Whitaker enjoying the mind games

COUNTY CHAMPIONSHIP: Leicestershire are two wins away from their first title for 21 years. Jon Culley reports
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The question was designed to be provocative and it had the desired effect on the Leicestershire captain. Must it not be a poor Championship if his side can win?

"I don't think it is a fair comment," James Whitaker said, "but I can see why people might make it.

"They look at the players we have and they don't see big names, so they wonder how we can be doing so well. But what they do not see is a team.

"I don't think any of the other counties would begrudge us the title. All the counties we have beaten we have beaten handsomely, including sides with five or six internationals, and, of the six draws, three were dictated by the weather.

"We have used only 13 players and everyone has won us a game, in one way or another. Alan Mullally's talent has been recognised at last and there are not many batsmen who look forward to taking on David Millns, even at 30. And the contribution of Phil Simmons, as a bowler, batsman and slip fielder, has been immeasurable.''

Simmons, the West Indian all-rounder, signed a new two year-contract yesterday amid high optimism at Grace Road. Two more handsome victories and Leicestershire, with a lead of one point as they begin the penultimate round against Durham at Chester-le-Street today, will carry off the title for the first time since Ray Illingworth led them to it in 1975.

It may be an omen that the present captain is another Yorkshireman, as is the manager, Jack Birkenshaw, who was a member of Illingworth's side. But the notion that this is a success driven by a couple of hard-nosed northerners would also be less than accurate.

Birkenshaw's roots are unmistakable but the harsher edges of Whitaker's vowels have long since been smoothed away. His family, chocolate makers from Skipton, sent James to Uppingham School in Leicestershire.

Nor is there much of the blunt intransigence of the regional stereotype. In conversation, Whitaker constructs his comments thoughtfully, revealing sensitivity and perceptiveness, particularly so in matters concerning the psychology of the game, which has been a key element in his first season as captain.

"Don't get me wrong, I'm not a Mike Brearley," he said. "But I have always been interested in how to focus the mind in certain ways.

"It is an area we neglect in English cricket. Sport is 90 per cent in the brain, isn't it? And 10 per cent technique. So what do we do with English cricketers? We spend 90 per cent of the time on batting and bowling technique and we never - or hardly ever - practise what goes through our minds. Surely you must practise that as well?''

At Whitaker's instigation, Leicestershire have. Mental preparation has become as important as catching practice.

"As an example," he said, "we now go to an away ground the afternoon before the match, have a couple of hours practice, unpack and get ready for the event taking place the following day.

"In the past, though we might travel the day before, we would not be together in an organised way until the morning.

"And we have a team meeting on the Wednesday night. We have talked games through every time and it has helped create a sense of everyone being involved. If they feel more part of it, that they are contributing, then it helps their performance, surely?''

This togetherness is evident on the field, where Leicestershire celebrate each wicket by forming a huddle, an act which has now become part of the team ethic. "It started as a bit of fun," Whitaker said, "but it is useful as a way of refocusing. I like to be pro-active, to be reviewing what is happening the whole time rather than letting the game drift, and this helps keep everyone aware of what they are trying to do.''

Alongside this collectivism, Whitaker has also preached individual responsibility, discussing personal targets with each player. Bowlers are encouraged to think for themselves in setting fields, batters to balance their own interests with those of the team. "I believe that almost anybody playing first-class cricket is capable of getting 10, 15 even 25 per cent more out of themselves, given the right climate and direction," he said.

"This is what we have tried to do and, although there were a few raised eyebrows at the start, I think the players have responded positively. I was always confident that, given a fair break with injuries, we could bowl people out and that if we could get 10 or 15 per cent more out of the batsmen we could be a force. I knew that guys like Darren Maddy, Ben Smith and Vince Wells were capable players. It was just a matter of convincing them they could express themselves in a confident way.''

In no one has this been more startling than Wells, the former jack of all trades who has three times made double hundreds, getting out on 197 on another.

"But these things do not happen unless someone is prepared to put the time and effort into communication," Whitaker said. "To see people performing above their own expectations makes me proud. If we can now win two more and take the title, my first year in the job will have been perfect.''

Championship top five and remaining fixtures

P W L D Bat Bwl Tot

Leics (7) 15 8 1 6 49 53 248

Surrey (12) 15 8 1 6 45 56 247

Derbys (14) 15 8 2 5 49 50 242

Essex (5) 15 8 3 4 50 51 241

Kent (18) 15 8 1 6 43 44 233

LEICESTERSHIRE: Today: Durham (a). 19 Sept: Middlesex (h).

SURREY: Today: Glamorgan (a). 19 Sept: Worcestershire (h).

DERBYSHIRE: Today: Warwickshire (h). 19 Sept: Durham (h).

ESSEX: Today: Sussex (h). 19 Sept: Glamorgan (h).

KENT: Today: Hampshire (h). 19 Sept: Gloucestershire (a).