Yardy out to steal Lancashire thunder

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The Independent Online

Its format has been widely criticised, and rightly so, but today's Cheltenham and Gloucester Trophy final will be competed for by the best two domestic teams in the country. Lancashire and Sussex are locked in a thrilling battle for the County Championship but their focus this morning will be on 50-over rather than four-day cricket.

The success of Twenty20 cricket and the replacement of the knock-out stages of this competition with two conferences, whose winners reach the final - next season there will be a semi-final round, too - has taken much of the kudos and excitement away from the tournament, and it is no doubt one of the reasons why the England and Wales Cricket Board is attempting to attract a new sponsor for it in 2007.

Lancashire and Sussex both have a rich history in the tournament, winning it 11 times between them. Sussex were the inaugural winners in 1963, when they defeated Worcestershire by 14 runs under the captaincy of Ted Dexter in a 65-over game. Lancashire, however, have lifted the trophy on more occasions - seven - than any other county.

It has been seven years since either side reached a Lord's final and this may account for the healthy sale of tickets for today's game. Lancashire won the NatWest Trophy in 1998 but the old Sunday League has provided them with their only silverware of note since. Sussex won the County Championship for the first time in 2003 and under Chris Adams' combative captaincy they have become one of the most competitive teams in the country.

Sussex gained a narrow two-wicket victory over Lancashire in a high-scoring Pro40 match at Hove three weeks ago, but the greater experience of the Red Rose county means that they start as slight favourites. Sussex - in Adams, Matthew Prior, Murray Goodwin, Mushtaq Ahmed, Yasir Arafat and James Kirtley - have players who have played international cricket but Lancashire still have an edge.

Lancashire's seam attack, even without Andrew Flintoff and James Anderson, is as strong as any in the country. Sajid Mahmood, Dominic Cork, Glenn Chapple, Kyle Hogg and Tom Smith offer a pleasant blend of youthful enthusiasm and gnarled old pro. Mushtaq gives Sussex the edge in spin bowling but Gary Keedy, and the recently recruited Murali Kartik, offer Lancashire strength here, too.

Lancashire will give late fitness tests to Cork, Chapple and Stuart Law, the prolific former Australian batsman, but all are expected to play. Lancashire's biggest dilemma is whether to play Kartik ahead of Keedy.

Rana Naved-ul-Hasan played a vital role in Sussex reaching Lord's, taking 16 wickets at an average of 13 in five conference matches, but the fast bowler's selection in Pakistan's one-day squad means he is unavailable for the final. But Sussex, through Mushtaq, their inspirational leg-spinner, have excellent contacts with Pakistan cricket and in Yasir Arafat they have a more than capable replacement.

It is a surprise that Arafat, who can bowl at 90mph and bat well enough to average more than 50 in this summer's Championship, was not selected in Pakistan's one-day squad but the tourists' loss is Sussex's gain.

The final completes a memorable week for Michael Yardy, the little-known Sussex batsman and occasional left-arm spinner. Yardy was selected in England's 15-man NatWest squad on Wednesday but before joining up he will play in the biggest game of his career.

"It doesn't get much better than this," he said, reflecting on his week. "I was massively chuffed to get in the [provisional] 30. To be seen as a possible England player was a great moment, then to be picked in a real squad with all those big players in there was a dream come true.

"At Sussex we have got 11 guys who have a key role, there's no one who you think, 'Well, if they have a bad day we will struggle'. Although we haven't got the stars we are all able to adjust. We're a very tight unit, we've got 18 on our staff and everyone gets on really well. There are not cliques, everyone works together."

It sounds like international cricket could learn a lot from a visit to the south coast.

C&G Trophy final (Lord's, 10.45): Sussex (from): M Prior (wkt), R Montgomerie, M Yardy, M Goodwin, C Adams (capt), C Hopkinson, R Martin-Jenkins, Y Arafat, M Ahmed, J Kirtley, L Wright, C Nash.

Lancashire (from): M Chilton (capt), M Loye, S Law, N Astle, S Croft, L Sutton (wkt), K Hogg, T Smith, S Mahmood, M Kartik, G Keedy, D Cork, G Chapple.

Umpires: J Lloyds and N Mallender.