Cricket: Slipping into the winning habit: Man in the Middle: Justin Benson

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The Independent Online
IN THE 1991 Championship, Leicestershire were only saved from taking the wooden spoon by an ever-obliging Somerset, and their run in the NatWest Trophy came unstuck in the second round. But as the 1992 season reaches its climax, the running-fox county are lurking in the upper reaches of the Championship table, with realistic hopes of a position in the prize money, and on Saturday they face Northants at Lord's in the NatWest final. If there was an award for most-improved county, it would surely travel to Grace Road. So just what is it that's gone right?

The batsman Justin Benson gives a lot of credit for the transformation to the county's former cricket manager Bobby Simpson, now succeeded by Jack Birkenshaw after the latter's brief stay at Somerset. This is not a universal view - it has been suggested, for example, that Simpson, formerly the Australian captain and coach, was so used to dealing with international players that he couldn't adapt to a county squad.

'I know he wasn't the most popular chap, but I was a Simpson fan,' Benson says. 'He was only here for a couple of years, and he always said that we wouldn't see the results until after he left. He picked up an average side and taught us how to win games. When he first arrived we'd lose games at the death, Championship and one-day. He turned that around.' This season's results show that Birkenshaw and his charges have built on what Benson would identify as Simpson's groundwork. 'Basically it's the same team. Winston Benjamin coming back has been a bonus, because although John Maguire did a great job he couldn't always find the penetration.

'But what we have now is team spirit - no superstars, everyone pulling the same way, working with rather than against each other. The whole squad gets on well. On Saturday some of us will be unhappy to be left out, but whoever it is will still be pulling for the team.' Benson's route to Leicestershire cricket was circuitous - born in Dublin, raised in Kenya, where his father was a teacher, and moving through public-school cricket to Minor Counties representation with Cambridgeshire. 'I never really harboured ambitions to play county cricket. At 18 I was working for a company selling facsimile paper, playing for Cambridge, when Mike Garnham left Leicester and came to play for us. He said I was wasted there and recommended me to Grace Road.'

Benson has had a mixed 1992, though he has often proved the theory that slip catches win matches. 'Oh, yes, I'm in the side for my catching] I started the Championship season well but it hasn't always gone as it should since, just one century. I've been lucky in the NatWest, though. The fact is that nobody apart from Nigel (Briers) and Boony (Tim Boon) has batted particularly well. As I said, it's a team that's done it.'

And yet last week came the news that the club returned 1,000 unsold NatWest final tickets. The Leicester public has decided that the ever-increasing price of a decent seat at Lord's, now pounds 35, has spiralled so rapaciously and cynically ahead of inflation that even a cup final cannot tempt them.

'We're competing with some pretty big sports up here,' Benson explains, 'and however successful we are we'll never get the support they get at Essex or Kent. At Chelmsford or Canterbury you've got cricket - what else? Football is massive up here, Leicester City get 20,000 most weekends. Plus Leicester Tigers in rugby. That's the difference.'

Win or lose on Saturday, though, it's hard to believe that a little more support won't drift back to a revitalised team. 'Winning is habit-forming,' Benson says. 'The clubs like Essex who have done well for years have got used to it, expected it. Now we're starting to believe in ourselves, we've got a young side and as good a bowling side as anyone. We're getting used to the winning feeling, and it's like a drug.'

(Photograph omitted)