Lamb leads the hunt

Derek Pringle meets a predator in search of a place in his county's history
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NORTHAMPTONSHIRE may be about to embark on the most important week in their history, but, apart from his habitually chewed fingernails, Allan Lamb has shown few signs of feeling the strain. While most captains faced with the prospect of doing the double in their swansong year would be fretting and plotting their rest days away, Lamb instead went to Scotland. The only nets he came across were used to land salmon.

The week off, which Lamb reckons fell perfectly for his team, was aimed at recharging low batteries in time for the season's run-in. As one of three leading Championship contenders (they have never won the title), Northamptonshire must play top-placed Middlesex at Uxbridge, beginning on Tuesday. It is a match that will surely make or break either team's title hopes - then go to Lord's for the NatWest final against Warwickshire.

"No one's even thinking about the NatWest yet," Lamb insisted. "For us the Championship is the big one. We all know that if we win our remaining matches we'll be there and thereabouts. We can't do more than that."

Lamb might be toeing the "take every game as it comes" line, but even the most focused players must realise the result of the next four-day match will be of huge psychological import before a final against a side also vying for the Championship. The enduring glory of victory or numbing ignominy are the extremes on offer.

Few can accuse Lamb, now 41, of over-complication. Cerebral captains do exist, but everything about Lamb is based on instinct - he is a natural predator clad in a cosy surname. His captaincy, at first awkward and naive, has improved in scope over the years, and observers now speak of a surer, more paternal touch.

The changes have not come easily. In fact, so surprised were some when it was mooted that the poacher was about to turn gamekeeper (it finally came in 1989) that one correspondent remarked: "Making Lamb captain would be like leaving Billy Bunter in charge of the tuck shop." He memorably buttonholed the said journalist while both were on a packed flight to India.

Six years later, he admits it was the job that helped motivate him in his constant quest for success. "It is definitely the captaincy that has kept me going all this time. We have always had a good set of players but have rarely done ourselves justice. We tended to play as individuals and selfishness crept in. This year we've got a great spirit going and players have also believed in the team as a unit."

The club too, has moved and their ground is unrecognisable from the drab place it was in the Seventies and early Eighties. Gone are the unsightly stands and bumpy outfield where football was once played. One thing that has not changed is the square, which has always been naturally slow and crumbly. It was perhaps this constant that led Lamb to sign the Indian leg-spinner Anil Kumble, once an audacious bid to get Shane Warne had failed.

He has proved an inspired choice to replace Curtly Ambrose, the club's overseas player since 1989. Not many captains would be able to convince their cricket committee of the wisdom of replacing the world's greatest fast bowler with the world's second most effective spinner, but Lamb did, and the gambit has made them a potent bowling side.

"I believe you should always go for the best when signing an overseas player," Lamb said. "We looked at Shane Warne but when he wasn't available we signed Anil. His Test captain, Mohammad Azharuddin reckoned he'd do well and his incredible accuracy and pace through the air means he can bowl virtually all day on any surface without going for many runs."

Lamb is having a splendid season, having scored 1,039 first-class runs at a heady average of 61 goign into the current match against Nottinghamshire. He scored a century yesterday. His style and aggression however, have long saddled him with a reputation for one-day feats that overshadows the runs he scored in his 79 Tests for England, where he made six of his 14 Test centuries against the West Indies. It was this combination of past reputation and present form that had brought talk of a recall. "It's true that one of the selectors asked me how I felt about the possibility of a one-off after players had got injured. But there was no chance really, not with Illy in charge. He's never really rated me."

Even though his exterior is relentlessly mischievous, it is by no means the only grievance. Despite being born of British parents in an air force base north of Cape Town, Lamb still had to spend five years to qualify for England. To his mind, Lamb's commitment to England was never acknowledged, and he feels that whenever he did well, his name was always prefaced by the words "the South African".

His adopted county have never had any doubts and they will have their chance to show their appreciation in his testimonial next year, rumoured to be his last at the club. If it is, the man they call "Legger" will retire a happier man should this week turn Northamptonshire's way.