Cricket: Foreign policy: How the counties play their import card

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Derbyshire

Dean Jones: As the archetypal Aussie competitor, prepared to take every match to the wire, he transformed the county last year. They were in it until the end and Jones, still ravenous for success, imbued the other players with similar hunger. He is almost guaranteed to get big runs when it most matters and this well-balanced side, lacking only a spinner of real quality (this is not a unique shortcoming) will compete vigorously on all fronts. A second Championship, following that of 1936, cannot be ruled out but paradoxically their early season could be tough. Indeed, qualification from their Benson and Hedges Cup group is far from automatic.

Captain: Dean Jones. Coach: Les Stillman.

Player to watch: Andrew Harris, an improving seam bowler in the tradition who took 48 Championship wickets at 26.70 in 1996.

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

This year: Championship 4th.

Achilles heel: Likely to be reported under Noise Pollution Act. From Jones to the admirably restless wicketkeeper Karl Krikken to the desperate appealing of Dominic Cork, make Mrs Merton seem stuck for words.

Durham

David Boon: Another Aussie from a hard school whose deftness of touch and lightness of foot complement an unremitting approach. Whatever he achieved at Tasmania and with Australia, there is no tougher job than the one he has undertaken now. He will undoubtedly galvanise a side shorn of confidence and direction but despite the signings of Speight, Speak and Lewis, his five-year plan to deliver a Championship looks almost outrageously optimistic. Durham possess players of heart, epitomised by Simon Brown, and a seam attack of promise but Boon needs urgent help in the run-scoring department, which may not always be forthcoming.

Captain: David Boon. Coach: Norman Gifford.

Player to watch: Martin Speight. One of the Sussex departees, this adventurous batsman will resume wicketkeeping. A rich new career awaits after last year's 349 runs at 21.81.

Last year: Championship 18th; NWT 2nd round; B&H 5th in group A; Axa 18th.

This year: 15th.

Achilles heel: The vagaries of the Riverside pitch have seeped deep into the players' souls and they give the impression that playing on a minefield would be slightly preferable.

Essex

Stuart Law: Essex must be delighted that the Australian tourists consider themselves powerful enough to overlook such an exhilarating batsman. For some reason, probably Australia's enviable strength in depth, he has played only one Test and, despite making an unbeaten half-century, has never had another sniff. There is no reason to suppose he will not once more cut a swathe across England and his easy, explosive command of all manner of bowling, together with the rate at which he gathers his runs, will put Essex in contention. He and the great Graham Gooch will assuredly be among the leading batsmen again and if Mark Ilott can regain his powers of movement anything could happen.

Captain: Paul Prichard. Coach: Keith Fletcher.

Player to watch: Ashley Cowan. It is dangerously fashionable to talk up young fast bowlers as the next Trueman or Willis but Cowan has pace and perseverance. 37 wickets at 34.10 in 1996.

Last year: Championship 5th; NWT Runners-up; B&H 3rd, group C; Axa 17th.

This year: 5th.

Achilles heel: Post-traumatic stress after collapsing for 57 in the NatWest final; they lost their last two Championship matches.

Glamorgan

Waqar Younis: The overwhelming excitement in the valleys when Glamorgan snatched Waqar from under several other noses may have dissipated. Confusion exists both about his fitness and his arrival date. Is he suffering from a stress fracture of an ankle or merely a sore toe? There is also a whisper that he is not quite the potent destroyer of yore, but he will surely get bundles of wickets because, whatever the state of Waqar's toe, batsmen will be desperately concerned about theirs when that yorker homes in. The back-up of the estimable Steve Watkin and Robert Croft, famous overnight after seven diligent years of apprenticeship, and an order packed with runs promises handsome, deserved dividends.

Captain: Matthew Maynard. Coach: Alan Jones.

Player to watch: Alun Evans. A compact, well-ordered right-hand batsman, 21 and pugnacious in style. 148 runs at 24.66 in 1996.

Last year: Championship 10th; NWT: 1st round; B&H qf; Axa 13th.

This year: 6th.

Achilles heel: Or, in this case, Waqar's heel, not to mention his toe, ankle, shin and the lower back which could go again if he attempts to carry his wages to the bank.

Gloucestershire

Shaun Young: One of the less celebrated Australians, he is 27 and, like Boon, a Tasmanian. He has prospered in the Sheffield Shield but this assignment is a tall order. As overseas player he replaces Courtney Walsh and as batsman takes over from Andrew Symonds, who has finally declared himself an Aussie. If Young does not quickly adapt to West Country conditions it is difficult to see others making substantial contributions, for not a single player made 1,000 Championship runs last summer. The Australian's bowling will need to be more than serviceable too and the left-arm swing bowler Mike Smith can expect another season of concentrated toil.

