Whitaker returns as an eager native

THE WEEK AHEAD

David Byas is not the only Yorkshire-born captain who believes he is leading a side capable of winning the County Championship.

The other is James Whitaker, an exile throughout his professional career, who will not lack motivation when he arrives with his Leicestershire troops at the Park Avenue ground in Bradford tomorrow.

When he agreed last winter to take over from Nigel Briers, the match against Yorkshire was the first he wanted to find in the season's programme. Born in Skipton, Whitaker, 34, recalls frequent trips to the Leeds nets as a precociously talented teenager, encouraged by his father, head of the family's speciality chocolates business, who had no sweeter dream than to see his son defending the county's honour at Headingley.

Unfortunately for Whitaker senior, the boy's talents were not appreciated until he was installed at Uppingham School and making an impression on Leicestershire. He was recommended unhesitatingly to them by their former player Maurice Hallam, who was Uppingham's cricket master.

Divided loyalties can be discounted. Indeed, should he do something memorable over the next few days it would not be the first time he has been inspired to do so in opposition.

In the autumn of 1993, pressed into service by an injury to Briers, he had the good fortune to lead Leicestershire against Yorkshire. Not only was he moved to score his first Championship century for two years, he also plotted a 74-run victory.

He has no doubt he has a side equipped to unseat his native county. "We have a well-balanced team with bags of ability and a great spirit," he said. "If you look at our record over the last few seasons we have always been among the leading sides and we are good enough to challenge for the title."

Tomorrow, Leicestershire must manage without Alan Mullally, one of the architects of that 1993 victory, and face a Yorkshire side full of confidence after defeating Warwickshire at Headingley to stretch their Championship lead to 14 points. In their current mood, Michael Bevan, Michael Vaughan and Tony McGrath could take some containing, while Darren Gough is rediscovering his form at just the right time - not quite ready for England and eager to fire for his county.

For their part, the Midlands side need to restore their self-belief after being mauled twice by Surrey, in the Championship and the Sunday League, in which they were bowled out for 48.

Elsewhere, Kent, whose hopes of keeping Yorkshire within touching distance were frustrated by a resurgent Middlesex at Canterbury, will not win points easily at Warwickshire, who can be expected to react to their second Championship defeat of the season with renewed vigour.

It has taken only a small blip in the champions' normally steady upward graph to bring the individual quality of their players - as opposed to their team - into question. In the past, nothing has motivated them more.

A fascinating encounter is in prospect at Derby, where the home side, forcefully led by Dean Jones and with Devon Malcolm coming out of his understandable slump, begin two points behind third-placed Middlesex.

As a first success, Surrey's defeat of Leicestershire was overdue. They lose Chris Lewis, Graham Thorpe and Alec Stewart but will hope to build on the gain against struggling Durham at Stockton, where they might also give their Sunday League prospects a lift before concentrating on a match with a touch of Euro 96 about it, against the Netherlands in the NatWest Trophy on Tuesday.

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<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
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I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
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