Cricket / County-by-County Guide to the Cricket Season: Lara's genius adds spice to season

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THERE will be many a pulled hamstring suffered on the road to Edgbaston this season as a succession of bowlers ponder the prospect of running into Brian Lara.

In a domestic game sated with overseas players since they made their debut 26 years ago, Lara's imminent arrival at Warwickshire has created a stir probably not matched since Gary Sobers, as he then was, played for Nottinghamshire in that inaugural year.

Even before Lara's eclipse of Sir Garfield's record, his signing looked a smart bit of business; now it appears the best way of attracting members since Glamorgan put Matthew Maynard inside a 6ft daffodil last winter.

Sobers, for all the damage he did to the streets of Swansea and Malcolm Nash's bowling average, never won the title for Notts and Lara is unlikely to do so for a Warwickshire side who lack penetrative bowling.

More likely challengers to the holders, Middlesex, are Kent, Glamorgan or Northamptonshire, although Worcestershire and Derbyshire are outside bets. The move to four-day cricket has placed more emphasis on deep batting orders and balanced bowling attacks with spinners growing in stature.

Last year they were Middlesex's strength, Phil Tufnell and John Emburey sharing 127 wickets. The improving Robert Croft took 54 wickets for Glamorgan but the other four counties' strength is in seam bowling. Kent, with nine such bowlers, several of whom can bat, look the best equipped but they were also a lot of people's favourites last year and need, their coach, Daryl Foster, said, 'a good start'.

'If our strike bowlers stay fit and fresh we have a good chance,' he added. Slow bowling depends on Min Patel, who has lots of promise but is entering his first full season.

The spinners' trade has been further raised by Ray Illingworth's appointment as chairman of the England selectors. Illingworth, a fan of the four-day game, would also welcome a splitting of the title into two divisions but, in some respects, that has already happened. Although 10 counties have won trophies in the last four years, only four have taken the Championship in the last 15 - Essex (six), Middlesex (three), Worcestershire and Notts (two each). A small club, but by no means made up exclusively of the wealthy clubs.

The most unsuccessful counties have been Surrey (last trophy in 1982), Kent (1978) and Gloucestershire (1977). The presence of Kent and Surrey proves that large memberships and bank vaults do not, in cricket, translate into trophies.

After the last few weeks those counties not going abroad - like Kent and Somerset - are likely to be rusty early on compared with those going overseas. Portugal (Middlesex, Glamorgan) and Zimbabwe (Worcestershire, Warwicks) have been popular while Yorkshire's three weeks in the Caribbean should leave them nicely acclimatised for Headingley in spring.

It can be difficult to get it right. Last year Notts went to South Africa, encountered the worst weather in a generation and spent two days outdoors at a cost of pounds 10,000. Saving that sum would have enabled them to afford Lara. Lancashire and Northants, meanwhile, warmed up at Ampleforth College and a health farm respectively so look out for a slimline Allan Lamb.

Coming soon will be his former countrymen after a 29-year absence, preceded by New Zealand. This is good scheduling by the Test and County Cricket Board: first a team to beat, then one to watch with Jonty Rhodes being this year's answer to Shane Warne. Surprisingly, they have missed one marketing opportunity: with both sides in the country together a three-way, one-day series looks irresistible, but instead two Texaco matches act as book-ends to the international summer.

In the domestic hit-and-run arena, the AXA & Equity Sunday League reverts to 40 overs, much to the disappointment of Glamorgan, who thus enter Wisden as the only winners of a 50-over competition. Adrian Dale, whose all-round talents typified their blend of deep batting and efficient bowling, said: 'It seems odd that, with all international cricket being played over 50 overs, we do not have one competition of that length. It was only an extra two overs a bowler.'

No change, however, in the Benson & Hedges Cup - where two of Middlesex, Northants, Surrey and Somerset will be out before the end of April - or the NatWest Trophy, though the Dutch will play in the latter next year.

As last year's finals, in which both winners were without an overseas player, suggest, most teams are capable of stringing together four or five wins to take a cup. So, when punting, look for the long odds and hope for a few moments of individual brilliance, or consistently resolute teamwork. Somerset (25-1) and Yorks (33) in the B & H, Sussex (25) in the NatWest and Derbyshire (20) for the Sunday League are possibilities. Anyone who backed Warwickshire at 18-1 for the B & H must be chuckling. Post-Lara they are already 14 and falling.

COUNTY CHAMPIONSHIP ODDS: 4 Middlesex; 6 Essex; 8 Kent, Northamptonshire, Worcestershire; 10 Surrey; 12 Glamorgan, Somerset; 14 Derbyshire, Lancashire; 16 Nottinghamshire; 20 Sussex; 25 Hants, Warwickshire; 33 Leicestershire; 50 Yorkshire; 100 Gloucestershire; 200 Durham.

(Photograph omitted)