County focus; Russell breaks the personality cult

Derek Pringle assesses the revival of Gloucestershire under a new captain
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The Independent Online
GLOUCESTERSHIRE have long been worth considerably less than the sum of their parts. Indeed the county's history has been so dominated by individuals that the team has variously been dubbed Graceshire, Proctershire and Walshshire by way of homage.

This idol worship tends to breed an over-reliance that inhibits success and stunts the growth of those who are crucial to the future. In 105 years Gloucestershire have won only the Gillette Cup - in 1973 - and the Benson and Hedges Cup four years later.

This season things are different. The enforced absence of last season's captain, the touring Courtney Walsh, has brought not only a change in the captaincy, but important roles and responsibilities for those who previously regarded themselves as bit-players in a one-star show.

The change has stemmed from the arrival of three players who, although from vastly different backgrounds, all possess the same nail-hard attitude towards winning. The trio: Javagal Srinath, a Test opening bowler from southern India whom Walsh himself recommended; Andrew Symonds, an exciting Birmingham-born but Brisbane-bred batsman; and Monte Lynch, an old warhorse discarded by Surrey, have transformed Gloucestershire from a side with promise to one of real purpose.

"Their attitude has been spot-on," said Jack Russell, the county's caretaker captain and another man widely praised for his great influence this season. "It has really rubbed off on the others. For our young lads to see someone like Symonds, who is only just 20, oozing aggression and confidence, has made them take a long hard look at themselves and toughen up.

"In the past, we used to worry if we were popular with the opposition or not. Now we don't care and we have a little buzz phrase we keep saying to each other - 'It's not Colditz out here is it?' meaning that we're not there to take prisoners. Controlled aggression is an ingredient that seems to be lacking in English cricket, and I think we genuinely surprised Lancashire with our attitude when we beat them at Cheltenham last week."

The progress has not all been about a quantum mental leap.Players are also performing consistently and well. Srinath has taken more than 50 wickets, while his recently capped new- ball partner, Mike Smith, an underachiever in the past, has taken almost as many with his whippy left-arm swingers. If there is a worry, it is that there is little depth or variety.

The batting has so far been anchored by Tony Wright, who has simply set himself to play long disciplined innings, around which strokemakers such as Symonds, Lynch and Mark Alleyne have all prospered. Russell too, has batted brilliantly under pressure, averaging just under 50, no mean feat for a keeper with captaincy worries. It has also clinched his recall to the Test team.

In the past Russell has been criticised for being too insular, a self- contained bundle of eccentricity that his team-mates often found it difficult to relate to. The captaincy has changed all that, with many in the West claiming that the sudden responsibility has stripped away a familiar facade to reveal something far more substantial.

"It's been a challenge," conceded Russell, a talented artist who was talking just after finishing practice at Old Trafford and just before a visit to Salford to take in the remains of Lowry's landscapes. Instead of being cocooned in my own world, I've had to take in the needs of others. It's brought out qualities even I wasn't sure I had."

It was Russell's experience of team regimentation being compromised to accommodate his quirkiness that made him aware of the need for flexibility when dealing with players.

There are 11 individuals that make up the framework of the team - you've got to cater for that," Russell insisted. "If Srinath and Smithy have had a hard day bowling, then they don't have to be in until 10.30am the next day. If it's a practice day, they can rest if they want to. All I ask of players is that they be there when I need them and that they give me maximum commitment and effort during the hours of play."

The response has been plain, and something of a revelation for long- standing supporters. At present sixth in the Championship, and with a home quarter-final tie in the NatWest Trophy against Northamptonshire next week, the season still promises much for Gloucestershire. Russell, though, is not fooled by talk of revivals. "We're definitely going in the right direction, but we haven't achieved anything yet. We really need to win a trophy before we can start patting ourselves on the back."

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