Cricket: Watkinson braves the front line: All-rounder in command - Jon Culley reports on the Lancashire captain out to turn turmoil into trophies

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LANCASHIRE is a county with a natural suspicion of change, a place with a proud history and a respect for ways that are tried and trusted. A political party espousing traditional values could not find a more apt setting to build a platform.

Perhaps echoes of last week's Blackpool message have reached Old Trafford. Next summer, for the first time since 1980, there will be no door marked 'Manager' at Lancashire County Cricket Club. The team will have a captain, a coach and a selection committee. What could be more traditional?

It is not a question that Mike Watkinson, who will lead the team on the field, is prepared to address. Less than a month after David Hughes resigned the now discarded role, the whiff of controversy is still too strong even for abstract discussion. Had Hughes not stepped down after a dismal summer, the structural rethink that followed may well have been forced on the club by discontented members.

But then Watkinson is a sensible chap, keen to do things in the right way. When he was appointed last week, amid the inevitable flood of media attention, one of his first thoughts was to apologise to the engineering firm who are his winter employers for disrupting their business.

It is because Neil Fairbrother also resigned, 18 days after Hughes, that Watkinson, the 32-year-old all- rounder, finds himself thrust to the fore. He will be supported off the field by David Lloyd, whose part- time coaching job has been redefined as a full-time post.

'It came as a surprise,' Watkinson said. 'I had no great ambition to be captain and I enjoyed playing under Neil. But under the circumstances, with Neil feeling that his own game was being affected, I was happy to give it a go.'

No tradition is valued more highly at Old Trafford than a continual challenge for silverware. Lancashire won the Benson and Hedges Cup and the NatWest Trophy in 1990, raising expectations of an impending return to something akin to the golden age of the Twenties and Thirties, the era of five Championships in nine years. But in the last three summers Lancashire have finished eighth, 12th and 14th.

Here lies the real source of disquiet and the thirst for scapegoats. The latest round of resignation and recrimination follows just a year on from the sacking of Graeme Fowler and Paul Allott from the senior playing ranks, together with Hughes's predecessor as manager, Alan Ormrod.

Yet Watkinson rejects the picture of a county in turmoil. 'I can see that with the manager and captain resigning, and a senior player (Phillip DeFreitas) going soon afterwards, although for reasons that were not connected, there is a sequence of events that might lead people to think that way, but there has been no such feeling in the dressing-room.

''Team spirit has been fine, although obviously if you are not winning it has an effect on morale. It cannot have made it easier for Neil that we were not playing well and winning for him. He would have enjoyed the job much more, I am sure, had his players been performing to their potential.

'It is hard to put your finger on what has gone wrong over the last three seasons. Apprehension starts to creep in if you are not getting results. If one element of the team, the bowlers or the batsmen, is having a rough time, there is often a negative knock-on effect and you can soon slip into a rut.

'But if you look at the side as individuals, 14th place is hardly a reflection of the talent and ability in the team. We just need to work hard for each other in the knowledge that we have everyone's full support.'

Watkinson made his Lancashire debut in 1982, coincidentally in the same match as Fairbrother, having already signalled his own careful values by qualifying as a structural engineer before risking a career in cricket. He has built a reputation in the game by applying similar diligence, establishing himself as a source of middle- order runs with the versatility to take wickets with off-breaks as well as medium pace. Were captaincy to erode his form as it did Fairbrother's, Lancashire would have another headache.

'I don't know how it will affect me, I've never taken on this degree of responsibility before. But I am in an enviable position of having an England captain in Mike Atherton and a Pakistan captain in Wasim Akram as well as Neil in the side to call on for advice.

'Having said that, the final decisions will be mine and I have no fears about accepting responsibility. And I am confident that the players will respond to my leadership.'

He acknowledges, however, that the team represent only one group he will need to win over. 'The members can be outspoken and when cutting remarks are aimed at individual players it can be upsetting, but the one or two who make themselves heard are not always representative of the majority view.

'We have a large membership and they are entitled to a team that is worthy of their support, playing the kind of cricket they want to see.

'I'm never going to be the type to predict that we will win the Championship but I hope that everyone can enjoy their cricket under my captaincy. We have players, young and established, who are hungry for success and I know that if everyone performs to his potential we will win matches.'

Derbyshire have turned down John Morris's request to be released from his contract a year early. The 29-year-old former England batsman, who has been linked with Somerset and Warwickshire, will be released only if a suitable replacement is found.

(Photograph omitted)

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