Lancashire's hopes of displacing Surrey as county champions – the teams meet at The Oval starting on Friday – took a severe knock yesterday when India's renowned spinner, Harbhajan Singh, withdrew, temporarily, as their second overseas player.
'The Turbanator' is currently playing for India in a one-day tournament in Bangladesh despite discomfort in the middle finger of his right hand, an injury which affected his performances during the World Cup.
"Harbhajan has been playing through a bit of pain and he needs a break to let the finger settle down," Mike Watkinson, the Lancashire coach, said. "The lad was due to arrive on 28 April and was desperately keen to come. He didn't want to let people down, but, after consultations between our physio and India's physio, we have had to accept he needs more rest. We shall monitor his progress before deciding whether to wait or sign another overseas player, almost certainly a spinner.''
Muttiah Muralitharan, previously with Lancashire, had been asked to play against Surrey, but the Sri Lankan Board refused to release him.
Murali is not available this summer, but such are Lancashire's ambitions, with the rise of their fast bowlers, James Anderson and Kyle Hogg, and the signings of the batsmen Iain Sutcliffe and Mal Loye that they will do their all to restore the team to its planned strength.
Watkinson said: "Surrey stand alone in the exceptional replacements they have for their Test players. We have to develop similar strengths. We now have exceptional bowling and solid batting and I'm confident that our spinners, Gary Keedy and Chris Schofield, will fill the gap.'' Unstated was the fact that Lancashire feel Harbhajan would have given them match-winning capability on any surface.
Lancashire are, however, blessed by the availability of one potential match-winner: a slim, beaming Andrew Flintoff – "vegetable soup for four days is how you do it".
"The Surrey game is a key fixture,'' Warren Hegg, the club captain, said yesterday. "We have the strength and spirit to make an impact. Two overseas players per county could make an enormous difference.''
There will be some familiar faces missing at Old Trafford this season; namely Neil Fairbrother and Graham Lloyd, who have both retired. Meanwhile, a third of the outfield has been replaced, the two wings of the pavilion have been rebuilt and, for the first time in about 150 years, there will be no Roses match on this ground.
Abroad, Steve Waugh, the Australia captain, has warned the game's authorities against excessive reliance on technology after some poor umpiring decisions during his side's first-Test win over West Indies.
"You don't want to end up with robots out there," Waugh said. "We don't want the sport to be Americanised. We want to have controversy and we want to have something to talk about. That's why cricket is unique."
* Michael Vaughan, England's opening bat, has succeeded Matthew Hayden at the top of the Test world ratings. Two low scores for Hayden in Australia's win over the West Indies in Guyana have seen him lose the place he had held since October.
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