Cricket: The evolutionary

Stephen Brenkley finds Leicestershire's challenge has been a long time in the making
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Some of Leicestershire's players used up a little of their copious spare time yesterday by watching Newcastle United at St James' Park. James Whitaker, their captain, was not about to suggest that the champions-elect of one sport were dropping in on the league winners-in-waiting of another but there are surely now more doubts about the latter prospect than the former.

Leicestershire are one more resourceful performance from their first Championship in 21 years and only the second in their history. But the teams at the top of the table are separated by so little, so late, that only Leicestershire's 10th win of the season may suffice.

"Five teams can still win it and whatever happens we've enjoyed it all enormously," Whitaker said yesterday before the visit to the football match, which was rendered possible after his side had inflicted a defeat of monumentally embarrassing proportions on Durham inside two days. If the margin of an innings and 251 runs said something about Durham, it was a tribute to the Championship leaders' positive, purposeful approach.

In his first season as captain Whitaker has helped to galvanise individuals who were long on potential and short on achievement. A year ago, before his appointment, he had said, reflecting on a season of missed opportunity: "It's a case of getting them to believe in themselves, of convincing them that they are capable and making sure they are ready to go out and do it. People who manage other people should learn to listen and handle them accordingly."

Whitaker would seem to have adhered to his fine words. Not a single Leicestershire player has failed to contribute. Men such as Vince Wells, with three, almost four, double-centuries have done so as never before - perhaps as never seemed possible - but the warhorse bowlers Gordon Parsons, 36, and David Millns, 31, have bounded in with gleeful enthusiasm. In his early days Parsons resembled Joe Bugner facially. This season he has performed with the sprightliness and power of Prince Naseem Hamed. The whole team pays tribute to the contribution of the overseas professional Phil Simmons.

Whitaker, who describes his style as "pro-reactive", is not remotely tempted to take all the credit. Clearly relishing the implication that some of his motivational and tactical ideas must have worked, he pointed at two other significant factors. The first is that, contrary to popular misconception, Leicester have evolved gradually, carefully honed under the previous guidance of Nigel Briers, who gave up the captaincy and was then forced to retire as a player after a pre-season injury. Briers developed the side and two years ago they chased Warwickshire all the way to finish second.

Last year they slipped - partly because of injury - and here Whitaker invoked his second bit of extraneous assistance. This summer he has used only 13 players in the Championship, and that with Alan Mullally on Test duty. The result has been a mere three poor sessions of cricket, one of which against Surrey caused Leicestershire's only loss. After it, they went to Yorkshire, who were then on a roll, and were devastating. If there was a turning-point, said Whitaker, that was it. "We've had such a good time," he said, "and it could get better," and he wasn't referring to watching Newcastle United.