Cricket: Teamwork keeps the Foxes ahead

County Championship: Despite no stars and a non-playing captain Leicestershire take the title
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The Independent Online
IT WAS the last match of the season that all became apparent. Leading their closest rivals Surrey by nine points, Leicestershire played four-day cricket as it is meant to be played. Indeed, so good was their approach with bat and ball, that it ended a day early, Surrey rolling over like a Labrador tired of fetching the same old stick.

Typically it was a collective effort; a hefty dollop of Ben Smith seasoned by a pinch of Alan Mullally and a dab of Chris Lewis as well as other offerings. Like Angostura bitters Leicestershire's ingredients are many, varied, and quite often subtle. Indeed only four players, Mullally, Smith, Vince Wells and Aftab Habib are in the top 20 of the bowling and batting averages. This is a team that would have burgeoned under Communism.

Momentum is everything if you have no Lara-like superstars, and Leicestershire, having won their last six matches, had enough to see them through to next season. In fact, they have been on a roll since the beginning of the 1996 season and have lost only three of their last 51 Championship matches. It is an incredible record, considering the throwaway mentality, long entrenched in county cricket.

Their coach Jack Birkenshaw, a rare example of a modest Yorkshireman, simply puts the success down to team spirit, a nebulous phrase that explains everything and nothing.

Leicestershire might have forged a tight unit who work hard for one another, but that is what success tends to bring. In the 1980s Essex had probably the best dressing-room and the best team in the country. To see them now, is to witness just how quickly things can go awry, which is why there is more to the champions' success than mere teamwork.

If not losing is a confidence booster, winning, especially against the odds, is even more of a stimulant to the collective belief system. The epiphany came when Chris Lewis lead his side to an improbable victory over Northamptonshire on 17 July. Needing 204 from 20 overs in their second innings, Leicestershire won with five balls to spare. More importantly they knew from that moment on, that no side or situation was beyond them. And so it proved.

Ask anyone involved closely with the game and they will tell you that a Championship cannot be won without a top notch and varied bowling attack. Normally this would be perfectly true, but in one of the wettest summers of the last 50 years, spin was rarely needed and, headed by the new improved Mullally, and backed up by Lewis, David Millns, James Ormond and Wells, seam and pace dominated.

Only Lancashire could match their firepower, though even potential treble- winning sides need something other than bullets, which is probably why they have signed Muttiah Muralitharan, the Sri Lankan off-spinner, for next season.

Mullally, whose 60 wickets and more muscular action have been rewarded with a trip to Australia with England this winter, has been the perfect spearhead. More importantly, he has stayed fit, something Birkenshaw attributes to his recent marriage rather than a winter spent in the gym.

The batting, apart from the twin peaks of Smith and Habib, who averaged 64.7 and 61.9 respectively, also dovetailed. Even so, Darren Maddy and Phil Simmons, the batting hero when they won the Championship in 1996, had modest seasons.

One of the signs of a good side is that someone comes up with something, even when all looks lost. For Leicestershire to have that fighting spirit is all the more remarkable when you consider they had effectively three captains with their hands on the tiller.

Having a non-playing captain can be a bad thing. In James Whittaker, however, sidelined for most of the season with a knee injury, the Running Foxes had a selfless motivator, who took the strain off Chris Lewis and Simmons, by mopping up the off-field business that can can so often prove a distraction.

Lewis, whose move from Surrey back to the club he started with came with the promise of occasional captaincy, was thrown in at the deep end with Whittaker's injury. Until the game against Nottinghamshire at Worksop, where his late arrival forced the club to ban him for a game and hand the captaincy to Simmons, he had obviously done a decent job.

As chance would have it, the carrot-mad Simmons respond with 194, his only century of the season, while the stick catalysed Lewis into taking 6 for 60 in the next match against Warwickshire. Whoever was responsible for the psychology ought to be sent to sort out other lost souls like Phil Tufnell.

Leicestershire have come a long way in the last few years under their chief executive, David Collier. Long gone are the days when a crate of light ale was the sole refreshment placed in the dressing-room at the end of play. These days visiting players can have what they like, though judging by the way Leicestershire have despatched teams all season, only one side has been drinking champagne.

LEICESTERSHIRE'S UNBEATEN RUN

Leicestershire's victorious finish to the season against Surrey at The Oval extended their unbeaten Championship run to 21 matches. Below are their results since losing to Sussex by 38 runs at Eastbourne on 9 August last summer.

1997

20 Aug: bt Derbyshire by 163 runs, Grace Road

27 Aug: drew with Glamorgan, Grace Road

10 Sep: drew with Northamptonshire, Northampton

18 Sep: bt Durham by 17 runs, Grace Road

1998

23 April: drew with Worcestershire, Grace Road

13 May: bt Gloucestershire by nine wickets, Bristol

21 May: drew with Hampshire, Grace Road

29 May: bt Derbyshire by 38 runs, Chesterfield

11 June: drew with Kent, Grace Road

17 June: bt Glamorgan, by 140 runs, Cardiff

26 June: drew with Sussex, Grace Road

1 July: bt Durham by innings and 103 runs, Darlington

14 July: bt Northamptonshire by four wickets, Grace Road

30 July: drew with Lancashire, Old Trafford

5 Aug: bt Somerset by innings and 85 runs, Grace Road

19 Aug: bt Middlesex by eight wickets, Grace Road

26 Aug: bt Nottinghamshire by innings and 223 runs, Worksop

1 Sep: bt Warwickshire by 73 runs, Edgbaston

9 Sep: bt Essex by innings and 99 runs, Grace Road

17 Sep: bt Surrey by innings and 211 runs, The Oval.

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