Cheshire season preview
By Neil Goulding
CHESHIRE proved beyond any doubt last season that they have the ability to win honours.
Under the captaincy of new skipper Andy Hall, Cheshire had a successful season in the Minor Counties Western Division and can be rightly proud of a record which saw them boast just one defeat on the domestic scene.
Cheshire also reached the quarter-finals of the MCCA Knockout Cup and capped off an excellent season to beat Bedfordshire at Wardown Park in Luton to progress to the second round of the Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy.
If luck had been on their side Cheshire might have even reached the Minor Counties final at Lords, but that would have been asking a lot in Hall's first term of captaincy.
But the icing on the week for victory in the C&G Trophy has earnt Cheshire a dream home crowd-pulling tie against first class county Hampshire on 5 May at Alderley Edge, who play in the Murray Smith Cheshire County League.
That match will be Cheshire's first outing of the new season and the first time Hall and his players will be reunited after a welcome winter break.
However, for Hall the winter has not been a pleasant experience and the new cricket season will hopefully provide a welcome distraction.
Hall was nearly killed in the winter after a freak accident in Australia.
Whilst travelling as a passenger in a car, the Cheshire skipper was struck in the head by a stone which flew through his open window.
Incredibly the stone had flown off a lawnmower blade, which had no safety guard, and narrowly missed Hall's temple.
Luckily the accident missed both of Hall's eyes as well, which could have ended his career, but in the end just led to him requiring stitches for the injury.
Hall's trip didn't start well, for the former England junior ace suffered an ankle-injury and only managed to play one game for Thomson, the club side he had gone to play for Down Under in Geelong, Victoria.
And Gerry Hardstaff, the Cheshire chairman, admitted that the effect of Hall's near fatal accident had left his county captain "very traumatised".
"I think the accident really frightened him because he realised just how close he was to being killed," said Hardstaff.
"The whole thing left him traumatised and I hope he is going to be alright for the new season. He comes back from Australia on 14 April, so he'll back a few weeks before the Hampshire game."
Hardstaff is a big fan of Hall and has every right to be happy with the way his county captain has risen to the challenge of taking control of the Cheshire team.
"It was very difficult to come in and take over the captaincy from Ian Cockbain," Hardstaff added.
"Ian had been captain for so long, but Andy came in last year and helped to establish a really good team spirit. He's a likeable lad and the players enjoyed playing for him."
"We were unfortunate in some games last season, but also fortunate in others. You have to take rough with the smooth.
"Overall there were some good performances and that gave me a lot of hope for the future."
Hardstaff has certainly not lost any of his desire for his county to succeed, but he still believes Cheshire are still experiencing what he terms an "transitional period".
"The players really pulled their socks up last season and I think Andy was happy with our performances," added Hardstaff.
"Andy expects good performances and people to play at his high standard. But, if I'm being honest, I still think we were a little short in some areas."
Hardstaff identifies the absence of a "match-winning" bowling as one of the missing links in the Cheshire side.
"We've got some really good bowlers, but I don't think we have got a match-winner," he said. "Jason Whittaker had a great game against Herefordshire (at Chester Boughton Hall) last season. He was unplayable and seamed the ball around on a green wicket to take seven wickets in an innings.
"But you look around the other Minor Counties teams and you do see bowlers who can win you matches. That's no disrespect to our bowlers, but we need someone who will constantly take five wickets in an innings. None of our bowlers did that last year."
Hardstaff and his scouting team have been on the hunt over the winter for a pace bowler who could fill that vacancy.
And Cheshire think they might have found their man in Barrington Browne.
Browne plays for Nantwich in the Cheshire County League ECB Premier Division and Hardstaff is keen to see if the experienced pace bowler is eligible to play.
"Barrington Browne is probably as good as any bowler in the Cheshire County League," said Hardstaff.
"We are seeing if he wants to play and if he does then we would need to check on his eligibility. If he can play then we'll give him the opportunity.
"We have said we will give other players the chance to play for Cheshire. There's scope for other players to prove themselves.
"You don't change a team each year on block, but we do want to bring youngsters through. In the past couple of seasons we have given Danny Leech, Martyn Knight and Nafees Din the opportunity to play for us - and they haven't let us down."
Leech has spent the winter playing cricket in Australia, as has club teammate and Cheshire all-rounder Whittaker.
Richard Hignett, the Cheshire vice-captain, has also had a successful season in Australia, but Hardstaff has been saddened to hear that the former Bootle player will not to be returning for the forthcoming season.
"Richard has told me he wants to stay in Australia, so we won't be playing for a couple of seasons," Hardstaff said.
"It's a big loss for because we haven't got anyone who is like Richard. You need someone who can turn the game around, which he is capable of doing.
"We're going to miss him because he's a match-winning batsman and very attacking player who the opposition fear."
Hignett's absence has left the door wide open for a batting vacancy, but as yet Cheshire have not found the right candidate to fill it.
Paul Bryson, the former Bowdon all-rounder, has ruled himself out of the frame this season because of work commitments, while Neil Cross, from New Brighton, has also cited the same reason for not being able to play this year.
Cross just managed to play two games last season, one match either side of his honeymoon. His batting and off-spin bowling will be missed.
But Hardstaff is confident that Cheshire are still strong enough to send out a few shockwaves this term.
Alexis Twigg, the former Cumberland batsman, was one of Cheshire's heroes with the bat last season.
Twigg crashed 264 runs at an average of 52.80 in his debut season for the county and has confirmed he will be leading from the front again at the top of the order.
Those impressive stats, which included two half centuries, made sure the Harrogate player finished top of Cheshire batting averages.
"Alexis had a terrific season, he improved no end," Hardstaff said.
"He was a real star and wants to play again this year. I'm glad we've got him again. He made a big impact in his first season."
Left-arm spinner Robin Fisher, now at Chester Boughton Hall, and former Nottingham seamer Dave Pennett were the pick of Cheshire bowlers last season with 16 and 17 wickets respectively.
However, if Cheshire are to challenge for silverware this season they will need a bowler who can top the 20 victims-mark, otherwise it is likely to be a long slog to bowl teams out in the second innings of a match - as proven last season.
Cheshire, sponsored again by JW Lees, open their Minor Counties Western Division campaign against Berkshire at Falklands Cricket Club in Newberry (23-25 May), followed by other matches against Devon, Dorset, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Shropshire, who they have also been drawn in their group.
Berkshire will also be Cheshire's opponents for the second round of the MCCA Knockout Cup to be played on Sunday 20 June.
5 May - v Hampshire (Alderley Edge) C&G 2nd Round
23-25 May - v Berkshire (Newbury) Western Division
13-15 June - v Devon (Oxton) Western Division
20 June - v Berkshire (Cheadle Hulme) MCCA Knockout 2nd Round
27-29 June - v Dorset (Bournemouth) Western Division
11-13 July - v Wiltshire (Alderley Edge) Western Division
8-10 August - v Oxfordshire (Banbury) Western Division
22-24 August - v Shropshire (Chester Boughton Hall) Western Division
For more information contact Cheshire CCC Press Officer Neil Goulding on 07931 376811 or alternatively visit www.cheshire-county-cricket-club.org.uk.