Cricket: County set trying to make the breakthrough

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Derbyshire

Matthew Cassar: So far better known as the other half of Jane Smit, wicketkeeper-batsman of the England women's team, this may be year for the Australian-born all-rounder to emerge from that shadow. Overcame early injury last season to produce telling late form in which he averaged below 30 with ball and above it with bat. Similar returns would secure place but his adopted county will still be up against it. New captain Dominic Cork may be - and will need to be - inspirational.

Captain: Dominic Cork.

Coach: Andrew Hayhurst

Overseas player: Matthew Slater, wonderfully entertaining opener with array of glorious attacking shots.

Last year: Championship 16th; NWT qf; B&H 3rd, group A; Axa 14th

This year: Championship 18th. Odds: 25-1

Hidden blessing: The Derby green tops, which their gifted seam attack may exploit.

Glamorgan

Dean Cosker: Huge hopes almost as much as great expectations are being invested in the 20-year-old slow left-arm bowler, largely because there are so few emerging proficient spinners around. The signs are good: he is learning to turn the ball, he has a control of flight and, what finger spinners need above all, patience and a sunny disposition. Glamorgan, surely unable to repeat last summer's heroics, may have a bowler here for two decades.

Captain: Matthew Maynard. Coach: Alan Jones

Overseas player: Waqar Younis. Swept away fitness doubts last summer but has had another hard winter for Pakistan. Two or three spectacular, toe-crunching, performances loom.

Last season: Championship 1st; NWT sf; B&H 3rd, group D; Axa 13th

This year: 6th

Hidden blessing: Tony Cottey's unfamiliarly dreadful form (avg 24) last year. He will not perform as badly again and as Steve James is unlikely to be so productive the twain should converge.

Kent

Ed Smith: Will not be available until after the Cambridge term, but it is difficult to see him failing to gain his place in a Kent upper order which has so often failed to match the sum of its parts. Indeed, Smith's refreshing return may be exactly what is required as the season turns its corner. What stands out about the stylish opener is his willingness to work and his realisation of what is needed. Must improve shot selection but it is to his benefit that he is going into a side full of accomplished players.

Captain: Steve Marsh. Coach: John Wright

Overseas player: Carl Hooper. Cool Carl, a cool hero in the Garden of England, whose canny off-spin may be as essential as his lustrous batting.

Last year: Championship 2nd; NWT 1st rd; B&H runners-up; Axa 2nd

This year: Champions. Odds: 6-1

Hidden blessing: Being the perpetual bridesmaid can be hard to bear, but it probably prepares you for being a magnificent bride when the time comes - as it now has.

Middlesex

David Nash: Partly a beneficiary of a belated but determined attempt to blood youth, partly replete with natural talent, he went on the England A tour in the winter. Having scored his maiden hundred in the final match of 1997 he will stake a claim for a place in a good-looking middle order. He has always looked to possess the necessary batting credentials but his wicketkeeping - unlikely to get an outing this year - could eventually be as important. If he learns the tricks of that trade a genuine all- rounder will emerge.

Captain: Mark Ramprakash. Coach: John Buchanan.

Overseas player: Justin Langer. Under-employed by Australia last summer, but mightily attacking strokeplayer in characteristic Antipodean mould.

Last year: Championship 4th ; NWT qf; B&H 5th in group D; Axa 16th

This year: 7th. Odds: 8-1

Hidden Blessing: Hidden in the field, that is - the presence of Mike Gatting, who will impart untold knowledge to all that youth.

Somerset

Marcus Trescothick: Seems to have been on the verge of a breakthrough virtually since breakthroughs were invented. He was a prolific schoolboy cricketer who rode high and mighty with England junior teams. He has struggled to bridge the gap since but there have been four first-class hundreds and a second-team triple hundred. Somerset insist they have faith. They have tried to help his temperament and the defects in his technique. For the sake of their batting they desperately need to be rewarded.

