Cricket: Wright plays the baggage handler

Stephen Brenkley says the past will have to be forgotten in the B&H this week
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The Independent Online
Between them, Kent and Northamptonshire have lately made something of an art form of losing cup finals at Lord's. One or the other has appeared in five Benson and Hedges Cup finals in the past decade and they have failed to raise the trophy on the pavilion balcony in the lot.

This will not prevent either of them turning up to do battle in this year's semi-final at Canterbury on Tuesday where the old hands will be thinking not so much: "Is it worth it when we're just going to be runners- up anyway" as "Let's get there one more time and lay the bogey." Nothing concentrates minds like an appearance in front of a full house at headquarters. Most recently, Kent were beaten there by Lancashire in 1995, Northamptonshire fell to the same opposition last year.

"I don't have any baggage fortunately," said Kent's new coach, John Wright. "What's happened in the past doesn't affect me. For instance we had Warwickshire in the last round and we hadn't beaten them for a long time but we got that out of the way. Northamptonshire beat us in the quarter-final last year but that isn't relevant now.

"It has all the potential for being a close game. We're both experienced and well-balanced sides with some old hands. My players are looking forward to it." This could be because the match is at Canterbury where the home supporters tend to make Manchester United fans seem models of objective indifference.

Kent have injured players whose failure to recover would alter the balance of their side. Martin McCague has a back strain which has proved not to be a stress fracture but is still painful. Dean Headley appears to have recovered from the sore hip which has troubled him intermittently this season since his winter operation. Graham Cowdrey, "extremely dangerous" in the middle order as Wright put it, may miss out with hamstring trouble.

"All these are key players but we have bowlers who've done well for us in other matches lately. I wouldn't be too worried. Anyway we bowled and fielded badly in the quarter-finals and probably couldn't do any worse. It was our batting which excelled," Wright said.

Indeed, Kent made 306 to beat Warwickshire but would not relish chasing a similar total. Wright is aware of the threat posed by Northamptonshire. David Capel, at 33, has proved to be one of the shrewdest pinch hitters around while their captain Rob Bailey has made 249 runs in the competition this summer for only three times out, raising his B and H career average to above 50. The bowling of Paul Taylor, Mohammad Akram and John Emburey may not be fearsome, but it commands respect.

The other semi-final, at The Oval between Surrey and Leicestershire, could depend on how tired Surrey's Test players are. Alec Stewart, Graham Thorpe and Mark Butcher have all been in the Edgbaston cauldron. Of course, they could be walking on air. Surrey, who have not been as impressive as the pre-season odds suggested, would seem to have too much batting firepower for Leicestershire.

But under James Whitaker, the champion county have become a real team, perhaps greater than the sum of their parts. And some of the parts are in grand fettle. Alan Mullally and David Millns are an incisive new-ball partnership, the opening batsman Darren Maddy, who took his time to settle into the first-class game, but got a century and a ninety in the qualifying matches and begins to look a county player of talent. Vince Wells remains the most improved. Still, if Alistair Brown starts laying into their attack, any Surrey total is possible and any Leicester target is attainable.

Whoever wins the semi-finals the engravers of the Benson and Hedges Cup are bound to have their memories tested. Surrey last won it in 1974, Kent in 1978, Northamptonshire in 1980 and Leicester in 1985.