Lancashire look to their strength in depth

BENSON AND HEDGES CUP FINAL: Lancashire v Kent at Lord's
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The Benson and Hedges Cup final may have the lower profile of the two one-day knockout competitions, but at least its position in the calendar means that the result usually remains a toss-up until the sun - should it decide to put in an appearance - is on the wane rather than the rise.

On the dewy September mornings which await the NatWest finalists, it only remains a toss-up until the toss-up. One of these days, the captain calling correctly will pluck out a souvenir stump, give a quick interview out on the square ("Well, there was nothing between the teams until I shouted tails") and finish the champagne-spraying ceremony while most of the spectators are still ordering breakfast at the bacon butty stalls.

Since the B&H took its place as the second knockout competition in 1972, the side batting first has won 12 times and lost 11. Over the same period, the ratio for the 60-over final stands at 19-4 in favour of the side batting second, so today's match should at least be a genuine case of the better team winning.

In the eyes of most neutrals, this will be Lancashire. They have arrived at this point in the season still at short odds for all four competitions, 10 months after Warwickshire proved that the grand slam is not the impossible pipe-dream that most people had previously imagined.

Their great tradition in one-day cricket, with packed houses being treated to spellbinding finishes, occasionally to the shimmer of moonlight, has unarguably sidetracked their focus on the County Championship - which they last won outright when Cyril Washbrook and George Duckworth were pulling on rubber-spiked batting gloves.

However, Lancashire now have a squad for all occasions, powerful enough in depth to overcome the handicap of losing Peter Martin and Jason Gallian through injury, although they will be less confident should such a crucial one-day cricketer as Neil Fairbrother be similarly lost to them after a fitness test this morning.

Kent are themselves without the services of their injured captain, Mark Benson, as they look to end a trophy drought stretching back to 1978. Leaving aside Durham, only Gloucestershire have as thick a layer of dust inside the trophy cabinet, although Kent's second Benson and Hedges Cup final appearance in three years at least suggests that they are now doing battle against other teams, rather than waging war among themselves.

Since their golden era of the 1970s, Kent's transition has been from a side that took everyone to the cleaners to a side that did all its dirty washing in public. The rows began with high-profile defections to Kerry Packer (Alan Knott, Derek Underwood, Asif Iqbal, Bob Woolmer), followed by the Chris Cowdrey-Chris Tavare captaincy split, and a committee that made Yorkshire's look like a model of harmony and goodwill.

Then there was the captaincy argument in the early 1980s, which resulted in Terry Alderman not being re-engaged after informing the committee precisely what he thought of Cowdrey's leadership. Canterbury, in fact, had not seen so much bloodletting since Thomas a Becket was stretchered out of the cathedral.

However, Kent have now emerged from this dark period, and if they begin as second favourites today, it will not be by much. Trevor Ward is one of the stronger contenders should England ever decide they might want a specialist opener, Aravinda de Silva has proved a more than adequate overseas replacement for Carl Hooper, Mark Ealham is one of the game's handier one-day all-rounders, and it is even rumoured that Martin McCague and Alan Igglesden are both fit at the same time.

Benson will probably carry on as Kent captain after this year, despite Hooper and Matthew Fleming both having ambitions in this direction, and it is rumoured that Fleming will be leaving the club at the end of the season to take over from Kim Barnett at Derbyshire.

These two sides have not met in a Lord's final since 1974, when Kent won a low-scoring Gillette contest, although their only other Lord's meeting, in 1971, is chiefly remembered for the acrobatic Jack Bond catch to dismiss Asif and effectively win the match for Lancashire.

If a similar result is on the cards this time, it is because Lancashire look to have the greater all-round strength, and it was their ability to bat all the way down the order which transformed a seemingly hopeless position in the semi-final at Worcester.

Mike Watkinson can bowl either seam up or off spin, and in Wasim Akram, Lancashire also possess the one bowler capable of a match-winning spell either with the new ball, or in the closing overs. Furthermore, Lancashire also have the equivalent to Ealham in Ian Austin, whose unathletic figure masks a cricketer who has had as much impact as anyone in Lancashire's one-day successes. It is a close one to call, but, perhaps, Benson's absence edges it to Lancashire.

KENT (from): T R Ward, D P Fulton, N R Taylor, P A de Silva, G R Cowdrey, M V Fleming, M A Ealham, *S A Marsh, M J McCague, D W Headley, T N Wren, M M Patel, A P Igglesden.

LANCASHIRE (from): M A Atherton, S P Titchard, J P Crawley, N H Fairbrother, N J Speak, G D Lloyd, *M Watkinson, Wasim Akram, W K Hegg, I D Austin, G Yates, G Chapple, G Keedy.

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