate’s egg that is the 40-over competition continues this year, and while there were some standout performances in 2010 – Harry Gurney’s 5-24 against Hampshire springs most readily to mind – the team’s results could at best be described as “inconsistent”, or underwhelming, if you were being brutally honest.

We do still have our own little Little Master, James Taylor, at least until the end of 2012, when Notts et al will no doubt descend like vultures with chequebooks agape, luring him away to the bright lights of the Big Smoke and a Test ground.

Taylor scored 524 runs for the England Lions during the winter campaign in the West Indies, averaging 58.55 and wowing the local commentators, none of whom could tell us anything we did not already know as regards the lad’s talent. Nathan Buck, our young star on the bowling front, was a fellow Lions campaigner and will have gained valuable experience with wickets taken on pitches not helpful to seamers.

On the spin front, experienced campaigner Claude Henderson and his protégé Jigar Naik bowled well in tandem in the second half of the season and should prove useful again on the occasions Leicestershire play two spinners. Last year’s excellent overseas signing, Andrew McDonald, returns to Grace Road in May after his IPL stint with Delhi, and of course I would be remiss in not mentioning our redoubtable warhorse, Paul Nixon, who is coming back to fitness after knee surgery, and, last but not least, our captain, Matthew Hoggard, who in 2010 managed to keep his head while those in the boardroom were losing theirs.

Once again the team is a balanced mix of young talent and seasoned veterans. This year, hopefully, they will have less off-field disruption to deal with.

And hopefully fewer Sky News reporters for the wrong reasons. I might even be able to get some kip.

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