AT this time of year, Fred Trueman used to begin his after-dinner speeches with: 'Well gentlemen, here we are in April looking forward to hearing the sound of leather hitting Brian Close.'
Presumably Close prepared for his season's short-leg duties by getting someone to whack him over the head a few times with a frying pan. These days measures are a little more refined but no less sadistic.
Teams gather in early April for bouts of physical training interspersed with the occasional net. Fitness levels are monitored, techniques assessed. New players are welcomed, their surnames quickly subbed into a sobriquet ending in 'y' or 'o'. It is perhaps the only time an entire county squad will be together to exchange ideas and observations.
There are two schools of thought as to how the pre-season weeks are best spent. Twelve counties have jetted off to sunnier climes, some for proper cricket in South Africa or Jamaica, others for outdoor work-outs in places like the Algarve or Malaga.
Wherever it is, cricket will eventually become almost secondary to night-time quenching of thirsts. Overseas trips are beneficial in the sense that warm weather is more conducive to physical exertion. The downside is the cost, the time away - extending an already lengthy season by another three weeks - and the unfamiliar playing conditions. Nothing prepares you for batting in thermal underwear on a pudding at Derby better than practising there.
For this reason, the approach adopted by Durham and Lancashire seems the most sensible. Gather the playing staff together for a few days at a local training camp and combine some physical routines with plenty of skill work and warm-up matches. You don't want to peak too early. Nothing is more certain than that a fast bowler fresh from a hatful of wickets for Nottinghamshire in Cape Town will slip on a wet patch at Trent Bridge next week and be out for two months.
Ampleforth College, on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors, played host to Durham last week. No, last season's wooden spoonists were not seeking divine help, though the black-cassocked men from the school's Benedictine monastery were on hand to throw the ball back from the boundary from time to time; it was more the self-contained exclusivity and the wide variety of facilities. The former MCC head coach Don Wilson has made Ampleforth into something of a northern sporting Mecca. During the school holidays the college is awash with promising athletes from throughout the region on specialist training
Durham's physical build-up this year did not include the dreaded bleep test - that interminable sprinting from one side of the hall to the other between accelerating electronic pulses until you drop. There was still a circuit or two but skills were given prominence. This does not only involve better use of the feet or developing an in-swinger, but addressing attitudes and awareness levels. Each player spent an hour in the psychologist's chair (self- belief is the number one attribute in professional sport), and mindful of the proliferation of fast bowlers in county cricket, a man from the Red Cross was brought in to demonstrate first aid.
Net practice can conceal a multitude of flaws. Quick bowlers unleash new balls from two yards over the front line, batsmen whip across straight deliveries on friendly indoor wickets. The warm-up matches are a better guide. There is no slacking and much pride at stake. It is all a bit depressing when you remember afterwards that it does not count.
But cricketers are at their most positive in April. With last year's mistakes a distant memory, the new season bristles with challenges and targets. 'All 24 of you gathered here are bound to get an opportunity in the first team at some stage or other,' the captain will always proclaim. 'You're all good cricketers capable of taking that opportunity; if you weren't, you wouldn't be here.' The sad truth is that, this time next year, a few of them won't be.
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