Cricket: Hopes for Maddy crowd

Gloucestershire 245 Leicestershire 307 Match drawn
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The Independent Online
It was with a feeling of familiar resignation that James Whitaker pressed a heel into a soggy Grace Road outfield yesterday afternoon as the umpires declared Leicestershire's match abandoned after two days without a ball bowled. Given that luck with the weather is one factor Whitaker identifies as necessary to winning cricket's County Championship, it had not been the best start to the defence of the their Britannic Assurance title.

No matter. Weighing up all the components of a successful season, the man who landed the most prestigious prize in his first season as captain fails to see the logic of those who suppose his unfashionable county cannot do it again. He admits to some good fortune last summer but insists Leicestershire's first pennant since 1975 reflected the quality and ambitions of his players.

"While other people may have underestimated us we expected to do well," Whitaker said. "We have a squad of talented and determined players who were able to improve on their previous level of performance. And everybody contributed."

He sees no reason to believe the same cannot happen again in 1997. "The appetite for success is not less for having won," he added. "And now there is the bonus of confidence and self- belief. We all enjoyed winning the Championship and we want to experience that feeling again. And improvement is still high on everyone's agenda."

Expect better still, then, from the young batsmen Darren Maddy and Aftab Habib, from the maturing Ben Smith and the highly rated wicketkeeper Paul Nixon. Watch out also for Iain Sutcliffe, the Oxford blue in his first full season, and James Ormond, a 19-year-old seam bowler with the potential to become a high-grade all-rounder.

Expect also more active captaincy from Whitaker, whose patented celebratory huddle attracted mocking comments last year but helped cement the team spirit he established as a priority. "I was determined to show that I could do it as a captain," he said. "The real satisfaction was to see the young players come on, to see Alan [Mullally] get into the Test team, or to see David [Millns] bowl consistently well. If I helped them relax and enjoy their cricket more that's great, if that is what happened. But it was the players who won the title."

If there is any cause for less confidence this time it is the absence of Phil Simmons, the massively influential all-rounder taken away by West Indies commitments. Efforts to sign a replacement have so far come to nothing, although there is still a chance of taking on the South Africa A player Neil Johnson.