Birkenshaw's foxes benefit from the training of the shrewd

In the outfield
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The Independent Online

Jack Birkenshaw, that wiliest of old Foxes who was born in the West Riding, was saying pretty much nowt. At least, he was letting Devon Malcolm down lightly. "He's got to come into the reckoning," said the veteran coach of Leicestershire, one of the finalists in the C & G Trophy final next Saturday.

Birkenshaw was referring to Malcolm's possible selection for the team to play Somerset at Lord's. "We've got to sit down and talk about it and be sure all the others are firing on all cylinders," he said.

Malcolm happened to be in hearing distance and these, doubtless, were just the words he was prepared to listen to. To concentrate the coach's mind a bit further he came over and said: "And don't forget Lord's is a good ground for me." But he will be an improbable selection, and both Birkenshaw and Malcolm knew it. In those circumstances, however (coach watching player bowling in the nets and not wishing to discourage), there are traditional proprieties to observe. Malcolm has never been one of the formidable one-day bowlers, being too much strike and too little economy. At 38 he would obviously relish a Lord's one-day final swansong, but is both too gracious and realistic to expect it.

"I haven't featured all season in the one-day knockout stuff," he said, "and the other boys have got us there. Sure, I'd love to play, but it would be hard on any of them to be left out." Whether or not he is picked, Malcolm provides splendid testimony to Birkenshaw's enduring judgement on players. There have been those (and in his own dressing room) who have surmised that he was losing the knack, but Birkenshaw has demonstrated that it is they who are out of touch.

He lured Malcolm from Northamptonshire, where the fast bowler spent most of last summer in the second team. Malcolm has responded to Birkenshaw's faith by taking nearly 60 wickets this summer, second only to Martin Bicknell. He has also bowled more overs than any other seamer.

Birkenshaw, at 60, is still the coach's coach, which is the sort of status that may give his charges the edge next weekend. Two of his other recent signings have exhibited the shrewdness of his opinions.

He recruited Neil Burns in 2000 after the wicketkeeper had been retired for six years. Birkenshaw had a hunch that he had left the game too early and remembered that he was adept at standing up. He has had no cause for regrets. He also enlisted Trevor Ward from Kent. This looked a distinctly dodgy deal last year, and the hard-hitting opener was a soft touch who had to be dropped. This season he has made a startling comeback with four hundreds and an average above 50.

When Leicestershire's overseas player, Daniel Marsh, was injured last month, Birkenshaw realised that the county's best hope of trophies was in the one-day competitions. Thus, they signed one of the world's leading one-day players, Shahid Afridi, as a replacement. The move has paid off handsomely. Afridi has not only made bags of runs but has also been taken to the Leicestershire public's notoriously unmoveable hearts.They may even turn out to watch him at Lord's.

Ticket sales for the final have gone well. This is as well, since the attendance at the other supposed showpiece domestic one-day event was frankly pathetic. There were wide open spaces all over the old ground for the Benson and Hedges Cup final between Surrey and Gloucestershire.

Not so for the inaugural C & G. Somerset have been especially enthusiastic and expect to sell their whole allocation of 4,500. Leicester will be helped by the Afridi Factor and hope there will be a higher take-up over the bank holiday. The MCC have only 300 tickets left for sale.

The decision to allow spectators under 16 to be admitted for a fiver has proved immensely popular. It is something that the ECB (and the MCC) are likely to repeat in future. While it shows vision, it is also a shame that the C & G (the erstwhile Limited Overs Knock-out Competition when first played for in 1963, the Gillette Cup until 1980 and the NatWest Trophy until 2000) cannot fill Lord's on its merits.

It is supposed to be cricket's FA Cup final. Come to think of it, the FA Cup final isn't what it used to be either.

Before this year's C & G final is played, the 2002 tournament will be under way. The first round of next year's competition takes place on Wednesday. The big match is probably Norfolk against Holland, qualifiers for the 2003 World Cup.

Before the end of this season the 2002 second round will also have been played. This year's surprise side, Herefordshire, who beat Middlesex in May, will take on either Suffolk or Denmark on 13 September. It means they could go from being giant-killers to slain giants in the same competition in the same year.

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