Captain: Mark Alleyne. Coach: Andy Stovold.

Player to watch: Rob Cunliffe. His season was foreshortened by his mother's illness in 1996 but there is a substantial, watchable batsman trying to get out. 252 runs at 22.90 in 1996.

Last year: Championship 13th; NWT 2nd round; B&H qf; Axa 16th.

This year: 16th.

Achilles heel: With Hancock, Dawson and Ball there might be a worry about being branded comedians. Rumours they wanted Flanagan and Grayson from Essex can be discounted.

Hampshire

Matthew Hayden: Another of the highly talented Australians considered surplus to requirements in pursuit of the Ashes. Hayden, 25, made a maiden Test century at Adelaide against the West Indies but it was an innings noted for fortitude more than authority. His fortunes declined in South Africa. But his calibre is evident from his Sheffield Shield record and, giving the ball a fair thump like so many of his contemporaries, he should be a shoe-in for 1,200 runs. Set alongside a similar total from Robin Smith, Hampshire may not lack runs but wickets may be hard to come by.

Captain: John Stephenson. Coach: Malcolm Marshall.

Player to watch: Jason Laney. He has developed considerably, shoulders responsibility and his strokes are pleasant on the eye. 932 runs at 35.84 in 1996.

Last year: Championship 14th; NWT qf; B&H 3rd, group D; Axa 15th.

This year: 14th.

Achilles heel: Botham the younger has gone, to play rugby union. The loss may be telling because, whatever else Liam has acquired from his dad, he seemed to have inherited the most precious gift of all, a golden arm.

Kent

Paul Strang: The signing of the Zimbabwean leg-spinner, eagerly promoted by new captain and heartily endorsed by new coach, may be either inspired or foolhardy. Against England in the winter he won many admirers for his crafty assiduousness but in a career of 33 first-class games his 86 wickets have cost 36.25 each. Take away the 13 Tests and the figures are still a far from world-beating 54 at 34. But at 26 he looks the genuine article. Strang has accuracy and variety, fields well, bats stoically, has the reputation of being a thoroughly whole-hearted cricketer and will add a new dimension to the county's impressive attack.

Captain: Steve Marsh. Coach: John Wright.

Player to watch: Martin McCague. Apparently written off for good by England, this big, bruising hulk of a bowler generates pace and excitement. 75 wickets at 24.20 in 1996.

Last year: Championship 4th; NWT 2nd round; B&H qf; Axa 10th.

This year: 7th.

Achilles heel: Fit or not, some players - McCague, Graham Cowdrey and Matthew Walker to name but three - are big lads who may find it difficult to concentrate with "Who Ate All The Pies?" ringing round the St Lawrence.

Lancashire

Wasim Akram: You might get an argument for saying he is the best fast bowler in the world but only on flimsy evidence. Not the least of his assets is his longevity. Wasim has been around for 12 years, is still only 30 and has maintained an astonishing level of form. Batsmen never know what is coming next. Whether the great man can inspire the county to the prize they crave above all, the Championship, is another matter. They have a multiplicity of riches but that has been the case more than once in the 63 years since they won.

Captain: Mike Watkinson. Coach: Dav Whatmore.

Player to watch: Glen Chapple. This could be a seminal season for the sprightly seam bowler. His NatWest final figures of 6 for 18 were truly sensational but he he could do with more consistency. 45 wickets at 34.93 last year.

Last year: Championship 15th; NWT winners; B&H winners; Axa 9th.

This year: 11th.

Achilles heel: They're desperate to win the title, limited-over cups being almost two a penny at Old Trafford. But what do they do? Hire a coach whose greatest triumph was guiding Sri Lanka to the World Cup - a limited-over trophy.

Leicestershire

To be confirmed: There seem to be three possibles - last year's hero, the West Indian Phil Simmons, the South African Lance Klusener (right) or a late entrant, the Australian Paul Reiffel. Ideally, Leicester wanted the efficient, popular Simmons but international duties until the end of May make that unlikely. Negotiations elsewhere are still at the delicate stage. The South Africans may not be cock-a-hoop about Klusener's presence. Reiffel, 31, has English experience from the 1993 tour and may be more to Leicester's liking. The importance of an overseas player in winning the title was paramount and without one life may take a turn for the worse.

Captain: James Whitaker. Coach: Jack Birkenshaw.

Player to watch: Matthew Brimson. Without setting the world alight the left-arm spinner, a thoughtful cricketer, is now a dependable one, too. 29 wickets at 29.27 in 1996.

Last year: Champions; NWT 2nd round; B&H 3rd, group A; Axa12th.

This year: 9th.

