Cricket: Thrill of bits and pieces

Stephen Brenkley previews a NatWest final that can live up to the future
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The Independent Online
Only two NatWest Trophy finals remain before the competition becomes the FA Cup of cricket. By 1999 the world's oldest limited-overs tournament will have been revolutionised along with almost everything else in the English game.

To achieve the desired objective of making it the equivalent of the world's oldest football competition, the number of teams involved will be greatly increased. It is intended to capture public imagination by allowing the minor-counties minnows to battle through the early, qualifying rounds for the right to try to perform giant-killing acts on the first-class big boys in round three. Presumably, the winners will parade round Lord's holding the trophy aloft and sporting a variety of ridiculous headwear.

All this, or at least the bit about more teams, should shortly come to pass. For now there is this year's final, played under the old method. Essex and Warwickshire will have prepared for the occasion on Saturday by having spent nine of the previous 10 days playing. Unless Lancashire and Durham prove obliging opponents (given the state of the Championship table it is unlikely to be the other way round), Essex will travel to London on Friday evening from Manchester while Warwickshire, not quite so well blessed by the fixtures computer, will take the train from Chester- le-Street.

"I would agree it's not ideal preparation but it's the way that we stage our cricket here and that's that," Phil Neale, Warwickshire's coach, said with a smile that might, fleetingly, have passed for a grimace. "It 's not as though we can ease up in the next few days either. All the competitions left are important to us."

Tough luck on Warwickshire, perhaps, but welcome to hear considering that most complaints about domestic cricket concern the belief, right or wrong, that many players have stopped either trying or caring by the end of July because they have nothing left to play for. Still, on superficial examination of the teams in this year's final, it is tempting to conclude that their parts wholeheartedly embrace another of the game's shortcomings, to wit, more bits and pieces than in a plumber's toolbox.

There are no end of batsmen who bowl and bowlers who bat. If the prime examples are perhaps Dougie Brown of Warwickshire and Ronnie Irani of Essex, others include Neil Smith, Graeme Welch, Ashley Giles, Paul Grayson and Ashley Cowan. Then there are the batsmen who take fielding on to a different plane such as Trevor Penney, Nick Knight and Nasser Hussain.

"The bits and pieces tag isn't fair," Neale said. "There is a big difference between that, a description of a player who bowls and bats but who doesn't do either especially well and the player who can do two things well, or at least one very well and the other pretty well. These are proper all- rounders. We want players who are skilled in two of three disciplines, batting, bowling or fielding.

"This match is full of them. Warwickshire have got loads of people who are queueing up, for instance, to bat at No 6, the wicketkeeper and at least three of the bowlers. This isn't bits and pieces, it's players working hard at all aspects of their game."

Neale might be overly protective of his charges but he also had a reasonable point. Is it right that everybody who bats and bowls should automatically be expected to perform both to world-class standards, preferably bowling like Richard Hadlee and batting like Viv Richards?

"That's been our problem. We've expected them all to be new Bothams. Well, they're not going to be. But that doesn't mean they are poor cricketers."

The sides are well matched. Apart from the bits and pieces - sorry, the all-rounders, that is - there are two outstanding individuals from overseas, Warwickshire's devoted fast bowler Allan Donald and Essex's rapid batsman Stuart Law.

But neither Neale nor the Essex coach, Keith Fletcher, will set much store by a piece of individual brilliance winning the match, more the collective effort. This is Warwickshire's 10th final - one more than Lancashire - and their fourth in five years. They will be led by Neil Smith, son of the man who led them at Lord's in 1964.

Despite all their Championship success it is only the third NatWest final for Essex. The whole side, as Hussain, has been keen to reiterate, is desperate to vanquish the memory of all out for 57 last year. But it may not be enough.

If the toss (let us pray) is not decisive, expect the bits and pieces men of both sides to have a say, Nick Knight to reopen the selectors' memory banks, Warwickshire to prevail and the match to be more gripping than most FA Cup finals.

One-day form guide

Essex

Benson and Hedges Cup: Won zonal group, lost quarter-final by six wickets to Surrey after mustering only 214.

Axa League: Fifth place. Have slipped after leading at midway.

NatWest Trophy: Won first three rounds in comfort by 89 runs and seven wickets twice. Tense semi-final win against Glamorgan by one wicket after much-televised clash between Mark Ilott and Robert Croft.

Warwickshire

Benson and Hedges Cup: Lost quarter-final against Kent after scoring 304, in which Neil Smith made 125 from 119 balls.

Axa League: Leading by two points with two matches left. Have won nine of last ten.

NatWest Trophy: Were 25 for 6 in first round against Norfolk but recovered to 207 to win by 80 runs. Followed by increasingly comfortable wins against Somerset, Middlesex and Sussex.

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