First steps on unlikely road to Lord's

Natwest Trophy: Potter uses first-class experience to overcome Somerset youth policy as West Indian proves best for Wales
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The Independent Online

To talk of cricket in terms of romance may not seem entirely appropriate at present but the mood in Clontarf, Pontarddulais and Gateshead Fell yesterday could not have felt much further removed from the furtive phone calls and suspect results being discussed at Lord's.

These were three among 14 of the nation's more modest grounds chosen to host the first round of the NatWest Trophy, the competition which, in its newly expanded format, is the closest equivalent the summer game can offer to football's FA Cup.

The chances of any of yesterday's participants being required at Lord's for the final are probably less than a Third Division teams making it to Wembley. If the sides locking horns at HQ on 26 August are not two of the first-class counties then something most certainly will have been afoot.

Rather than simply another carve-up for the élite, the NatWest now embraces 60 teams, representing Scotland, Ireland, Denmark and Holland, 14 "recreational" teams under the colours of county boards, and 20 minor counties in addition to the professional names.

The realistic goal, even for the major minors, is to qualify for round three - the first round proper, if you like. Staffordshire, who easily overcame the Somerset Board XI at Birmingham League Walsall's ground yesterday, have their eyes on arguably the plum tie of that round, against Surrey, the county champions, who will have to venture to Leek on 21 June, provided Staffordshire first defeat Devon at Torquay in two weeks' time.

A victory over Surrey, though unlikely, might not be beyond Staffordshire. Although they are not among the six minor counties to have claimed a first-class scalp in the competition's 37-year history - the last, bowl-outs excepted, being Cheshire's triumph over Northamptonshire in 1988 - they have gone respectably close a couple of times. The more tangible target, however, is a necessary boost to county coffers.

Staffordshire are keen to foster youth development but financial constrictions may limit their ambition. "For the first time in several years we have made a loss," their chairman, John Leppington, said. "The funding from the ECB has been reduced and we have lost our sponsorship, so it is not an easy time for us."

Happily, their cause is boosted by a strong hand of experienced players. Staffordshire has a long tradition of producing talented cricketers. Bob Taylor, David Steele, Kim Barnett and Dominic Cork, among others, have their roots in the county and while the current line-up may not boast quite such quality it has many recognisable names.

Lawrie Potter, the left-arm spinner and opening batsman who won yesterday's man of the match award, has become a stalwart since he retired from Leicestershire to teach. Steve Dean, the captain, Peter Wellings and David Bowden all have senior county pedigrees, Tim Tweats (ex-Derbyshire), Graham Archer (Nottinghamshire) and David Follett (Northamptonshire) played as recently as last summer.

They were far too canny for the Somerset side containing five teenagers. "The idea that we could assemble a team of club players proved problematic because many could not get time off, so we chose the development route," the county's chief executive, Peter Anderson said.

"There are some club players but there are others still hoping to join or in some cases rejoin the professional staff, for whom the experience of taking on a few gnarled old pros will be invaluable."

Gareth Andrew, for example, is only 16 and about to sit his GCSEs but Somerset see a good deal of potential in his fast-medium bowling and will hope to bring it out when he joins their academy later in the year.

The result was something of a mismatch. The Board XI's 124 on an unsurprisingly slow pitch - parts of the outfield were under water last week - was passed in 29 overs, Potter adding 37 to figures of 1 for 9 from 10 overs and two catches at slip.