Cricket: Briers profits from shrewd investment: Another side from the Midlands is making a Championship run. Jon Culley reports Leicestershire confound the sceptics

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The Independent Online
'WHY unexpected?' Nigel Briers asks when the word is used to describe Leicestershire's presence among the front runners in the County Championship. 'What is so unexpected about Leicestershire doing well? We aren't a bad side, are we?'

It is a reaction not untypical of the unsung Midland county's 39-year-old captain. His five years in office have often involved trying to convince doubters that he is not in charge of a sinking vessel.

Briers was awarded his stripes when David Gower left for Hampshire in 1990, a departure which added to a sense of regret at Grace Road that a team of promise, developed in the late Eighties, had fragmented without realising its potential.

In Gower's wake, Leicestershire have sailed through turbulent seas, parting with Bobby Simpson, manager for two years, then Chris Lewis and Winston Benjamin in a series of mutinous incidents, the most spectacular of which ended with the resignation of the admiral himself, Mike Turner, the chief executive, last September.

But in calmer times they find themselves in better shape. Indeed, had they not squandered a winning position against Yorkshire at Harrogate earlier this month, Leicestershire would be leading the Britannic Assurance table. As it is they are handily placed in third behind Surrey and Warwickshire and do not doubt their ability to stay in the race, regardless of what the odds in the betting shops might say.

'Everyone seems surprised to see us at the top but it is no surprise to us,' Briers said. 'The side has changed in various ways and what is happening now has really been building up over three or four years.

'It takes time for new players to settle in and begin to play with confidence as a team but they are coming good and we now have a side with depth and balance. I don't see many counties with seven batsmen as strong as the first seven on our card as well as five seam bowlers and a specialist spinner.'

Shrewd recruitment by Jack Birkenshaw, a member of Leicestershire's only Championship-winning team in 1975 and now cricket manager, has been the key. Vince Wells, whose Kent career seemed to be going nowhere, has blossomed into a match- winning all-rounder at Grace Road.

Last week, against Durham, he took a hat-trick in the Championship and scored a Sunday League century. Adrian Pierson, the off-spinner released by Warwickshire, has also revived his fortunes to Leicestershire's benefit.

Birkenshaw's smartest move has been to engage Phil Simmons, the West Indian all-rounder, as overseas player in place of Benjamin, a signing Briers acknowledges as the major factor behind the county's title challenge. 'Phil's contribution has been immeasurable. He has added punch to the batting, taking pressure off the other batsmen because he scores very quickly, and has taken vital wickets.

'People have been questioning the value of overseas players, but Phil is totally team-orientated. You would give him 200 per cent for effort every time and he is always motivating and encouraging other players. I would swap him for no one, not even Brian Lara.'

Simmons began explosively, scoring 261 to enable Leicestershire to beat Northamptonshire on his debut, upstaging Lara before his fellow Trinidadian kicked off with 147 the following day. The effect, according to Briers, was to create a 'terrific feeling and atmosphere' in the dressing-room, which has lasted.

As befits a schoolteacher - he takes the princes, William and Harry, for history and games at Ludgrove - Briers is strong on discipline and hard work.

It is a matter, he says, of instilling professional attitudes, much along the lines on which Ray Illingworth created a Championship team in 1975. 'We have emphasised how important it is to try to win every game because the chance to be champions does not come around very often,' Briers said.

'We have not been as consistent as we might have been. We should have beaten Yorkshire. But then again it served as a reminder that you can't afford to waste an opportunity and we really went for the throat against Durham.' Birkenshaw played another winning stroke there, introducing an unknown left-arm fast bowler, the Birmingham-born Alamgir Sheriyar, who capped an impressive debut with a second-innings hat-trick.

'In a way, it helps that no one fancies us,' Briers said. 'We hear people talking about Surrey and Warwickshire for the title and tend to think, 'How dare they write us off'. It just spurs us on a little bit more.'