Cricket: Agnew tunes in to Essex challenge

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TO SEE the BBC cricket correspondent - no, not Brian Johnston - bowling to Graham Gooch, the world's premier batsman, should in itself put a few extra spectators on the gate at Grace Road today.

After pleas from his former team-mates Nigel Briers, James Whitaker and county coach Jack Birkenshaw, Jon Agnew will return to bowl for Leicestershire against Essex in the NatWest Trophy semi-final. The romantics will cheer, the sceptics will scoff.

In 1990, Agnew finished a fast bowling career for Leicestershire and England (three caps yielding four wickets at, he will blush to recall, 93.25 apiece), was briefly cricket correspondent at Today before becoming BBC Radio's correspondent last year. Agnew is 32 and has not played first-class cricket for two years, a short enough time to remember how much stress a 60-over knockout match can place on stamina, muscles and adrenalin levels. Matches have been won and lost many times in this competition because one or more of the five nominated bowlers have not been fit enough to complete 12 good overs.

Agnew admitted yesterday: 'I have played in a couple of charity matches and I've done some light training since the county asked me to come back but there's a huge difference between that and playing in a NatWest Trophy semi-final. I don't want to look a fool. I'm only medium pace now and I just want to get through my 12 overs.'

Leicestershire have to patch up a team to face the county champions and leaders Essex without their spearhead bowler David Millns, who has a thigh strain, and their all-rounder Vince Wells, who has a twisted knee. Essex will be lacking the injured Neil Foster and their overseas professional Mark Waugh, who has been claimed by Australia for the invasion of Sri Lanka.

If Leicestershire, with or without Agnew, do manage to beat Essex it will surely rank with one of the great upsets in the history of this competition; if it's any consolation to Briers, Essex's overall record is far from brilliant: they have lost 28 of their 62 ties.

A much tighter contest is in propsect at Edgbaston where Warwickshire, who have the third-best record (behind Lancashire and Middlesex) in 60-over play, meet Northamptonshire, whose record includes the rather embarrassing statistic of four losing finals.

The visitors can expect a pitch that will be tailored to suit the four-man Test attack that sunk Kent in the quarter-final, led by Allan Donald. There is a difference in that Northamptonshire have their own big cannon, capable of answering shell for shell, in Curtly Ambrose.

They also have a much stronger batting order and this match may revolve around the supporting bowlers: can Gladstone Small, Tim Munton and Dermot Reeve outbowl Paul Taylor, David Capel amd Nick Cook?

Leicestershire's rise,

Lamb's tale, page 27