Gloucestershire revel in role of giants

Harvey the trump card in all-round side fulfilling their ambitious coach's prophecy
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Once upon a time - in the mid-1990s, to be specific - predicting the outcome of tomorrow's NatWest Trophy final would have involved a debate lasting around 30 seconds. A minute, perhaps, if detailed analysis were required. Warwickshire, winners of seven trophies in five seasons, including three one-day finals, would stroll it, Gloucestershire, the bumpkins from the West country, merely making up the numbers.

Once upon a time - in the mid-1990s, to be specific - predicting the outcome of tomorrow's NatWest Trophy final would have involved a debate lasting around 30 seconds. A minute, perhaps, if detailed analysis were required. Warwickshire, winners of seven trophies in five seasons, including three one-day finals, would stroll it, Gloucestershire, the bumpkins from the West country, merely making up the numbers.

Not any more. The bumpkins see themselves as city sophisticates now, regarding Lord's almost as a second home. In an unprecedented feat, Gloucestershire have reached four consecutive knock-out finals and, given that they have so far won them all, have a right to walk out tomorrow as favourites.

Even now, this still seems bizarre. To say it is a freak, however, would do an injustice to all those involved. In fact, although the scale of their success was hardly anticipated, it was, to a certain extent, planned.

This was in the winter of 1998-99 when John Bracewell, their ambitious and pragmatic New Zealand-born coach, recruited Ian Harvey, the Australian all-rounder, Jeremy Snape, an off-spinner who could bat, and the veteran opener Kim Barnett with the purpose of turning a not-bad Championship side into a very good one-day one.

"To think we would win two trophies last year and come back for two more this year was beyond any expectations, obviously," Barnett said. "But at the time I joined you could see the makings of a good one-day unit and they knew what they wanted to do."

Bracewell's aim was not specifically to win one-day trophies but to develop the strengths he had identified and to change the culture within the team, who had been hanging to an extent on Courtney Walsh's shirt-tails, to one of greater collective responsibility. He saw the short game as the quickest way to reward progress with success.

"I felt we should have an overseas player who was not expected to dominate games but to complement the side," Bracewell said. "If a side is too reliant on an overseas player it can hinder the development of other players.

"I also wanted to get players to share their knowledge. We underestimate the intelligence of English cricketers. They are the ones out in the middle and they know more about the game they are playing than any of us sitting on the sidelines. Creating an environment for learning was one of the first requirements."

Barnett, himself about to play in his fifth consecutive final after ending his Derbyshire career on the losing side in the 1998 NatWest, acknowledges that, among Gloucestershire's key qualities, fielding is as important as batting and bowling. "We bat deep and have a lot of variety in the bowling without necessarily being dynamic, " he said. "But you would have to go a long way to see better fielding. They are the best fielding unit I have ever seen."

This can be attributed directly to Bracewell, who has insisted not only that his players regard themselves as athletes but has taught them to study each other's game, so that fielders know the strengths and weaknesses of the bowlers in order to work more effectively in combination.

"We talk about each fielder having ownership of his position and sharing his skills with the bowler," he said. "This involves studying the bowler so that you know when he is going to let go his slower ball and appreciate the areas in which he might get hit. You look after your own part of the field as if it is a plot of land that someone is trying to take away from you."

Hence Gloucestershire, who batted first in 11 of the 16 knock-out ties they have won in the last two seasons, defend totals more effectively than anyone. However, the value of individuals should not be underplayed. Harvey, a fine tactical batsman who mixes naggingly accurate line and length with a deadly slower ball, has tended to be the headline grabber but Barnett's contribution has been just as vital. Now in his 41st year, he averages above 50 in the NatWest, maintaining a similar mark in the Championship. In the three finals with Gloucestershire he has been party to opening stands worth 66, 129 and 80, each time with Tim Hancock.

"It upsets one or two people in the dressing-room that people talk about us in terms of being functional and without stars," Barnett said. "There are some extremely talented people, whether stars or not.

"Mark Alleyne and Ian Harvey are genuine international all-rounders, Jack Russell is a great keeper standing up to the stumps and Mike Smith as good a new-ball bowler as there is in the country for swing. And there are good big-match players too like Tim Hancock, who always seems to come up with a score on the big occasions."

Nonetheless, the ability to cope when such players are absent has been notable. When Gloucestershire beat Worcestershire, in the replayed third-round tie, and then Leicestershire 24 hours later, they did so without Alleyne and Hancock. And they have twice overcome Lancashire, the erstwhile one-day kings, without Harvey, defeating the Old Trafford side in the Benson and Hedges semi-final as well as at the same stage of the NatWest.

But Harvey's presence tomorrow - he has been playing for Australia in Melbourne - will significantly heighten Gloucestershire's chances against an opponent of similar all-round ability.

"He is the best 'death' bowler I've ever seen, if you take out the speed men," Barnett said. "He isn't rapid but the accuracy and change of pace are fantastic, a major part of his game. He has got a couple of slower balls, so there is variation even in that."

What Bracewell has most admired in all three of Gloucestershire's Lord's wins, against Yorkshire and Somerset to pull off last year's double and Glamorgan earlier this summer, is their ability to handle pressure. But he recognises that Warwickshire, coached by the master of psychology and tactics, Bob Woolmer, will present the stiffest opposition they have faced.

"Without wishing to denigrate the other sides I felt we dealt with the pressure better on each occasion," he said. "But after their success in the 90s Warwickshire will be a lot more hardened to the task. Given good weather I think it will be the best of all the finals."

Comments