Cricket: Foxes back in hunt

John Collis hears that the former champions are in a winning mood again
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The Independent Online
MIGHTY impressive though Leicestershire looked in sailing past Kent to reach the semi- finals of the Benson and Hedges Cup, they now have to face the side who trampled them at the same stage last year, Surrey. This time, though, they have home advantage on 9 June, and things could be different.

With the B&H the only competition to have taken meaningful shape so far, all seems well set at Grace Road. Champions two years ago, the Running Fox county were hindered more than most in their defence by 1997's dreadful weather, which cost them almost a third of the season in terms of overs lost. They were washed down to mid-table.

If they are to bounce back up again this season, much will depend on the team spirit that served them so well in 1996. The cricket manager Jack Birkenshaw said the news from the dressing-room was good and paid particular tribute to their overseas player Phil Simmons, one of the most effective imports on the circuit. "The feeling's been good and improving for a couple of years now. And Simmo fits in so well - he loves it, the crowd loves it. He's a good team man, always taking the positive attitude."

But the most high-profile factor in the Leicester side, of course, is the return of the wandering Chris Lewis, seven seasons after last using the home changing-room at Grace Road. When he signed, he could hardly have expected to be their full-time captain as well, but Leicester look like being without James Whitaker for a while yet. A knee operation during the winter has failed to heal, and further surgery is being considered.

Birkenshaw sees a transformation in the once-wayward Lewis: "Look, we all know he didn't do the best for himself in the past. But he seems a matured guy. He enjoys playing with the lads, and he's tuned back into Leicester very well. His captaincy has also been a bonus. He shows a lot of maturity, and he doesn't panic. He gets very excited when he's watching from the balcony, but he keeps calm on the field - very important."

The absence of Whitaker, a member of the one-Test club, is less of a handicap than it might be elsewhere. "We're very well off for batters here," Birkenshaw said. "Darren Maddy and Iain Sutcliffe have both come through beautifully, for instance, and Aftab Habib has taken his chances."

In fact, there is just one alarming statistic that Leicestershire must address urgently, one that in most limited-overs matches would have ensured that they finished in second place. Out of Kent's hopelessly inadequate 158 in the quarter-final, Carl Hooper scored 60 and the only other significant tally was Extras 55. The keeper Paul Nixon is an innocent man - of these bonus balls 24 were wides and 20 were no balls. Furthermore, Leicester broke their own record in conceding this many. "All our boys swing it a bit," is Birkenshaw's slightly abashed defence. "But, yes, it's giving the opposition another six or seven free overs. It's a very fine line - get it a bit wrong and it's a wide. The umpires did say that a lot of them started off on the sticks. Unfortunately they didn't stay there. And no balls can spread like a disease."

A glance at the analysis reveals no particular sinner, since the Kent total was so small. James Ormond was the most expensive, but nipped out three batsmen, while Simmons took five cheaply. Leicestershire will be keenly aware that Surrey, the title holders, are unlikely to be as forgiving as Kent if the one cloud over Grace Road is not blown away before the semi- finals. "We were all over the place," admitted Birkenshaw, "but it won't happen again."