Newell revels in Pietersen's absence as Nottinghamshire close in on the title

Losing the England Test star to Hampshire was our gain, says the coach of the champions elect. Jon Culley reports
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The Independent Online

A member of the last team to bring the Championship pennant to Trent Bridge, 18 years ago, Newell was obliged to concede headline space to Richard Hadlee and Clive Rice, not to mention a quintet of England players in Chris Broad, Tim Robinson, Derek Randall, Bruce French and Eddie Hemmings. Yet by scoring more than 1,000 runs at an average close to 40, his contribution was of no small significance.

This year's Nottinghamshire side is notable for its lack of stars - no player has been required for England duty, despite Chris Read's rarely disputed status as the country's best wicketkeeper. Yet there are echoes of 1987. Now, as then, the tale involves a New Zealander and a South African.

The Kiwi is the Black Caps' leader, Stephen Fleming, whose role as county captain has been underpinned by a batting average of more than 70.

The South African at the heart of the story has been conspicuous by his absence.

After his elevation to England's superhero at the Oval last week, Kevin Pietersen is unlikely to lose much sleep over the reputation he left behind when he left Nottinghamshire for Hampshire last winter. But his former county remain adamant that they are better off without him.

Pietersen's relationship with Newell and some players was close to breaking point during the 2003 season, when Nottinghamshire were relegated from the First Division, and while he stayed on to help them to win promotion last summer his leaving was seen as a relief. "There was never any doubt about his ability," Newell said, "but I think his departure from here has been to everyone's benefit. After we were relegated I set about changing the culture in the dressing-room and it is certainly a more relaxed place now.

"We don't miss him because I think we probably had the best of him as a county player. He scored a lot of runs in his time at Trent Bridge but I don't imagine he will be playing much county cricket for Hampshire, maybe for the next 10 years."

Pietersen will not face his old county when they meet Hampshire at the Rose Bowl next week in the last game of the Championship campaign. He is under orders from England's coach, Duncan Fletcher, to rest.

The side that Newell has built has its emphasis firmly on dependability rather than flashiness. Having inherited a squad that included the vast experience of Jason Gallian and Darren Bicknell, he went for more of the same by signing the former England all-rounder Mark Ealham from Kent as well as Ryan Sidebottom from Yorkshire and Russell Warren from Northamptonshire. To that mix have been added the Australian batsman David Hussey and the former Northamptonshire off-spinner Graeme Swann, as well as the coveted Fleming.

Bicknell, who has topped 1,000 runs at an average close to 50, won the Championship with Surrey before moving to Trent Bridge in 2000 and he believes that Newell's recruitment policy has delivered the right balance. "If you look at this side compared with the Surrey one I played in there are fewer superstars but a lot of really honest, genuine cricketers," he said. "There are not many youngsters but the experience of having solid day-in, day-out county players has served us well time and again.

"When Mick took over the side he was aware that there were one or two in the dressing-room who could be disruptive influences but he has brought in players with the right attitude and the atmosphere around the place has improved massively. I think it has been reflected in the performances. Jason [Gallian] and myself are averaging around 50, Fleming and Hussey 70, and we've got four bowlers with close to 50 wickets each. You need people who can perform against the struggling teams as well as rising to the big occasion and we haven't let many sides off the hook.

"Mark Ealham, for example, has been awesome. He keeps performing year in, year out. He hasn't got so many runs this year but he has 50 wickets for the first time. Kent's loss has been our gain, massively."

Newell has particular praise for his seam attack. "I prefer to give my bowlers a rest from time to time but with injuries to Charlie Shreck and Paul Franks that has not been possible," he said. "Happily, Mark Ealham, Greg Smith, Andrew Harris and Ryan Sidebottom have risen to the challenge and deserve a lot of credit, as do the physios for keeping them fit."

Bicknell confesses that Read's availability has been greeted with mixed feelings. "It helps not to have the disruption of losing players to England but we see Chris every day and he rarely drops anything," he said. "We all know what a good cricketer Geraint Jones is and to be fair to Chris you never hear him complain. I think we are more frustrated on his behalf."

So much has Bicknell enjoyed the season that his plans to retire, put on hold at the end of last summer, are likely to be delayed again at the age of 38. "When you have the chance to be successful, it seems crazy to give up," he said.

With Hussey and Fleming due back, next year's side seems likely to have a similar look, although Newell admits that his squad's age profile is a matter for concern.

"Nearly all of our batsmen are over 30, as are Ealham and Smith, so that is something we have to look at," he said.

"But we have batted and bowled to a high standard and after winning eight games out of 14 you cannot say there has been much that could have been better."