Cricket: Captain's investment in industry: Neil Fairbrother, the Lancashire leader, must concentrate on reviving Red Rose fortunes but success could aid personal aims. Derek Hodgson reports

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NOT that long ago Neil Fairbrother would have been thinking of himself this week. Of his chance as an England player in the second Texaco series. He tops the national batting averages, and he has been described as England's best one-day batsman.

Fairbrother, at 28, is all too conscious that as a regular Test player he can triple his county income. Losing his place could be the preliminary to a letter from his bank manager or building society. Yet Fairbrother's international aims seem, at least outwardly, less of a priority than his newly reinforced position as Lancashire's captain. He may not be able to afford to admit it but the Red Rose comes first, a situation that has been forced on him by Lancashire's internal politics.

When it was clear last summer that David Hughes would be stepping down as captain (virtually deposed by a cabal of senior players before the Benson and Hedges final) there was considerable debate as to who should be the next captain. Michael Atherton, captain of Cambridge and England opening batsman, was thought to be the establishment choice while Fairbrother, occasional England player, was one of three or four senior professionals who might have won the job.

It was then that Hughes, despite the weakness of his own position, and before he was appointed assistant manager, came out unequivocally in his column in the Manchester Evening News. 'Neil Fairbrother should be the next captain of Lancashire,' he wrote.

It was a bold stand by Hughes at a time where the Lancashire committee were themselves in a whirlpool of conflicting opinions: John Bower had replaced Chris Hassell as chief executive; a decision had to be taken on Hughes's future when it was clear that he would no longer be captain; and, if Hughes were given a management job, where would that leave Alan Ormrod, a highly successful cricket manager? Last, but certainly not least, who would be the new captain?

Fairbrother was a more acceptable candidate for the captaincy: he was older, recognised by such old sweats as Paul Allott and Graeme Fowler, and less likely to be required regularly by England than Atherton. Ormrod was named cricket manager but Hughes, the assistant manager, was in charge of the first team, a nonsense if ever there was one.

Then came 1992, a summer without Wasim Akram but with a new overseas professional, Danny Morrison - who fired only intermittently - a series of injuries to Phillip DeFreitas and a nagging hamstring for the new captain. Atherton, when not required by England, led the side as often as Fairbrother. The summer was saved from total disaster and a pavilion revolt only by the batting feats of the younger generation of Nick Speak, Graham Lloyd and John Crawley.

Fairbrother missed five Championship matches when the season is lost or won, returned against Yorkshire, scored 166 but lost the match. With the county 16th in the table and out of all the one-day competitions a win against Surrey at Lytham merely delayed the brewing storm that finally broke last week when Lancashire indulged in what a local newspaper called 'A Night of the Long Knives'.

At a three-hour committee meeting Fairbrother was asked who he preferred in charge of cricket matters. He replied: 'David Hughes'. Ormrod, who had never been forgiven by some committee members for not informing them of the captaincy change in the Benson and Hedges final, was fired. So, too, were Fowler and Allott, once Hughes's position had been confirmed. They had survived last summer only on the insistence of Ormrod.

The Hughes-Fairbrother axis was established. One question has been put, repeatedly, by some of the club's 13,700 members: 'How can the man in charge of the second team be blamed for the first team's poor performances?'

After 10 weeks without a win, Fairbrother said with some relief, after the Lytham victory: 'I'm very pleased for the youngsters that they now know what it's like to win. The cricket we've been playing had been positive enough but young players, especially, have to see some results if they are to keep their confidence and form.'

Last week he spoke in terms that made Hughes's preference for him as captain understandable. It was Brian Close, of modern leaders, who first spelled out exactly what was needed when he said: 'Being a captain means giving. You have to give to the team all the time. You don't matter. The team is everything.'

Fairbrother told his men: 'There may be nothing to play for this season but there are places to win and any Lancashire player who doesn't go out to win won't be here for very long. To be in with a shout for next season we have to do it this year and players must know that they are playing now for a place in next year's team.'

Does Fairbrother, the 100 per cent Lancashire captain, automatically exclude Fairbother, the explosive middle- order England batsman? Not at all. If Neil Harvey Fairbrother pulls Lancashire round, if he should win their first Championship since 1933 (and that, with Wasim back and their batting power, is no long shot) he emerges as a prime contender, and a challenger to Alec Stewart, for Graham Gooch's job.

While such a progression would please Lancashire pride it also projects some awkward situations for an embattled committee. The prospect of Atherton and Crawley opening for England is a very real one; losing Fairbother as well would mean that the club's three principal batsmen, the captain and the vice- captain could miss half the Championship fixtures.

Modernists would say that as the trio would be occupying television screens for much of the summer such a selection would be no hardship to Lancashire's followers. Essex and Middlesex, after all, have undergone similar handicaps. But do Lancashire's huge membership pay to see their players wearing the Red Rose or the three lions?

(Photograph omitted)