Law on Essex's side but Warwickshire start favourites

CRICKET: Delayed NatWest final goes on at Lord's tomorrow against backdrop of uncertainty over competition's future
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The Independent Online
This year's NatWest Trophy, the elder statesman of the world's one-day competitions, is one of the emotive subjects due to be voted on by the counties in 10 days' time. But while some see it is a dinosaur ready to be modernised, others view it as a tradition set in stone. Indeed, the only people likely to be agreed on its current significance are tomorrow's finalists, Warwickshire and Essex, who are both sure to regard it as a last-ditch chance to make something of their season.

For Essex, the need to salvage something is even more acute than their opponents. Unlike Warwickshire, who lead the AXA Sunday League, they are in grave danger of taking nothing from a season which, promising great riches by the half-way stage - when they headed both Championship and Sunday League - now threatens to be remembered for little more than the retirement of Graham Gooch.

Apart from their hairline win over Glamorgan in the semi-finals, they have failed to win a game in any shape or form during August. It is a record that, despite yesterday's win against Lancashire in the Championship, does not bode well against a confident team who have twice thrashed them in the preceding week and whose one-day cricket is back to its functional best.

With the club captain, Tim Munton, as well as his deputy, Nick Knight, missing much of the season through injury, Warwickshire have, under the leadership of Neil Smith (a specialist one-day captain long before the Aussies dreamed up the wheeze), rekindled the spirit, if not quite the zany adventure, of the Dermot Reeve years. These days they stick to the basics, and do them well, a bits-and-pieces team bound together by the menacing presence of Allan Donald, probably the world's fastest bowler.

Donald, who tends to bowl the majority of his overs in the middle of the innings, when batsmen are looking to accelerate, is the obstacle Essex have to circumvent without losing too many casualties.

And yet where Donald really scores is when he does not even have the ball in his hand - often just the threat of him is usually enough to persuade teams to take irrational risks against the likes of Dougie Brown, Graham Welch and Gladstone Small.

Unlike their Essex counterparts Mark Ilott and Ashley Cowan, who tend to attack, the trio adopt an unwavering discipline towards their early spells. In order to avoid the trap so many fall into, Paul Prichard's team must take every precaution to not be four down by the time the South African comes on.

Mind you, with Stuart Law, Essex's shot-playing Australian, set to open the innings, Donald may be persuaded to take the new ball. Law, who missed last year's final through international commitments, has been so dominant in the Essex batting line-up that his early departure would be certain to affect morale.

Desperate to have some silverware to show for his two brilliant seasons with the club, Law's plan is to try to bat for at least 50 overs which, judging by some of the electric starts he has given Essex over the season, could mean that a double century may not entirely be comicbook fantasy.

Law's presence aside, Essex's confidence will have been boosted by the return from injury of both Prichard (hamstring) and Ronnie Irani (torn rib muscle). However, despite a repeated intravenous cocktail of vitamins and amino acids, courtesy of a specialist in Munich, Irani is unlikely to bowl, something that could compromise the final balance of the side.

Providing the pitch is a great deal less bowler friendly than last year's uneven surface (never guaranteed at Lord's at this time of year) a high- scoring game could be in prospect, though Warwickshire, their depth and versatility in all departments, are deserved favourites, particularly now that Knight, keen to put one over his old county, has been restored as opener.

And yet if anyone can confound the form book it is Essex, whose tendency to veer from calamity to brilliance is as ingrained as the worry lines on their supporters' faces. Providing memories of last year's debacle do not come back to haunt them at the crucial moments, the cup could be making its way back into the trophy cabinet at Chelmsford.