Cricket / Benson and Hedges Cup Final: High hopes for Hampshire's humble heroes: Familiar territory for the Connor and James gang. Michael Austin reports

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The Independent Online
CRICKETERS love inflicting bizarre nicknames on each other - just as cartoonists exaggerate physical features. Even so, the 'king' of Anguilla and 'Jocky', alias Cardigan Connor and Kevan James, will be instantly recognisable at Lord's on Saturday.

Connor and James, both 31, are far from Hampshire's most celebrated players in the Benson and Hedges Cup final against Kent - but they are still capable of turning the match. They emerged from such differing backgrounds as the West Indies and Lambeth, yet their indomitable spirit and dedication is known by many opponents.

Neither is overawed about the Lord's prospects. The thought of performing in front of 20,000 or so spectators fills them with confidence, rather than fear. James, with a personality as sunny as Connor's, said: 'The more experienced you are in playing in front of a big crowd, the better you can cope. Our extra first-hand knowledge of that atmosphere must help. Kent were last in a final six years ago - we were there last September.'

Connor confessed: 'In our first final four years ago, I could not pitch the ball where I wanted. I was trying to run in too quickly but last year, I knew I could not afford to put pressure on myself. I was relaxed and bowled much better.'

Hampshire won both finals, beating Derbyshire in the Benson and Hedges in 1988 and Surrey in the NatWest Trophy last summer. 'We are favourites for the first time,' Connor said, with a mixture of pride and regret. Almost every sportsman prefers the underdog label.

Connor's regal nickname stems from his status as the first Anguillan to join the first-class ranks. The island has 8,000 inhabitants and covers only 35 square miles. 'Just big enough for a pitch and putt course,' Connor said.

In biographical terms, Connor is a one-off. He came to England when he was 15 to join his parents, who had emigrated to Slough. Five seasons of Minor Counties cricket for Buckinghamshire blossomed into winter nets at Lord's, where he met James.

They played a few games together for Middlesex IIs before Connor signed on special registration for Hampshire, who had upstaged Nottinghamshire and Sussex for his services. No sooner had Connor played two second team games than he made his County Championship debut against Somerset, appropriately on 30 May - 'Anguilla Day' - without Nick Pocock, his captain, having previously seen him bowl.

When Connor dismissed Julian Wyatt with his 17th delivery, he responded to Pocock's congratulations with a polite: 'Thank you, sir.' His team-mates fell about, to Pocock's mock chagrin.

Slim and athletic, Connor stands only 5ft 9in and is in his ninth season with Hampshire. Before being a county professional, he took a winter off from his job as a mechanical engineer to pay his own way to play in Newcastle, New South Wales.

Tim Tremlett, Hampshire's coach, is impressed with the attitude as well as the ability of both Connor and James. 'Cardigan has been close to winning man of the match awards in two recent semi- finals,' he said. 'He has become a meaner bowler and his pace surprises batsmen. He bowls bouncers, skids the ball through and has developed two different slower balls. In tight situations, he is especially valuable.'

Both players work on the philosophy that as well as technique, peak fitness is essential. Connor, who once bowled 40 overs of fast-medium in a day, has a classical cork-shaped upper body, while James belies the 'Jocky' nickname, derived from the darts player: his team- mates suggest that he has put on a bit of weight since suffering a back injury two years ago.

James, six days older than Connor, has reversed roles from a left-arm seam bowler who can bat to a batsman who can bowl. Last summer, he passed 1,000 runs for the first time and has appeared in almost as many positions in the order for Hampshire as Tremlett did during his own career.

The Australians will long remember James for a stunning swing and seam performance which brought a career-best 6 for 22 against them for Hampshire seven years ago, soon after being released by Middlesex at his own request. The tourists were hustled out for 76, narrowly saving the follow-on and the match.

James regards those figures and the NatWest final last September as his career highlight - up to now. His tongue- in-cheek low point was putting too much weedkiller on a club square while working as a groundsman in Auckland a few years ago. 'The outfield looked a treat, though,' he chuckled.

Few players make a success of part- time opening, but James has this summer when being uplifted briefly through the absence of Paul Terry. Tremlett believes that James would command a regular place at No 3 in batting sides lacking the prodigious talents of David Gower and Robin Smith. His role at Lord's will be at No 6 and first change bowler.

James relishes the prospect, content that the final should be regarded as a 'day out' to reduce the pressure. 'Last year, I felt more anxious in the semi-final against Warwickshire,' he said. 'Cardigan and Aqib Javed bowled so well in the final that the batsmen did not put the squeeze on Jon Ayling or me. It did not seem that hard a game.'

Whatever the outcome or whatever the rest of the season holds, James will spend three months working diligently on his technique in the nets at Southampton, just as he has during the past three winters. Connor's plans include coaching in Anguilla, where he is concerned about the declining level of the game in schools. If Hampshire win on Saturday, the islanders might even address him as 'your royal highness.'

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