Cricket: Wells and Lewis tap into spirit of unity

Birkenshaw's bonding has produced a Leicestershire team on the brink of another Championship
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The Independent Online
COINCIDENCES CAN be curious and spooky things at times. For example, on both the occasions that Leicestershire have won cricket's County Championship, in 1975 and 1996, the only match they lost was against Surrey at The Oval. However, it cannot happen again.

The race for this year's Britannic Assurance title has come down to the last round of fixtures, which start today. There are still three contenders: Lancashire, who play Hampshire at Old Trafford, plus Leicestershire and Surrey, who face each other... at The Oval.

Leicestershire, who lead by nine points, are the favourites, but the contest is so close that the only way they can be sure of taking the major prize is to win. Defeat would hand the title to Surrey. A draw could allow Lancashire, who have already won the NatWest Trophy and the AXA League, to complete a glorious treble.

There is one other element that the Leicestershire teams of '75 and '96 - and today - have in common and that is the presence of Jack Birkenshaw, an off-spinning all-rounder in the side Ray Illingworth dragged from the cricketing wilderness in the mid-1970s, and who this season has demonstrated again, in his capacity as manager, the ability to mould a cricket team into something greater than the sum of its parts.

Leicestershire are one of those counties who, for want of a label, are often deemed "unfashionable". That is not to say they have no good players but none who readily spring to mind in the thought processes of journalists or Test selectors.

Unlike Lancashire or Surrey, whose dressing-rooms are dominated by international players, no Leicestershire man has appeared in a Test match all summer, although Alan Mullally, their improving left-arm pace bowler, is going to Australia. Even their overseas player, the redoubtable West Indian, Phil Simmons, has had an unremarkable year.

What they do have, however, is a wide spread of players who are not great but who are better than good. No batsman, for example, has 1,000 Championship runs; but Ben Smith has 961, two others have 800-plus and four others around 500 each. And no bowler has taken 70 wickets; but after Mullally, on 57, six others average close to 30 each.

This compares unfavourably with 1996, when four batsmen topped 1,000 runs and five bowlers more than 40 wickets. Yet if they come out on top over the next four days, this season's side will have won more matches - 11 against 10.

The secret, if there is one, apart from having a side undisturbed by Test calls, is that Birkenshaw and his first lieutenant, captain James Whitaker, have fostered and maintained a one-for-all team culture to which few others come close.

Vince Wells, the 33-year-old all-rounder who spent three frustrating years trying to make progress with Kent, appreciates this factor more than most.

"One of the things that is special about this team is that we get on very well with each other as friends as well as team-mates," he said. "Players often spend time together off the field as well as on it. Often within a county side cliques develop and some players feel left out, but that does not exist here.

"As a result, I think the players here are that little bit more keen to do well for the team, to make a contribution, because they enjoy playing together and want to succeed together."

Wells, in some ways, is Birkenshaw's ideal player, an all-round team man as capable of winning a match with the ball as the bat. His record going into the final round is 802 Championship runs at 36.45 and 34 wickets from his medium-pace bowling at a miserly 14.79. Opportunities had been so limited for him at Kent before his arrival at Grace Road in 1992 that his transfer was hardly a headline-making event. Yet Birkenshaw had identified in him just the qualities he believed were essential in the side he wanted to build.

"He always had good style," Birkenshaw said. "He hit the ball cleanly, timed it well; and he had a good bowling action.

"But I could tell also he would have the right attitude. He had been a footballer so he was likely to be a good competitor and I felt he wanted to play if he could only find an opportunity.

"He had not had that at Kent. If people don't believe in you and you are always looking over your shoulder, it is difficult to be at your best. A player's character in many ways is as important as his ability and I sensed he had the character I was looking for."

In view of such comments, it was surprising to see Birkenshaw re-engage the maverick talents of Chris Lewis, the England all-rounder whose undoubted class has been hindered frequently by problems of temperament.

Yet Lewis, who will relish the chance to outshine his former Surrey colleagues, has made important contributions to bringing Leicestershire to the brink of a second title in three seasons, as batsman, bowler and stand-in captain. Few who were present will forget his astonishing performance against Northamptonshire at Grace Road in July when Leicestershire chased an improbable 204 runs in 20 overs to win - and pulled it off. That triumph was thanks largely to Wells making a half-century off 25 balls and Lewis hitting an unbeaten 71 in a mere 33.

Such inspired performances owe much, Wells says, to the influence of Whitaker, who has not played since April because of a knee injury yet has fulfilled his captain's role as much as he has been able.

"James has still played a big part," he said. "He is very good on the mental side of the game. He talks to people a lot and has the knack of motivating players, to get that little bit more out of them."

They will, collectively, need to play above themselves between now and Sunday evening, against a Surrey side driven by Alec Stewart's desire to complete a memorable summer by helping his county win the title for the first time since his father led them to glory in 1971.