Cricket: Running mates campaign for honours: Northamptonshire will be looking to openers Alan Fordham and Nigel Felton to lay the foundations for victory over Leicestershire in tomorrow's NatWest final at Lord's. Michael Austin reports

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WHEN Nigel Felton and Alan Fordham launch the Northamptonshire innings against Leicestershire in the NatWest Trophy final tomorrow, it will be a time for reflection as well as run accumulation. It befits the best educated opening pair on the county circuit.

Both have BSc honours degrees, total 15 O-levels, five A-levels. In the mind game against the new ball, the battle of wills is just as important as playing down the right line.

Fordham and Felton form the classic right-left-handed partnership. It was made, not born, because only Felton's unhappy circumstances with Somerset enabled them to get together.

Felton said: 'I will have played in two Lord's finals in three years - not bad for someone who was sacked by his previous county in the gents toilet at Taunton.

'I was taken in there to be told and was so charged up and annoyed that I made a hundred in my last innings for Somerset. I had been accused of not being able to adjust to one-day cricket and also that I could not cope with the pressures of the game anyway. Rejection of any kind from anyone hurt, and it still does.'

Felton has disproved many times those finding fault, most recently when being nominated man of the match for his innings of 58 in the NatWest semi-final against Warwickshire against Edgbaston. 'Nigel held together the innings and made a typically positive contribution,' Fordham said.

The 27-year-old Fordham, from Bedford, and Felton, born in Guildford of South African Cape- coloured parents and educated at Millfield and Loughborough University, bat for each other on and off the field. 'We sense the other's crisis points,' Fordham said. 'If I get to 20 quickly, Nigel will come down the pitch and tell me to cool it. He can be at risk and get over- excited when a spinner comes on.'

His partner agrees: 'Sometimes I forget I am Nigel Felton and think I'm David Gower.'

The pair travel and room together on away trips and live on the same side of Northampton. 'There are not many evenings when we don't get together and have a beer or something,' Fordham said. 'It's a conducive atmosphere in which to do well.'

The striking feature of the partnership is intuitive running between the wickets. They rarely need to call and in 37 first-class innings together this summer, they have been involved in only one run-out, when Fordham lost his wicket at Bristol. During that time, they have shared 11 half-century and five century partnerships.

Fordham, making a point for the batsmen's union, stressed: 'The bowlers have their plans but we have ours. If a quickie tries to 'bounce' Nigel, he will drop his bat on the ball and we will be off and running. He has not scored a remarkable number of runs but has done the job, taken the shine off the ball and prevented the squeeze being on the lower batting order.'

Last summer, Felton averaged less than 20 but has bounced back with 1,000 first-class runs this season. Typically, both prefer to talk about the other, not himself.

Felton said: 'I played against Alan before I came to Northampton but I didn't know him from a bar of soap. He hits the new ball regularly to the boundary and I hope earnestly he gets on the England A tour to Australia next winter. The criterion has to be doing well in county cricket and he has. Alan does not allow possible thoughts of touring to affect his game. He will not focus his mind on England at the expense of his county performances.'

Fordham has amassed 5,200 first-class runs in the past three seasons, with a career average in excess of 40. He is calm, circumspect and the epitome of quiet confidence, with the philosophy that most of the game is mental and the key to success the ability to keep a clear head. 'If I deserve to play for England, then I am sure I will,' he said. 'In today's society, too many people want achievements and material things instantly. But I believe waiting does no one any harm.'

Fordham and Felton followed the longest established county opening partnership of Geoff Cook and Wayne Larkins, without the inbuilt superstitions. Cook always walked to the right of Larkins from the dressing-room and took the first ball. Cook sportingly admitted to being back in the pavilion first usually, too.

Mike Procter, the Northamptonshire director of coaching, is among the admirers of the new alliance. 'They are one of the best opening partnerships, indeed probably the most organised pair in the county game. Nigel pushes the ball around into gaps to frustrate fielders and Alan gives it a good whack'.

Felton, now 31, completes his Northamptonshire contract this summer but wants to play for the county as long as possible. 'There is a lot of life after cricket but if, in say two years' time, I am holding back the development of a young player, I will retire gracefully. No one would need to sack me.'

Next winter holds a return trip to South Africa for Felton, who will coach in the Cape Peninsula. He plans to take eight county players to Cape Town to non- white clubs and coloured schools. 'There is an enormous amount of talent among that community. Though not brought up there, that is my heritage.

'I played for Primrose, a non-white team, last winter. It was all very fine - South Africa touring India and playing in the World Cup. But I want something to be in it for the non-whites. I want to see tangible evidence of upgrading their facilities and coaching opportunities. As for the match against Leicestershire, the only way to enjoy a Lord's final is to win. We lost to Lancashire two years ago,' Felton said.

Just like his partner, Fordham is his own man. But tomorrow their common aim will be to guide Northamptonshire to their first title of any sort in 12 years.

(Photographs omitted)