A new start for the old Championship and 'Syd'

opening games in the county cricket season
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The Independent Online
The anachronism that is the County Championship throws open its doors to the public once more this morning, and once more the public will be conspicuous only by their absence.

While television continues to pump more and more money into the game in this country, newspapers devote more space to it and Test matches sell out faster than ever before, the County Championship plods on in its own peculiar way, defying the laws of good business.

By this time next year, the Championship may be unrecognisable from what we have known for the past 100 years. "There are some amber lights flashing over our game and we have to respond," says Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the newly established English Cricket Board.

But for the moment everything is just about how it always was and Leicestershire, as champions, may find life uncomfortable in the opening weeks. Phil Simmons, such a pivotal figure last season, will not be available before the end of May, and they are considering filling his all-rounder's boots with Neil Johnson, a South African.

Should Leicestershire bat first today at Grace Road, they are likely to be confronted by David "Syd" Lawrence, playing his first Championship match in five years. Lawrence, now 33, has made a most unlikely recovery after twice breaking his kneecap. Fingers will be crossed for a popular man as he charges in with that familiar all-in wrestling action of his.

There are, as ever, a number of young players of whom great things are expected, and this summer they all seem to play for Surrey: their new captain Adam Hollioake; his baby brother Ben, England's latest fast bowling hope Alex Tudor; Mark Butcher, an opener already knocking on England's door. Surrey are so strong that, even without an overseas player, they can afford to leave the younger Hollioake and Alistair Brown out of their side to face Dermot Reeve's Somerset at The Oval today.

Reeve's former team-mates at Warwickshire might be back to something like their fighting weight, now that Allan Donald has returned to spearhead the attack. Under their new captain, Tim Munton, they are the bookies' early favourites. Today's visit to Cardiff will be a strange way to start for their latest acquisition, the left-handed bat David Hemp, who last played for Glamorgan.

Kent and Derbyshire, fourth and second respectively last season, will both be disappointed with anything less than a winning start. Something may have to give at Canterbury and Kent, with a new captain and a new coach, will be hoping Paul Strang, their leg-spinning recruit from Zimbabwe, will make all the difference.

It would be no surprise to find Essex or Lancashire leading the way in the first few weeks. Lancashire, especially, have the staff to make mincemeat of most opponents and David Boon would have hoped for an easier start to his Durham captaincy than a visit to Old Trafford.

At Chelmsford Essex entertain Hampshire, for whom the Australian Matthew Hayden makes his debut. With Hayden, Robin Smith and the promising Jason Laney in their first five, Hampshire should not want be found wanting for runs this season.

The Graeme Hick bandwagon has already started to roll, and it does not normally take long for the England selectors to climb aboard. A couple of early hundreds for Worcestershire should do the trick, and who better to start with than Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge?

And so to Hove, where expectations are so low you almost expect to find Sussex have become a registered charity. Having lost six first-team players over the winter, finishing bottom may even prove beyond them. Northamptonshire take the first pot shots today.

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