Achilles heel: Injury or illness. Last year, they won the title using only 13 players. Inevitably, that cannot continue for another season.

Middlesex

Jacques Kallis: The 21-year-old is said to have a vast range of talents. Middlesex have been well-served by a South African before - Vintcent van der Bijl in 1980 - but it is possible on this occasion that Middlesex will do more for Kallis than he does for them. His national board have restricted his bowling and it is hard to avoid thinking that this may be a perfect preparatory season for the South African tour next summer. He should contribute his share of runs to a batting line-up which already looks formidable. But at risk of being confounded by a rejuvenated Angus Fraser, the bowling overall looks less than menacing.

Captain: Mike Gatting. Coach: Don Bennett.

Player to watch: Owais Shah. Impossible not to name him but, equally, it is important not to burden him with expectation. Still, at 18, he exudes batting class. 212 runs at 26.50 in 1996.

Last year: Championship 9th; NWT 2nd round; B&H 5th, group C; Axa 7th.

This year: 10th.

Achilles heel: The generation gap. With three college students and one schoolboy and seven players in their teens or just into their 20s, poor Gatting, 40 in June, may not have a clue what they're talking about.

Northamptonshire

Mohammad Akram: To some extent the 24-year-old fast bowler from Islamabad is an unknown quantity. He appeared in just one Test on Pakistan's tour here last year and in the match against Northamptonshire produced a low-key performance. Nor has he pulled up trees in any of his six Tests. But he is part of the production line of Pakistani pace and given the previous county successes of Wasim and Waqar is probably worth a tilt. He will need to take plenty of wickets to support Paul Taylor and the newcomer David Follett if the county are to haul themselves up the table, a feat they should manage with their batting.

Captain: Rob Bailey. Coach: John Emburey.

Player to watch: Mal Loye. His England A tour seems light years away (it is three conventional ones) but looks on the up again and at 24 remains lovely to watch. 974 runs at 46.38 in 1996.

Last year: Championship 16th; NWT 2nd round; B&H finalists; Axa 6th.

This year: 12th.

Achilles heel: They may pay the price for their admirable refusal to make concessions to the cult of ageism. Of their regular squad, six are 32 or above, proof that experience still counts in some places.

Nottinghamshire

Mohammad Zahid: Doubts about his eventual appearance at Trent Bridge seem to have been dispelled, which is welcome news for a dressing- room almost certainly in need of the uplift raw speed can give. In his one Test match for Pakistan the 20-year-old took 11 wickets for 130 runs. So far, seen by the county only on video - they were impressed. Not that he alone can turn around their woeful Championship showing last year when they provided as good a reason as any for changing the competition's format. This was barely relieved by Sunday form. Their senior players, the exemplary Tim Robinson apart, owe them.

Captain: Paul Johnson. Coach: Alan Ormrod.

Player to watch: James Hindson. A left-arm spinner who lost it briefly last year but is now said to be back in control, having been sensibly cosseted in the Second XI. Did not play in 1996.

Last year: Championship 17th; NWT 1st round; B&H 3rd in group B; Axa 2nd.

This year: 16th.

Achilles heel: No change in policy. Despite the experiences of 1996 they have enlisted no new faces, Mohammad Zahid, when and if he arrives, apart. This may be like getting your house rebuilt by the men who set it on fire.

Somerset

Mushtaq Ahmed: The wily, twirling genius is a true star of the modern game and Englishmen in general look no closer to playing him properly now than they did when he first emerged in the West in 1993. He is a marvellous bowler who could make the difference between eminent respectability for Somerset and another run-of-the-mill time. Much has been made of the arrival of an innovative coach, but this is what could make the bigger difference. If Mushtaq gets steady seam support and certain promising batsmen come off, many things could happen, but the "if" is a big one.

Captain: Peter Bowler. Coach: Dermot Reeve.

Player to watch: Marcus Trescothick. In 13 under-19 Tests he got four centuries and averaged almost 50 and while his progress since has not lived up to early hopes there is a free-flowing talent at work. 628 runs at 28.54 in 1996.

Last year: Championship 11th; NWT qf; B&H 4th in group C; Axa 5th.

This year: 13th.

Achilles heel: Experiments could prove costly for a team who have seldom got the runs they should have. The dynamic coach seems fervent about it, but it is to be hoped they have brushed up on strokes other than the reverse sweep.

Surrey

No overseas player: Surrey's excellent Australian coach, David Gilbert (right), in his way quite as valuable as any playing import, decided not to replace Brendon Julian when he was selected to tour with Australia. His policy speaks volumes for a squad brimming with confidence and talent. They have gifted youngsters and classy veterans, men at the peak of their game. England calls may force changes but will probably not disrupt them. The signing of Ian Salisbury looks shrewd and if they won the title without an overseas player, it would be to the embarrassment of the others.

