Cricket: Yorkshire's injection of pace hailed

Jon Culley examines a county's latest bid to reverse under-achievement
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THE evening newspaper in Leeds failed to carry the Britannic Assurance Championship table the day after Yorkshire's defeat of Derbyshire, which might have been an excusable oversight at this early stage of the season had it not been for the fact that it would have shown God's own county sitting proudly at the top, 14 points clear of the field. The likeliest explanation was that a sub-editor, unaware that David Byas's side had won their first two matches, assumed the placings had been jumbled up.

The cynicism rife in the Broad Acres after regular exposure to unfulfilled hopes is not shared within the Headingley dressing room, much as Byas and Martyn Moxon, the former captain recently appointed director of cricket, are at pains to remind anyone in danger of getting carried away that no Championship was ever won in April.

The basis for this year's injection of optimism is essentially a matter of four names - Darren Gough, Chris Silverwood, Paul Hutchison and Craig White - a pace quartet whom Yorkshire regard as representing their best chance of regaining a title they last won in 1968.

Yorkshire have finished sixth in each of the last two Championships, a massive improvement on a run of seven consecutive seasons in the bottom half of the table prior to 1985. But Moxon feels that this year anything less than a top-three finish will probably be seen as a major disappointment. "It is the first time in a long time we have had such strength in depth in our bowling resources," he said. "Obviously, we have three established players in Gough, Silverwood and White. Backing them up is Paul Hutchison, who came on so well in the second half of last season and deservedly went on the A tour. And you can add the names of Gavin Hamilton, who did well for us in the Benson and Hedges game against Worcestershire, Ryan Sidebottom, who is an England under-18 international, and Matthew Hoggard, another young bowler we regard as very promising.

"Of course, we would expect to lose players to England but we are in a position where we have covered for every eventuality. If we do have a couple of bowlers called up, we have quality players to come in."

Silverwood, in particular, has launched his season with the clear intention of making up for lost time after his frustrations with England in the Caribbean, which provided more time around hotel swimming pools than he spent on the field. He bowled only 39 overs on the tour.

The 23-year-old from Pontefract, the county's leading first-class wicket- taker with 53 in 1997, was the main protagonist in an 111-run victory over Derbyshire, when his match figures were 9 for 80, having played a key role also in the 215-run defeat of Somerset. Already he has 14 wickets in the Championship at an impressive 11.85 runs each.

"He's certainly fresh," Moxon said. "And he has come back wanting to prove a point." The fitness of Gough, who missed the England tour because of a hamstring injury, and White, who underwent surgery on a shoulder problem during the winter, has come as a considerable bonus.

But it has been the progress made by the latest generation of young blood that is providing the deepest satisfaction. The 20-year-olds, Hutchison and Sidebottom - son of Arnie - and 21-year-old Hoggard are products of the youth development programme based around the county's celebrated academy. "It is not something that has happened overnight," Moxon said. "The academy has been an important part of the story and it has been of great benefit to have Arnie Sidebottom working as academy coach along with Steve Oldham as cricket development manager.

"Steve's close work with the age-group teams in the county, looking at kids from 11 years upwards, means that we have one of our own men directly involved with their progress all along the line. Allied to the work of existing coaches and managers, this helps us to keep a close eye on emerging talent."

If proof were needed of the system's effectiveness then Silverwood provides it as the star graduate, ready to complete the transition from England under-19 and England A recognition to full Test status, given that this summer's series against South Africa will almost certainly offer chances to add to his one cap.

And perhaps his personal success will spark the end of his county's long wait for the Championship pennant to fly over Headingley again. "A lot of people have said this could be our year," Moxon said. "We have to keep our feet on the ground but we've been there or thereabouts and hopefully we are ready now to take the next step."