Newell and Johnson suffer in quiet fury over England's exclusion of Sidebottom
Nottinghamshire's cricket director and coach talk to Jon Culley about the national side's snub to their strike bowler
Tuesday 18 April 2006
Promoted one season, champions the next. It was the feat that set Nottingham's most famous management duo on a path towards international acclaim when Forest, fresh out of the Second Division, took the country by storm to land the First Division crown in 1978.
Nowadays, Forest can only reminisce. But, across the road from Brian Clough and Peter Taylor's old stamping ground, another double act can reflect on an achievement with a familiar ring as Mick Newell and Paul Johnson, respectively the cricket director and coach of Nottinghamshire, prepare the defence of their sport's biggest domestic prize.
Promoted in 2004 as cricket's fledgling two-division championship rewarded their progress, Nottinghamshire held off the challenge of Hampshire last summer to capture a First Division title they fully deserved, restoring the county as a major force in a manner that evoked memories of Richard Hadlee and Clive Rice and the glory days of Trent Bridge in the 1980s.
So it irks their management duo no end to recall the carping that accompanied last year's success. There is a fashionable view among those who see the national team as English cricket's sole raison d'être that county cricket has a particular purpose and Nottinghamshire, by their reckoning, had betrayed it. The charges were that they had supplied not a single weapon for Duncan Fletcher to unleash against the Australians and had assembled a team, mainly imported and with an average age of 32, that was a barrier to the development of home-grown talent.
Newell, charged by his employers with delivering a title, is unrepentant. "I'd love to pick younger players and there are a number who are pushing to be included, but they have to prove they are worth their place in the team," he said. "I'm not going to pick people just because they are young and from Nottingham. That's not how professional sport operates. Two-division cricket had produced a very competitive, high standard of cricket and I want us to compete at the highest level, so youngsters who want to play for Notts have to be good enough."
Johnson underlines the point, arguing that while a policy of signing experienced seniors such as Darren Bicknell and Mark Ealham may have raised the side's age profile, it has also lifted standards.
"By recruiting quality players we have raised the bar in the level required to play in our first team," Johnson said. "We have not brought senior players in to block junior players off. In fact, by bringing in players of a certain quality and a certain mentality, players who are winners, hopefully the junior players will learn from them.
"If they spend enough time around the dressing-room talking to these guys they will know what is required to make that step up and make themselves into better cricketers when they get the opportunity."
As for aiding the national cause, Nottinghamshire would gladly do so. Indeed, that they have not been asked is another sore point. Their view on the exclusion of their wicketkeeper Chris Read is well known to the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, but there are others they believe have worthy claims, both now and in the future. In the former category, the reborn former Yorkshire bowler Ryan Sidebottom is their No 1 candidate.
The mop-haired left-arm seamer has taken 80 first-class wickets in two seasons since he left Headingley for Trent Bridge, last year's haul of 50 being a key factor in Nottinghamshire's title triumph. Called up once by England in 2001, he looked destined to join the decidedly non-exclusive register of one-cap wonders, but, at 28, his county believe he is pressing for a recall.
"I found it astonishing that he was not involved in the main England squad this winter after the season he had," Johnson said. "Yet after being involved in the national academy he was even overlooked for the A-tour.
"But if his performances carry on as they did last year it is only a matter of time, in my opinion. I believe he is back to his best, indeed that he has raised his best to a higher level than when he was picked as a Yorkshire player.
"His skill with the ball has improved. He consistently swings the ball into the right-hander and has the ability to take the ball across him when required. The England camp keep saying that age is not a barrier and that if you are good enough you will play, so it is just up to Ryan to start this season well. I'm sure he will be in the back of a few people's minds."
Easily the most recognisable figure at Trent Bridge, Sidebottom has become the most reliable, according to Newell. "It is hard to recall a day when he did not bowl well last season," he said. "He is the best left-armer in the country and deserves some recognition." Sidebottom himself is more modest about his claims but insists he would make a better fist of Test cricket now than he did against Pakistan at Lord's in 2001, when he conceded 64 runs from 20 wicketless overs.
"I don't like to make excuses, but I was probably a bit inexperienced," he said. "It was a surprise to get called up because I didn't really think I deserved to be playing. But you've got to take those opportunities and I don't think I did.
"When I left Yorkshire there were a lot of England bowlers at the club and I felt I was going stale. Even when I was bowling well I was not playing regularly.
"It was a big decision to go because I had been there since I was 14 but I wanted to improve my cricket. I'd still like to play for England and coming here has enabled me to bowl more overs and improve my game.
"I don't think my age counts against me because I think as a fast bowler you peak at 27 to 30." The future, meanwhile, is represented by another left-armer, the decidedly pacy Mark Footitt. A raw 19-year-old in 2005, the lanky teenager suffered a debut nightmare last July, bowling seven wides and a no-ball as nerves overcame him in front of a 5,000-strong Twenty20 crowd, conceding 34 runs in just two overs. But he made a much better impression on his Championship bow against Glamorgan two days later, claiming no lesser figure than the former Indian Test captain Sourav Ganguly as his maiden wicket.
"Mark is going to take some careful managing and coaching and will not figure all that heavily this season," Newell said. "But he has a talent based on genuine pace and when bowlers like him come along people tend to get excited, like they do when a leg-spinner pops up.
"He is not going to get into the Notts team regularly just yet, let alone England, but he has talent and it is up to him to make the most of it."
Nottinghamshire have seen similarly bright prospects slip through their hands in recent seasons, with Bilal Shafayat and Nadeem Malik joining other counties in pursuit of more frequent opportunities, but Footitt is, so far, prepared to bide his time.
"I hope to start well in the second team and maybe get a few more games in the first team than I did last year," he said. "But I'm not really looking too far ahead at the moment. Obviously, the dream is to play for England, but I've still got a lot of work to do to get in the Notts team. I'm only 20 years old and I have a lot of time on my hands."
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