Master of the short answer

NatWest final: Bracewell's meticulous county plan brings Gloucestershire unlimited one-day success

Gloucestershire will play in their fourth consecutive cup final at Lord's on Saturday. It is a feat unprecedented in the 37 years of domestic one-day cricket in England, yet still they will start as outsiders to the slickers from Warwickshire, still they will be viewed as the country bumpkins. Expect fingers to be burned.

Gloucestershire will play in their fourth consecutive cup final at Lord's on Saturday. It is a feat unprecedented in the 37 years of domestic one-day cricket in England, yet still they will start as outsiders to the slickers from Warwickshire, still they will be viewed as the country bumpkins. Expect fingers to be burned.

Glorious "Glorster" have won all their finals - the two in which they appeared in the Seventies as well as the most recent trio - but they are a side without stars. Doubtless it suits them that they continue to be underestimated.

Before the advent of John Bracewell, it really was like that down Bristol way. Neither the memories of W G himself, who made them great in the 19th century, nor of Mike Proctor, who came close to doing so 100 years later, could stir them. "A lot of the middle-management players, the sort who can bitch and moan about not being capped, almost had a vested interest in mediocrity prevailing in the club," said Bracewell. "It meant they weren't stretched and didn't stretch themselves.

"But in addition most of the players didn't perceive they were going to play for England. That says something about the psyche in this country, maybe in the West Country. It just wouldn't happen in the southern hemisphere. Yet as far as I knew only one player, Jack Russell, wasn't available for England because he'd retired from the international game. The rest of you, I told them, are available and should have that as the aspiration."

It is clear from his measured, thoughtful tones, that Bracewell knew he had to change a culture. Like all good coaches he took his time and now hands most of the credit to his charges. They had to provide the impetus, he said.

When Bracewell landed the job of first-team coach in 1998 he insisted on moving permanently to Gloucestershire from his native New Zealand, where he had been director of coaching at Auckland. "I didn't want there to be an element of the mercenary about it, of being here for six months and then going back," he said. "And eventually the county agreed."

In his first season, he regularly insisted that he wanted to take a cold, hard look at the county and their players before making any judgements. That winter he presented his blueprint. He had decided that the county should concentrate on building a one-day team at the short-term expense of the Championship side. Their success has been a phenomenon.

"There were two reasons," said Bracewell. "The first was commercial. We're running a business, and in terms of provoking interest the one-day game had obvious merits. But the players weren't doing justice to their talents. We had hidden behind the façade of Courtney Walsh, and it was time to get away from that."

Perversely, it was Walsh's last hurrah with Gloucestershire that helped to prompt their one-day glory. In his 14th and last season with them (Bracewell's first), the great West Indian's 106 wickets helped the county to fourth in the Championship. Under a bizarre ruling by the England and Wales Cricket Board, the top eight clubs in the 1998 Championship, a four-day competition, qualified for the 1999 Benson & Hedges Super Cup, a one-day tournament.

Bracewell made three signings. He recruited Ian Harvey in place of Walsh. Harvey was an Australian one-day specialist with a penchant for bowling the final overs in limited-overs cricket. The strategy was clear. He also enlisted Kim Barnett, who had spent 22 years at Derbyshire, was still hungry and was astonished that players in the Bristol dressing-room actually spoke to each other. He also signed Jeremy Snape, an off-spinner who could bat.

He then introduced a policy of athleticism. He inculcated his squad with the idea that they were athletes who played cricket. It demanded new fitness levels.

"Actually, I think that most of them are frustrated footballers in the way that New Zealand cricketers are often frustrated All Blacks," he said. "Not all the players embraced the ideal wholeheartedly, and there are different types of athleticism. But that is what we have done."

Bracewell, 42, played 41 Tests for New Zealand. He was in the side who had Richard Hadlee as the spearhead, but for a while he himself was the best attacking off-spinner in the world. In 1986 he scored a hundred against England at Nottingham which helped to secure New Zea-land's first series win in England. He played it hard.

When he applied for the Gloucestershire job he told the county that his ambition was to be an international coach. If given the job he would use it to learn. Bracewell still insists that he has learned more than he has taught, though doubtless the club would see it as fair exchange. He still wants to coach at Test level.

One niggling matter about the final deserves another airing. Gloucestershire were actually beaten in the second round by Worcestershire. The result was overturned when it was realised that Worcestershire had played Kabir Ali, who was ineligible because he had played in an earlier round for the County Board team and before that for the senior team in the B & H Cup.

The ECB ordered a replay. Gloucestershire needed no second invitation. "They beat us fair and square in the first match, but a regulation is a regulation," said Bracewell. It meant that Glorious Glos had to beat Worcestershire one day and Leicestershire the next. They hammered Lancashire in the semi-final.

On paper, Warwickshire are stronger. Bracewell does not demur, but he has done his homework. "They know where to go on the field, they guard their territory jealously." Gloucestershire are used to winning now, and who is to say that four will not become five?

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