Captain: Peter Bowler. Coach: Dermot Reeve

Overseas player: Mushtaq Ahmed. A great leg-spinner who knows how to expose a batsman's fragilities. May not be fresh and may also wish to be bowling at his own batsmen.

Last year: Championship 12th; NWT 2nd rd; B&H qf; Axa 6th.

This year: 17th. Odds: 33-1

Hidden Blessing: Reeve's decision to restrict comeback to one-day stuff. Coaches who play, especially hyperactive ones, can complicate matters.

Warwickshire

Graham Welch: One of the sorts of English cricketers who have become fashionable and fashionable to knock: a medium-paced all-rounder. Such players have often brought a competitive edge to the Championship and this rugged, red-headed son of Durham is in that tradition. He has improved with each year in an assured side and now lends balance to it. He is not of true Test potential (though he can swing it to order) but if his batting can yield greater returns one-day caps may arrive.

Captain: Brian Lara. Coach: Phil Neale.

Overseas player: Brian Lara. If he is motivated, recall 1994 for all you need to know.

Last season: Championship 4th; NWT runners-up; B&H qf; Axa winners

This year: 5th. Odds: 9-2

Hidden blessing: What with Ed Giddins, banned for cocaine while with Sussex, and Keith Piper showing traces of cannabis in a test last summer, they can now, you would have thought, depend on having the cleanest living side in the country.

Durham

Melvyn Betts: It is said that a prominent England batsman once described him as the worst new-ball bowler he had faced, but Betts has stuck at his task gamely. He returned the best innings analysis in the Championship (9 for 64) last summer and having seemingly overcome injury tendencies has also discovered more control of his away swing. Can bowl at genuine pace and this could be the season he reaches maturity, though unless the batsmen demonstrate a consistency which has constantly eluded them, this is not a state likely to be achieved by his side.

Captain: David Boon. Coach: Norman Gifford.

Overseas player: David Boon averaged 44 in the Sheffield Shield this year, and his hard-nosed captaincy took Tasmania to the final.

Last year: Championship 17th; NWT 1st rd; B&H 3rd, group B; Axa 17th

This year: 16th. Odds: 500-1

Hidden blessing: Poor for so long that opponents might assume points are in bag, whence nobody is more equipped than Boon to snatch them.

Gloucestershire

Jonathan Lewis: Settled well after apprehensive beginning last summer. Can seem a tad too easygoing for a new-ball bowler and may find it easier as first change, which will give him the opportunity to watch a master at work. Whatever the rights and wrongs of overseas players (and there are many more rights) the likes of Lewis can only learn by watching the likes of Courtney Walsh at close quarters. The Glorious, a turn-up last year, are likely to need all their bowling to compensate for batting shortcomings.

Captain: Mark Alleyne. Coach: John Bracewell

Overseas player: Courtney Walsh. Popular, hard-working, enduringly effective, but may be about to be enjoyed for the last time.

Last season: Championship 7th; NWT 2nd rd; B&H 3rd, group C; Axa 11th

This year: 15th. Odds: 33-1

Hidden blessing: New Zealand may think little enough of their own coaches to have an Australian coaching the Test side but their former off-spinner John Bracewell will instil some steel.

Lancashire

Gary Keedy: The reasons to be optimistic about the Yorkshire-born left-arm spinner were to be found at The Oval last year, when Keedy bowled resourcefully in both innings after Lancashire made 592. As is the modern way, he often seems not to turn the ball enough. There is a school which says a few inches is enough, but if a yard does for Shane Warne it should do for everybody else. To help any advance, Keedy will need pitches to assist but Lancashire may have reasons not to provide them.

Captain: Wasim Akram. Coach: Dav Whatmore

Overseas player: Wasim Akram. Ready, willing, awesomely able, leading Lancashire should be a doddle after leading Pakistan.

Last year: Championship 11th; NWT 2nd rd; B&H 4th, group A; Axa 3rd

This year: 12th. Odds: 12-1

Hidden blessing: Not winning the Championship outright since 1934 (and, boy, should they have done) will make an extension to 65 years much easier to take.

