Smith's swing fires leaders

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The Independent Online
What is it about Championship cricket that inspires the meek and humbles the mighty? Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire won again on Saturday and are now first and third in the table, while Lancashire and Surrey, on paper the two most powerful teams in the land, are 15th and 16th.

Continuity of selection must be a problem at Old Trafford and The Oval, with so many players involved with England, but you would have thought they would be used to that by now; and the players that are left are not exactly duffers.

Of the two, Lancashire's poor showing is slightly less surprising: they finished 15th last season and have not won the Championship for 63 years. Even so, defeat by Somerset inside two days - one of them considerably shortened by rain - was quite a shock.

There should be some sympathy for Surrey over their latest defeat, by Essex at the Oval: they had four players on England duty and another three were injured just before or during the match. But they still had three England bowlers standing at the end of the game, which is three more than either Gloucestershire or Nottinghamshire.

Nottinghamshire, well beaten by Kent the previous week, bounced back with a victory at Northampton, thanks largely to a second innings century by Matthew Dowman. His previous claim to fame was a youth "Test" record score of 267 for England Under-19 against West Indies Under-19 in 1993.

You have to go back to the 70s to find Gloucestershire's last Championship success - 1877, to be exact. But they returned to the top of the table after completing victory by 164 runs over Yorkshire at Headingley, Mike Smith taking 10 wickets in the match. After a bumpy ride through the winter, when they lost two key players, Courtney Walsh and Andrew Symonds, and a new captain seemed hard to find, this is hardly the sort of start they could have expected.

Andy Stovold, the former wicketkeeper/batsman now director of coaching at Bristol, is not so shocked. "I don't think it affected us, really," he said of the close-season problems. "I think it came from outside, everybody seeing it as a turmoil situation, but it was always fairly straightforward within the club.

"The captaincy position was offered to Jack Russell, but when it didn't work out in the best interests of the club it was then offered to Mark Alleyne. He jumped at the opportunity and he's done a magnificent job of welding together what we always thought was a unit of very talented cricketers."

The loss of Walsh, captain and main strike bowler, left a big hole, but the Tasmanian Shaun Young has impressed as Walsh's overseas replacement. "You're always looking for match winners in overseas players but he's done his job as an all-rounder and strenthened the team on both sides without really starring," Stovold said.

"It has been very encouraging. If you read all the pre-season reports we weren't going to bowl a side out, we couldn't do this, we couldn't do that, but we just said, right, we're going to bowl line and length and keep plodding away. We do believe we've got a match winner in Mike Smith who, as long as the ball swings, is one of the most dangerous bowlers in the country."

Last season it was the batting as much as anything that let them down: only Durham managed fewer batting points. "We just didn't get the runs at the right pace," Stovold said. "This year we've got there or thereabouts. Nobody has got four or five hundreds, but Nick Trainor has done well and Tony Wright looks as though he's coming to a bit of form at Headingley.

"As far as I'm concerned, Robert Cunliffe started last year as an England A prospect, but he had domestic problems with his mother taken seriously ill, which unfortunately blew him apart. But now he's come out and followed it on again this year."

Stovold defines his own role as more development officer than first-team coach. "In the summer, I believe your main work has to be done with the second team and the youngsters," he said. "You discipline them and you get them playing the way you want them to play for the county. It does mean that the first team have to take more responsibility, but I don't think that's a bad thing. You can molly coddle people too much."

Whether Gloucestershire can emulate Leicestershire's unexpected success of last season remains to be seen. In the meantime the champions themselves drew for the fifth time in six games, Vince Wells taking a leaf out of Nasser Hussain's book by scoring a personal best double century against Middlesex at Lord's.

Matthew Hayden's purple patch continued at Chesterfield with another unbeaten century and an opening stand of 213 with Jason Laney, who made 93. Their efforts in Hampshire's win overshadowed Kim Barnett's 50th first- class century for Derbyshire, last season's runners-up and currently this season's runners-down.

Kent slipped into second place by virtue of a four-wicket victory over Warwickshire at Tunbridge Wells, Alan Wells adding a match-winning 62 not out to his 70 in the first innings; at Chester-le-Street Durham finished 38 runs short of the Sussex target of 307 with just two wickets remaining, John Morris making his second consecutive century; and Oxbridge cricket's mini-revival continued with a win for Oxford University over Glamorgan, thanks to a century in each innings from skipper Mark Wagh. Now there's a name to conjure with.