Cricket: Imports with a duty to motivate: Thirteen West Indians will brighten the English county horizon this summer. Stephen Brenkley discusses a tour de force

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The Independent Online
IN a spectacular example of being invited to case the joint, 13 West Indian cricketers will grace the English County Championship as overseas players this summer. Doubtless, at least 10 of them, having grown accustomed to the place, will return with the Test side next season prepared for plunder on a monumental scale.

'It can and does happen. I don't think anybody will forget Allan Border playing for Essex in 1988,' Bob Woolmer said. 'He had a fine season for them but he came back with the Aussies the next summer, fully acquainted with English conditions and with any weaknesses Graham Gooch might have.'

As Woolmer is director of coaching at Warwickshire, who have hired the man of the moment, Brian Lara, he could be guilty of being ensnared in the same trap. Lara, who makes his debut when the Championship begins on Thursday, now has a whole season to acquaint himself with English bowlers on English pitches, the sort of encouragement he appears not urgently to need.

In an era when the average county pro finds himself maligned as never before - unproductive, inefficient, unambitious, it has been said unkindly - such signings tend to inflame the old conflict. This is between county self-interest, not to mention the illumination of a first-class circuit which on its good days might otherwise be mundane, and the national interest.

Surrey, too, might end up helping one and hindering the other, having lost Waqar Younis. Their director of cricket, Mike Edwards, said: 'The situation over Waqar was a bit traumatic. He was unfit and then he would have had to leave the county early for national duty, so he would have been able to give us very little cricket. We had to go for another player.'

In doing so, they exercised the safe option and whistled up a West Indian fast bowler, one Cameron Cuffy. It is entirely possible that this name is unfamiliar but pretty unlikely that it will remain so. Cuffy has had two seasons in the Red Stripe Cup, the West Indies domestic competition, and this winter averaged 14 for his 24 wickets. Comparisons with Curtly Ambrose may be premature but would not have been made had he been neither quick nor accurate.

There is an element of risk of which Edwards is painfully aware. The last time Surrey needed a replacement for Waqar was in 1992 when the Pakistanis were touring. Who now can remember the South African Rudi Bryson? Will any Surrey member ever forget his 17 Championship wickets at 69 runs apiece? 'It will take Cuffy a little bit of time to get used to bowling on our pitches, and finding the different sort of length that's required,' Edwards said. 'Our bowling coach, Graham Dilley, will be working with him on that and hopefully in a few weeks he'll settle down nicely.'

If he settles down nicely enough, of course, young Cameron will return with the West Indies touring party next summer. He will have no need to adjust to strange conditions and if Dilley, whose first coaching appointment it is, has done his job well enough England could be in trouble again. Among the other Caribbean fast bowlers this summer are all the usual suspects, excluding Kenny Benjamin but including the highly impressive Barbadian Ottis Gibson. He will be in action for Glamorgan against Lara on Thursday.

The signing of the one overseas player now allowed to be registered by each of the 18 counties is crucial. It does not necessarily follow that if he performs well the side will win. Dean Jones, for instance, was magnificent for Durham in 1992 but they still finished bottom of the Championship.

But if the overseas player does badly the side will almost certainly be in the mire. Essex's run of success since the late Seventies has been almost unbroken but in 1987, as defending champions, they hired Hugh Page. He and they had a dreadful season. Essex have taken a similar gamble this time.

To fill the large hole in their bowling attack - Neil Foster and Derek Pringle having retired - they have uncharacteristically enlisted a bowler. Mike Kasprowicz is 22, Australian, comes highly recommended, has a history of injury and had an indifferent season at home. He is unquestionably a risk, though he will not be as expensive as some, for with the recruitment of overseas stars comes the need to dip deeply into precarious county finances. It is not a point lost on Reg Taylor, who is entering his first full season as Derbyshire chief executive.

Like Warwickshire and Surrey, Derbyshire were forced to make an 11th-hour signing. The West Indian fast bowler Ian Bishop withdrew (for the noble and well-received reason that he did not feel fit enough to give of his best) and the county have turned again to Mohammad Azharuddin. Without revealing the precise terms of the Indian captain's contract, Taylor said: 'The rate that overseas players are asking certainly appears to have risen substantially in the past three years. I get the impression that you're now talking about a going rate of pounds 35,000 or pounds 40,000 a season when it was around pounds 25,000.

'That's put quite a distance between them and the home players, and even the captain. I would have thought the whole subject has to come to a head sooner or later.'

The imbalance of the wage structure - while playing county cricket might be a pleasant way of earning a living it is not a way of getting rich quick - may account for the perceived indifference of some performers. Woolmer senses it in his role of coach. 'Each player's different but I think there could be a tendency among some to take the attitude that they've scored 40 or taken a couple of wickets today so they've done their bit,' he said. 'I don't necessarily go along with the view that our standards have declined enormously, but I do think other countries have caught up. They do things better, we've stood still.'

Woolmer, who recommended Lara to Warwickshire last year ('he obviously had class, it wasn't difficult to spot or anything') is adamant that the presence of overseas stars should benefit English cricketers. He contends, persuasively, that Lara will help Warwickshire's home-grown young batsmen to develop, perhaps more than they would have done if Manoj Prabhakar, the county's original choice to replace the touring Allan Donald, had been fit.

'I know it's always too tempting to look back on what you did in your own career and that things change. But when I was trying to get into the Kent team I was competing against Bernard Julien, John Shepherd and Asif Iqbal to get a bowl. It made me determined to be as good as them. They spurred me on. That's what I'd like to think English county players do now, not be complacent.'

Lara may well spur some aspiring middle-order batsmen but it is unlikely, even given his extraordinary gifts, that he can push his new county to the Championship. A one-day competition is not beyond them, considering their remarkable NatWest Trophy final win in 1993, but Donald's wickets in the four- day game may be irreplaceable.

If Kasprowicz thrives, so may Essex once more, especially with their spinners, and nobody will underestimate Middlesex's ability to retain their title, depending on what Test calls they receive. With the West Indies contingent split almost equally between very rapid bowlers and handsomely-arrayed batsmen - Richie Richardson (Yorkshire), Desmond Haynes (Middlesex), Jimmy Adams (Nottinghamshire), Phil Simmons (Leicestershire), Carl Hooper (Kent), Lara are all here - there ought to be some rip-roaring stuff by Championship standards. The other West Indian recruits are Winston Benjamin (Hampshire), Courtney Walsh (Gloucestershire), Franklyn Stephenson (Sussex) and, of course, Ambrose (Northamptonshire) .

The soundest bet may be that Durham, even with Anderson Cummins, who will be fresh after not playing Tests for the West Indies, and new signing John Morris, will finish bottom. All neutral observers will hope that the title will be won by one of the other three counties who have never won it, Northamptonshire, Somerset or Sussex. Of that trio, Northants, with Ambrose, look extremely well-equipped. But that has been said before.

(Photographs omitted)