Rebuilders move in at Trent Bridge

By Iain Fletcher
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"Nottinghamshire last year were a shambles." Harsh words from a fellow professional at another club which sum up perfectly the sentiments on the county circuit about affairs and events at Trent Bridge.

After a glance at the tables last season they are difficult to argue against. The great divide in English cricket left Nottinghamshire on the wrong side of two fences, playing in the second division of the Championship and the National Lea- gue. Their Championship campaign was woeful, leaving them 17th out of 18, with just Gloucestershire, whose focus was firmly on one-day cricket (they won two trophies) below them.

It was all a bit unsettling for the new manager. Particularly as Clive Rice's main memories of Trent Bridge are of leading a band of ruthless, uncompromising cricketers to success throughout the mid-Eighties. "It was a bit of a shock," he admitted, "but what I think it was was poor attitude. What had gone on in the past was still thought to be acceptable, like slack attitudes to playing and practice. Well, it's not acceptable with me and the players have learned that."

Just the stuff you would expect from Rice, one of the "never say die" breed. No time for excuses, just a demand for hard work and aggression. "Last year we got a lot of bad press about the pitches at Trent Bridge," he said, "but then we went to Colwyn Bay. It was the flattest pitch, bone dry - I wanted to get my pads out and have a bat - but we were 9 for 6. They got about 650 for 4.

"People often blame the pitches rather than themselves. Yes, our pitches were green and with Vasbert Drakes, Paul Franks and the other seamers our game was based on bowling sides out. But we were let down by our batting."

A strong seam attack and green pitches. It could be Trent Bridge during the Eighties, when teams turned up knowing that Rice and Richard Hadlee were waiting.

"We didn't win then because of the pitches," explained Rice, "but because of psychology. This is very important and I am getting it across to my players now. The opposition used to turn up and their batsmen were already out before the toss had been made. They looked at the greenness of the pitch, saw myself and Richard and talked themselves out.

"But who did we have to face? Sylvester Clarke, Garth Le Roux, Imran Khan, Wayne Daniel, Joel Garner. These were top bowlers, but there was no negativity in our side. We wanted to win and were prepared to fight for it. So this year we have signed players like Darren Bicknell and Johnny Morris to bolster the batting. Competitive men, men who give something. And we've got the naval gun arriving at the end of the month."

That, of course, is Shoaib Akhtar, the Rawalpindi Express. His signing - like that of the combative Morris - has raised eyebrows in dressing rooms around the country, but for different reasons.

The first thing any batsman will be doing on arrival at Trent Bridge will be to check hopefully for any medical bulletins on the Pakistani. "We are back to psychology with him," said Rice, barely containing his enthusiasm to see opposition batsmen hopping around the crease. "Teams will turn up nervous and we will bowl them out. It is up to the batters how well we do."

And it is there that improvement is most needed. They registered just five Championship centuries last year, and only Paul Johnson, a battle-scarred veteran of the Eighties, made 1,000 runs.

The point is not lost on Jason Gallian, the captain and scorer of two of those five centuries. "It was the extravagant sideways movement that was the problem last year, but yes, the batters need to get runs. We struggled because we didn't take bonus points out of games or draw them, and that was due to the batters, so we have to work harder."

And that's an area where he has been leading by example. "I wasn't happy last year with my technique," he explained. "So I worked hard with Clive and it was only in the last third of the season that I was satisfied, and that was when I scored heavily. However, by that stage I think confidence was low among the other batsmen. So this year we need to get through this month in a good position so we all get a boost when Akhtar arrives."

And how they could have done with him these past few days as David Sales bludgeoned their attack all round Northampton in a monumental double-hundred. "A bad day considering we dropped him on 20-odd," agreed Gallian. "But we are near the top of the division [after two draws, against Northamptonshire and Essex] and we have won both National League games - all without an overseas player."

True, and it does augur well. But remember in the Eighties they had quality batsmen like Chris Broad, Tim Robinson, Derek Randall and Rice. Success then was built on them as much as the bowlers or the pitches. Only time will tell if this group have the positive attitude or the quality Rice requires.