Captain: Adam Hollioake. Coach: Dave Gilbert.

Player to watch: Lots, but Alex Tudor, the 19-year-old quick bowler, and Ben Hollioake, the 19-year-old all-rounder, epitomise their riches and the older sweat, the beneficiary Martin Bicknell, looks in fine fettle.

Last year: Championship 3rd; NWT sf; B&H qf; Axa 1st.

This year: Champions.

Achilles heel: Nobody has embraced modern concepts more than the people at the Oval but calling their Sunday side the Surrey Lions makes them sound like an organisation for men who meet the night after the Rotary Club.

Sussex

Vasbert Drakes: Drakes demonstrated genuine all-round qualities in his first season. He may need those and more this time because the county is still in shock after the turmoil of the winter. The overseas pro will surely have to fire on all cylinders constantly for them to avoid disaster. He may have to carry the bowling, despite promising youngsters, and there is no particular reason to think the batting will get them out of the mire. The recent administrative changes may spark an immediate improvement but it would not be a value-for-money bet.

Captain: Peter Moores. Coach: Desmond Haynes.

Player to watch: James Kirtley. Sussex, for some reason, keep turning up good swing or seam bowlers and if he does not have too much work the 21-year-old might take the wickets of quality batsmen. 16 wickets at 33.43 in 1996.

Last year: Championship 12th; NWT qf; B&H 4th, group D; Axa 14th.

This year: 18th.

Achilles heel: Palace revolutions are excellent in theory and frequently sound in practice. But they cannot help but spill blood, which then takes a while to mop up.

Warwickshire

Allan Donald: The South African has been a titan for the county and he will be bowling his heart out day in, day out again this summer. But his effectiveness, if not all of his pace, could have been diminished by the amount of cricket he has played. The great fast bowler has just had a tremendously hard winter with a gruelling series against Australia. Two more tours await him, to Pakistan in October and Australia in December. There are plenty of other wicket-takers around and some dedicated run gatherers, but there is a suspicion they are not quite the force they were.

Captain: Tim Munton. Coach: Phil Neale.

Player to watch: Ashley Giles. In a land where finger spinning is supposed to be extinct there seems to be a veritable crop of young left-arm spinners and Giles, with a good line and flight, may be the pick. 55 wickets at 27.81 in 1996.

Last year: Championship 8th; NWT 2nd round; B&H sf; Axa 4th.

This year: 8th.

Achilles heel: In their two heady years there was a school of thought which suggested they were the Manchester United of cricket, which proves both the danger of hubris and that there is only one Man United.

Worcestershire

Tom Moody: One who demonstrates again and again the enormous contribution of the overseas player. Moody's appetite for runs is insatiable and the thrilling manner in which he collects them sets the heart racing. The long fellow will be there once more leading from the front and maybe also leading his men to honours. There is a nice mix about the county and while Graeme Hick stirs up all sorts of mixed reactions, his record for them is simply unimpeachable. The runs will be plentiful and explosive but they might need the old warhorse Phil Newport, now 34, to mount something serious.

Captain: Tom Moody. Coach: David Houghton

Player to watch: Vikram Solanki. A long way to go but there are sound judges who say he has it all - eye, skill and athleticism - and if he makes the strides this year that he did last he will be ready to travel much further.

Last year: Championship 7th; NWT 2nd round; B&H 4th, group B; Axa 8th.

This year: 3rd.

Achilles heel: All the glorious batting in the world - and the insurance policies which may be necessary to protect nearby property - cannot disguise the lack of a genuine strike bowler.

Yorkshire

Darren Lehmann: Having done without for so long nobody could have moved more smartly to sign the South Australian once it was known Michael Slater was otherwise engaged. Lehmann has been a prolific scorer in cricket at home, suffering in international terms from the preponderance of splendid batsmen. He has the unenviable task of filling Michael Bevan's boots. If he comes close, Yorkshire, a tight unit under a tough, no-frills, no-nonsense general, will challenge for the heights, now their bowlers have regained their self-belief.

Captain: David Byas. Coach: Doug Padgett.

Player to watch: Anthony McGrath. Carefully nurtured by county and country, here is a maturing, versatile batsman ready at 21 to become a middle-order stalwart. 909 runs at 32.46 in 1996.

Last year: Championship 6th; NWT sf; B&H sf; Axa 3rd.

This year: 2nd.

Achilles heel: The Past. It haunts them: the ghosts of Hirst and Rhodes and Sutcliffe and the rest and the less ethereal figures of Trueman and Boycott. Odious comparisons are made, winning becomes ever harder.

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