Northamptonshire

Alec Swann: By no means assured of a place in their starting XI, the elder of two brothers on the county's books was not alone among the nation's young players in registering a maiden century late last summer. He is one of several there or thereabouts and as yet Northamptonshire have not declared their hand conclusively. But Swann has adhesive qualities and steady concentration (that century took seven hours). He would obviously draw encouragement from a prolonged run and some decent pitches.

Captain: Kevin Curran. Coach: John Emburey

Overseas player: Franklin Rose. Late replacement for the injured Paul Reiffel he is sharp but may not balance Devon Malcolm so well.

Last year: Championship 15th; NWT 2nd rd; B&H sf; Axa 9th

This year: 11th. Odds: 33-1

Hidden blessing: As a captain Rob Bailey did not lose form, but the team sank down the table. He accepted his relief of the burden with aplomb and will now help them to rise.

Surrey

Ben Hollioake: Those who have played for England might already be considered to have pushed open the door, but the bare facts are that Hollioake's highest county score is 76 and that his bowling average last summer was higher than his batting average. His gifts are indubitable, but confirmation may now be in order. He excelled on the England A tour, of course, and it is not beyond possibility that he scores a full England hundred before a Surrey one.

Captain: Adam Hollioake. Coach: Keith Medlycott

Overseas player: Saqlain Mushtaq. The best finger spinner around, a mysterious handful, but a long, long winter hardly makes him fresh.

Last year: Championship 8th ; NWT 2nd rd; B&H winners; Axa 5th

This year: 9th. Odds: 8-1

Hidden Blessing: Last summer they and everybody else were sure it was their year despite Test calls. England will call again but at least the burden of expectancy has been lifted.

Worcestershire

Reuben Spiring: After a season of rich promise in 1996, Spiring was afflicted with a mild dose of second-season syndrome last summer. But he ended it by being promoted to opener, filling the impressive boots of Tim Curtis. It may, if he seizes the opportunity, be the making of him. He had done little after scoring a century in Graham Gooch's farewell match but he and the blossoming Phil Weston have the chance to pave an innings for the likes of Hick and Moody. Pity Spiring is not also a fast bowler.

Captain: Tom Moody. Coach: Bill Athey.

Overseas player: Tom Moody. The long fellow leads by hard-hitting, hard- nosed example and if you don't compete in his side you don't play.

Last year: Championship 3rd; NWT 2nd rd; B&H 5th group A; Axa 8th

This year: 8th. Odds: 10-1

Hidden blessing: A damp start to the summer, which will see the extremely dangerous Phil Newport, a May giant, seam them to respectability before it's too late.

Essex

Robert Rollins: Troubled by finger injury last year his wicketkeeping was not as assured as it should have been, his batting steadfastly refused to advance. But Rollins is swift and delicate behind the stumps. Likes to give the ball a thump and it seems, by being moved up the order, he will have more batting authority thrust upon him. If he responds he will have serious aspirations of a long-term England future. Equally, it will reinforce the county's competitiveness in all four trophies. They look daunting.

Captain: Paul Prichard. Coach: Keith Fletcher

Overseas player: Stuart Law. In full flow there has been no finer sight in English cricket for two seasons and he shows no sign of abating.

Last year: Championship 8th; NWT winners; B&H qf; Axa 7th

This year: 2nd. Odds: 7-1

Hidden blessing: Graham Gooch's retirement mid-way through last season. It left the team unbalanced, but it means they have already re- adjusted for this year's campaign.

Hampshire

Alex Morris: Deemed surplus to requirements by Yorkshire, Morris is another from the Broad Acres who may find fulfilment elsewhere. Sunshine in which to make hay will not always be easily available in a modest Hampshire side but the former captain of England Under-19 should prosper from an extended run. He struggled with both bat and ball as a fringe Yorkshire player and now needs to develop on both fronts. Has reserves of talent which at 21 could yet be tapped.

