Cricket: The old fox of many tricks

Iain Fletcher hears Leicestershire's manager plotting his former club's downfall
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The Independent Online
On Tuesday Jack Birkenshaw will look out from the dressing-room balcony at Grace Road and watch Somerset and Leicestershire battle for a place in the semi-finals of the Benson and Hedges Cup. Ironically it was at Somerset that he started his managerial career in 1988 before moving to Leicestershire in 1991, initially as assistant to Bobby Simpson.

Then the quiet and thoughtful Birkenshaw will glance along the balcony and see Dermot Reeve, Somerset's new and ebullient manager, and a master of preaching and publicity.

This quarter-final is very much the old versus the new, the past versus the present. It pits the maverick gambler from Hong Kong against the tough apprentice of Yorkshire, innovation against intelligence. While Reeve's upbringing in the eastern entrepreneurial Mecca suits his fast-paced, high-energy cricket, so the fact that Birkenshaw manages a club whose motif is the fox warns of his cunning.

"I love to beat any side where Dermot is involved," he said last week. Birkenshaw is shrewdly cynical about new trends - his management beliefs are based on old values that he believes have stood the test of time. The Championship winning side of last year was built on very solid, yet simple foundations.

"I try to choose good people, nice people, the sort who fit well into a team," Birkenshaw explained. "I need flair and discipline but also people who will respect each other. At the moment Vince [Wells] hasn't scored many runs, so everyone is really willing him to get some wickets - they really want him to do well and that team spirit explains much of our success."

On one issue, however, he is passionately adamant: "What I can't be doing with are selfish people - they are no good to anyone but themselves."

Much of his skill as a leader is in man-management; the players warm to his belief in them. The hoo-hah surrounding the managerial reign of another famous son of Yorkshire would be unthinkable around Birkenshaw. His players are his family and he supports them fully.

Last year Leicestershire only used 13 players in Championship cricket and enjoyed a bumper season with both bat and ball from Phil Simmons. This year they may suffer more injuries and have been forced to replace the mercurial Simmons with the unknown Neil Johnson, a South African from Natal.

"He's aggressive, dedicated and a good team man," Birkenshaw said. "Being an all-rounder helps as he is always in the game, and the way he plays is very similar to Phil. He's already won over the other players by his attitude. He was in the nets 10 minutes after arriving and insisted on playing that same day. With an attitude like that I think he will do very well for us."

Having talked up his own import, how will Leicestershire cope with Somerset's imported trickster, the wily Mushtaq Ahmed? "Mushtaq is a world- class bowler but I think that if you can get after him early, even slog him if necessary, his head drops. I've seen Hansie [Cronje] destroy him by hitting him before he has settled into his rhythm."

And with his depth of knowledge of many of the Somerset team, who else does he see as dangerous? "[Andy] Caddick, because he's an excellent bowler, and Rose. He's in great form and a magnificent hitter of medium- pace bowling. I can't think of many that hit a ball harder.

"I'm also surprised [Harvey] Trump isn't playing much, he's a good bowler and immensely passionate about Somerset cricket, just the type you need."

Form suggests Somerset will win the day, as in recent years Leicestershire have dominated the four-day contests and Somerset the shorter version. However, this year Leicestershire have the confidence of being county champions and Somerset are still experimenting to find their best one- day line-up.

A few years ago an off-spinning Yorkshireman who played for Leicestershire and England was appointed manager, nay supremo, of England. They chose Illingworth; they could have had Birkenshaw. Maybe, just maybe, they picked the wrong one.

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