THE FIRST round of the NatWest Trophy gives the minnows a chance to dream, especially when their big day in elevated company is spent at Lord's. Unfortunately dreaming is just about all Herefordshire got around to, and once Justin Langer, Middlesex's overseas player, began to hit the gaps, a home victory, became as predictable as an England batting collapse.
Langer's century was his first in limited-over competition for his adopted county and it saw Middlesex home by seven wickets with 14 overs to spare. There were casualties, Mike Gatting going early on, and Mark Ramprakash holing out off a leading edge, but generally Middlesex sauntered, a 130- run partnership between Langer and the languid Owais Shah effectively sealing the victory.
With an appetite for runs undiminished by the nature of the opposition, the most striking feature of Langer's innings was the way he eschewed risk against the two old pros, Neal Radford and Kevin Cooper, now plying a distinctly more sedate form of medium pace than was the case a decade ago.
With them seen off, Langer flayed the bit part players, his unbeaten 114, a veritable exhibition of strokes. It was only in the exquisite executions of both cut and pull, that his antipodean upringing was exposed. But that is no bad thing, and the part-timers of Herefordshire at least know what a huge chasm separates them from the really talented player who places a high premium on their wicket.
The newest of the minor counties, Herefordshire's admission was only possible when Durham became a first-class county in 1992. Their total of 213, after being put in, was a commendable effort based on the contrasting styles of the accumulative Jamie Sylvester and the hearty strokes of Rob Hall, both of whom made 53.
The Natwest Trophy has an esteemed place within English cricket. The oldest format in the one-day canon, it is the only domestic competition for which the England and Wales Cricket Board are not currently seeking a sponsor, a situation not helped by the present limbo over television rights and the Government's decision regarding their de-listing.
The lengthy wait could be at an end and Chris Smith, the Secretary of State responsible, is expected to make an announcement today. With cricket struggling to stay in football's slipstream, de-listing is seen, at least by the ECB, as a necessary move to enable cricket to command a fairer approximation of the market price for TV revenue by removing its restriction to a terrestrial channel, in this case the BBC.
However, it seems that de-listing Test matches would prove unpopular and Tony Blair's government is not in the business of being unpopular. The ECB would virtually have to promise not to sell out to satellite TV, and if that was the case, Sky would probably not bother to enter into the bidding war. That would leave us with the current situation whereby the BBC gets what is essentially cut price coverage. That would not be good for the long-term health of the game.