CHESHIRE have had a respectable season in
the Minor Counties Championship Western Division.
They might not have reached the dizzying heights of 2003, where they came agonisingly close to a place in the outright Minor Counties final at Cleethorpes Cricket Club.
But having only lost once in six outings in the three-day format, Cheshire chairman Gerry Hardstaff can rightly be proud that his team are making real progress.
"I think we have improved this season," said Hardstaff.
"We have a little bit more depth in our batting and some of the younger players, particularly Danny Leech, have improved.
"We had to strengthen our batting because of injuries to Andy Hall, and also due to the unavailability of Nafees Din and Neil Cross.
"The big problem is having a bowler/s, who can bowl sides out on any type of wicket. We are just short of being a very, very good side."
Under the guidance of captain Hall, Cheshire claimed the notable scalp of Berkshire this season, as well as running Dorset and Devon close in two exciting mid-season clashes.
But Hardstaff admits finding the striker bowler he and his captain desire is proving very difficult.
"There isn't anyone available to us who will get 25-30 wickets a season," added Hardstaff.
"Robin Fisher and Dave Pennett have been our two leading bowlers this season, but we still need to find someone who can bowl sides out.
"You have got to bowl sides out to win matches. You don't just win games with your batting. You can score lots of runs, but if you don't bowl the opposition out, then you're struggling.
"England have shown in Steve Harmison, that they have a bowler who can win them matches - and they've got other strike bowlers who do a good support job. It's that type of scenario we want to have with Cheshire.
"Bowlers do win you matches. We could have done with a strike bowler against Dorset, but that was one of the games we should have won this season - and we didn't, despite being in a very strong position at tea on the final day."
Cheshire opened this season's account with a thrilling victory against Berkshire at Falklands Cricket Club at the end of May.
But against Devon, in their next match, Hall's team were beaten by five wickets having set the visitors a victory target of 242 to chase on the last day at Oxton.
Draws followed against Dorset (at Dean Park, Bournemouth) and at home to Wiltshire (at Alderley Edge).
However, the Dorset draw could have so easily been a victory for Cheshire and given the county the impetus to push for the title.
As it as, a failure to dismiss Dorset, and Wiltshire's lack of desire to win at Edge, left Cheshire with a mountain to climb in their last two games if they were going to finish in the top-half of the table - and earn Cheltenham & Gloucester qualification for next season.
Heavy rain on both opening days of those August matches led to an unsurprising abandonment - and Cheshire were denied a place in the draw for the 2005 C&G competition.
"It's disappointing we haven't qualified for the C&G, but we will have to come back stronger next season to make sure we qualify for 2006," Hardstaff, said.
"The supporters and players all look forward to playing in the cup competitions, but there' s been a lot of 'ifs' and 'buts' this season. It's up to us to hold our hands up and look at where we can improve."
Hardstaff is adamant Cheshire are heading in the right direction - and learning as they go.
"We are learning and developing as a side - we just need a few more players coming through who can maintain their place in the team. Ideally a strike bowler," he said.
"I look at our 11 players and realise we are not the best fielding side, but we show plenty of spirit and in some ways, although we finished higher in the Division last year, I believe this year has been much better.
"There has been some very good batting, with quite a few players averaging over 40, which is great.
"We know that we haven't taken the initiative at times in some matches, but beating Berkshire was a big scalp and we have to bear in mind we have only lost once this season. It's a case of getting a few more wins under our belts from now on."
Cheshire reached the quarter-finals of the MCCA Knockout Cup in 2003, but this year were denied the chance to progress to the same stages after a 3-1 bowl-out loss to Berkshire at Cheadle Hulme Cricket Cub in June.
Hardstaff is hopeful his team will get a little bit more luck next season, for the MCCA Cup presents all counties with the chance of playing in a showcase final at Lords.
"We were unlucky with the MCCA Cup. There's not much you can do about the rain and it's a 50/50 chance whether you win a bowl-out. It would be nice to go further in that competition next season," concluded Hardstaff.