THE WEEK AHEAD; Cricket: Psychology to the fore in final dress rehearsal

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The Independent Online
Under normal circumstances, the Northamptonshire and Lancashire players preparing for today's second-round NatWest Trophy ties would be told to put aside all thoughts of their meeting at Lord's on Saturday. There is no point in such advice this year, however, as the rivals for the Benson and Hedges Cup must stage a full dress rehearsal in the 60- over competition at Old Trafford today. Whether this is good for either camp is debatable. Strengths, weaknesses and tactical possibilities will be fresh in the minds of the players but a one-sided match today would certainly have a bearing in psychological terms.

Not that there seems much prospect of that, however. Northamptonshire have the look of an impressively-equipped one-day side under Rob Bailey's captaincy, blending the maturing talents of Richard Montgomerie, Russell Warren and Mal Loye with the wisdom of David Capel, Kevin Curran and now John Emburey, which gives them a decent hand in any game of this type, without even taking into account the potential for devastation Curtly Ambrose brings to the contest.

But they will confront a Lancashire team which, for all their under-achievement in the Championship, can never be underestimated in limited-overs cricket, to which a record of six Lord's finals in seven seasons bears testimony. This will be their sixth B&H final, five of them since 1990, and they will be seeking to lift the trophy for the fourth time.

Batting virtually all the way down, and with six or seven bowling options, they possess any number of match-winners, from Michael Atherton at the top to Peter Martin at the bottom, as well as brilliant one-day specialists such as Neil Fairbrother and Warren Hegg.

But just as importantly they seem blessed with an unquenchable spirit, a self-belief so deep that defeat is never accepted until all hope has gone, as Yorkshire will readily confirm after this year's semi-final, when Lancashire were on the ropes at 97-5 but, after Fairbrother and Hegg had performed an heroic recovery, reached a target of 251 with the last ball, which Martin bludgeoned for two amid almost unbearable tension.

So much for the B&H. In the NatWest, Northamptonshire, losing finalists last year, at least have the knowledge that they defeated Lancashire by eight wickets to win at Lord's in 1992 and the belief that they would have done likewise in 1990 had they won the toss on a dewy morning, during which Phil DeFreitas blew away five of their upper order in a match effectively decided before lunch.

Rob Bailey's squad includes opener Alan Fordham, who celebrated his recall to the first team with a century against the Pakistanis, and off-spinner Jeremy Snape.

The business at Old Trafford apart, the ties with most appeal are at Edgbaston, where the holders, deprived of Dermot Reeve, continue their defence against Surrey, at Grace Road, where ebullient Leicestershire take on improving Sussex, at Derby, where Championship leaders Kent will have their work out to overcome a team fired with renewed competitiveness under the captaincy of Dean Jones, and at Headingley, where Yorkshire, strong contenders for silverware this summer, meet Sunday League leaders Middlesex.

The impact of Reeve's absence, confirmed for the rest of the season, is likely to be felt particularly in matches such as today's, in which his ability to turn a contest with bat or ball, not to mention innovative captaincy, has often been the difference between defeat and unlikely victory. At least Tim Munton will return, recovered from the back problem that thwarted his comeback from a wrist injury, although there are doubts over Dominic Ostler. Chris Lewis and Alec Stewart return from England duty for Surrey but opener Darren Bicknell faces a fitness test against damaging a hand in the field against Middlesex.

Fresh from successive innings victories over Yorkshire and Essex in the Championship, Leicestershire have the ability to sweep aside Sussex, especially if David Millns continues in the form which enabled him to take 10 wickets in the match and complete a century against Essex, the first player for eight years to achieve this double.

Kent's worry at Derby is that injury-plagued Dean Headley, who limped out of the Championship match against Durham with an ankle injury, will be absent but Yorkshire are at full strength for the visit of Essex, with prolific Australian batsman Michael Bevan refreshed by a week's holiday in Spain.