Captain: Robin Smith. Coach: Malcolm Marshall

Overseas player: Nixon McLean. And they said the Caribbean production line had dried up (see Hidden Blessing)

Last year: Championship 14th; NWT 2nd rd; B&H 5th group C; Axa 15th

This year: 13th. Odds: 66-1

Hidden blessing: The late withdrawal of Mike Kasprowicz brought in the enthusiastic, quick-learning and decisively swift Nixon McLean. By season's end it may be McLean the Mean Machine.

Leicestershire

Iain Sutcliffe: Most of the plaudits of late have gone the way of Darren Maddy, but Sutcliffe was among those who might have gone on the A tour had the selectors got out of bed a different way on the morning they met. He played some neatly composed innings in 1997, revealed an expansive range of shots and established himself in the middle order both as Championship innings builder and one-day rock. He gives the Leicestershire line-up a look which suggests they may be a better team individually than when they won the Championship two years ago.

Captain: James Whitaker. Coach: Jack Birkenshaw.

Overseas player: Phil Simmons. A hired gun who seemed to find his natural habitat. Missed last year. There'll be a big homecoming party.

Last year: Championship 10th; NWT 2nd rd; B&H sf; Axa 4th

This year: 4th. Odds: 9-1

Hidden blessing: Complete and utter absence of selectorial attention which might hurt individuals but makes for a "sod them all" team spirit.

Nottinghamshire

Mathew Dowman: If he hears the name of Shivnarine Chanderpaul again, the 23-year-old Dowman may assault the utterer of the dreaded words. In 1993 each made a double-century in the Under-19 series between England and West Indies. Dowman has taken the years since to establish himself in county cricket, a standing achieved at the tail-end of last year with five hundreds. If sense prevails, he will open with Tim Robinson in the latter's final season.

Captain: Paul Johnson. Coach: Alan Ormrod

Overseas player: Paul Strang. Kent must have thought hard about releasing him, and he can only heavily strengthen a weak attack.

Last season: Championship 13th; NWT qf; B&H 4th; Axa 12th

This year: 14th. Odds: 40-1

Hidden blessing: Having signed nobody last winter they have moved stealthily this time and the incoming Strang, Jason Gallian, Alex Wharf and Chris Read means that players not quite up to it will be hidden for good.

Sussex

Jason Lewry: A late developer with late swing, sadly lately injured. If the stress fracture to the back which kept him out last season does not restrict him, his addition could be invaluable. He was a Sussex fan and local club player before being noticed. Like many swing bowlers he does it without seeming to know how. He is bound to benefit from a revitalised dressing room. The club is ambitious again and nobody is more ambitious to play for it.

Captain: Chris Adams. Coach: Peter Moores.

Overseas player: Michael Bevan. Proven in English conditions, his run scoring (and that of the captain) will threaten one-day silverware.

Last year: Championship 18th; NWT sf; B&H 4th group C; Axa 18th

This year: 10th. Odds: 66-1

Hidden Blessing: The ineptitude of the old guard, which led to the departure of six players and the installation of the visionary chief executive Tony Pigott, who may just bring the 20th century to sleepy old Hove before it's too late.

Yorkshire

Michael Vaughan: He has played in 80 first-class matches, he has been on two England A tours and yet there is a real sense that he has not achieved what he might have done. But he is still only 23, the age at which a predecessor as Yorkshire opener, one G Boycott, made his Test debut. Vaughan is showing signs of maturity, which might happily coincide with Yorkshire's own conviction, in which case trophies beckon.

Captain: David Byas. Coach: Martyn Moxon

Overseas player: Darren Lehmann. Combines flair with approachability and a Yorkshire pugnacity which went down a storm last season.

Last year: Championship 6th; NWT qf; B&H qf; Axa 10th

This year: 3rd. Odds: 14-1

Hidden blessing: Since all but three of the other counties have Yorkshiremen on their books - testimony to the fact that the place still produces cricketers like no other - it must persuade the ones left that they are the chosen ones. Or not.

Compiled by Stephen Brenkley

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