Cricket: Holes appear in the legend of Leicestershire

Leicestershire 272 & 239-4 Surrey 501 Match drawn
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The Independent Online
JACK BIRKENSHAW, Leicestershire's coach, thought a draw against Surrey was like winning. "Surrey have outplayed us," he admitted. The World Cup went ahead 20 miles away in Nottingham, but in Leicester the rain settled in early on and by the time the sun came out in mid-afternoon, the ground was saturated, and the umpires abandoned the game.

Leicestershire's lucky draw allowed them to retain an unbeaten run at home that began in August 1995, when they lost to Lancashire. Even a draw keeps Surrey at the top of the Championship table by nine points; Leicestershire hold on to sixth place, 20 points behind. But an endangered home record, a bad defeat at Somerset, and this shaky performance against Surrey mean that questions are being asked about them. If the home record was in danger, so was the legend of a team that have been county champions twice in the past three seasons.

One problem is success. Birkenshaw is a candidate for England coach, and there is persistent speculation that James Whitaker, Leicestershire's capable captain, might join him as manager. Birkenshaw's job interview is on Tuesday. Like any good candidate, he refuses to discuss victory or defeat so close to the election, but he does admit that the uncertainty may be unsettling the team: "You don't know, but it has to have some bearing. The sooner it's finalised the better, so people can get back to the job."

Whitaker's run of rotten luck continues. Last season a knee injury required two operations. This season he has a torn thigh muscle, and his absence leaves a serious hole. "We backed Jimmy to come back and be that strong father figure a team needs, like Phil Simmons last year," says Birkenshaw.

Alan Mullally did not return immediately from his England duties. "Defeat knocked the stuffing out of him. He was physically drained and needed a week to get over it." Vince Wells, who did come back, blacked an eye in fielding practice last Thursday and couldn't bat.

Before the season began, Birkenshaw had taken another gamble. He decided to rely on home-grown batsmen, and appropriate the import, Mike Kasprowicz from Queensland, to beef up the bowlers. The groundsman prepares good pitches at Grace Road to help batsmen, but Birkenshaw insists that, if the bowlers do well, the team should win in four days.

The batsmen he is relying on are Darren Maddy (aged 25), Ben Smith (27), Aftab Habib (27) and Iain Sutcliffe (24), and none of them has so far realised Birkenshaw's faith in them - only Habib has scored a hundred. Birkenshaw understands the frustration. Batters need a good score early in the season to re-animate their confidence, just as a bowler like Kasprowicz need a five-for.

Without anyone noticing, the Championship season is near the half-way stage, and Leicestershire need hundreds and five- fors sooner rather than later.