Cheshire Set Sights on Minor Counties 2006 Success By Neil Goulding

CHESHIRE skipper Andy Hall is quietly confident that his ambitious team can go all the way and win the Minor Counties Championship title for a second year running. Under Hall's expert guidance, Cheshire remained unbeaten in all six of their three-day Championship matches on the way to winning the Western Division title last season. And with the county having kept most of their winning squad from last term, Hall knows he has plenty of winners in his side.

"We've lost a couple of key players, but we've got the core of last year's Championship winning team, so I'm happy about our chances," revealed Hall."It's not going to be easy, but it wasn't easy last year and we proved that team spirit and belief can help you succeed. We had a great season last year." However, as Hall pointed out, Cheshire will have to defend their title without two of their most experienced players. Former England and Lancashire leg-spinning all-rounder Chris Schofield has left the county for Eastern Division county Suffolk, whom Cheshire shared the Minor Counties title with last season after a drawn three-day game at Ransomes, Ipswich. And to make matters worse, former Lancashire batsman Mark Currie has decided to retire from the Minor Counties format. But already it is believed Cheshire are close to signing former Derbyshire ace Ben Spendlove, a good friend of current Cheshire all-rounder Nathan Dumelow. Dumelow and Spendlove played with each other at Derbyshire and the latter has agreed to join Oulton Park this season, to play for them in the CD Bramhall Trucks Cheshire County League ECB Premier Division. Oulton Park chairman Roy Ramsbottom comfirmed: "Ben's agreed to play for us and expressed his desire to play for Cheshire.He's good friends with Nathan Dumelow and that was one of the main reasons why he wants to play for us in the Cheshire County League, as well as the possibility of Minor Counties cricket."

Good news for Cheshire, and more good news has come the way of promising young pace bowler Danny Jones. Left-armer Jones spent some of his winter being coach by legendary Australian paceman Dennis Lillie in India. The 21-year-old Leeds University student, who has opened the bowling for Cheshire and his club Oulton Park, was selected by the MCC to attend a 10-day course at the MRF Pace Foundation, Chennaim, under Lillie, one of the greatest bowlers of all time. "Danny's been in India and I'm sure working with Dennis Lillie will have been great for him," said Hall. "He's one of a number of talented young players whom I hope will make a name for themselves this season."We're really going to miss Chris [Schofield] and Mark [Currie], but we've still got a very strong squad."If we can sign Ben Spendlove and maybe add a couple more players, then we'll be really strong this season."

Cheshire make an unusually early start to their competitive programme this season when they meet Cumberland at Grappenhall on April 30. The match is the first of four consecutive Sunday fixtures in the revamped Minor Counties Knockout. Further games are against Shropshire at Shrewsbury on May 7, Herefordshire at New Brighton on May 14 and Northumberland at Tynemouth on May 21.Should they top their group, Hall's men will be at home in the semi-finals on July 2 with the final scheduled at Lord's on Wednesday, August 16. Reaching the quarter-finals of the MCCA Knockout is the best achievement by Cheshire under Hall's captaincy, so understandably the former England schoolboy wants to better that record. "I really do want us to better in the cup competition this season," revealed Hall. "The incentive is playing the final at Lords."I've been lucky enough to play there a couple of times in my career and it's a great occasion, especially if you win.""We've underachieved in the cup in previous seasons and last year went out on a bowl-out, but this year I'm confident we can have a good run."

In the three-day Championship Alderley Edge, Chester Boughton Hall and Nantwich grounds have again been chosen for Cheshire's home fixtures. Cheshire host Berkshire at Chester BH from Sunday, June 11 to Tuesday, June 13 in their first three-day game.

Last year Nick Cantello (Heaton Mersey) topped the Cheshire batting averages in his first season, with 227 runs at 45.40. Most runs were scored by Hall (Bramhall, 548) and Dumelow (Oulton Park, 537). Dumelow (31) was top wicket-taker, while former Notts paceman Dave Pennett weighed with an important 19 scalps and Schofield starred with 27 wickets and 438 runs at an average of 39.81.

Meanwhile, this season the County will be without long-serving Cricket Chairman of the Cheshire County Club, Gerry Hardstaff. A retired Northwich schoolteacher and Cheshire batsman, Hardstaff has been club chairman or cricket chairman since 1998 when he succeeded the late Wallasey player Ron Richardson. Taking over as Cricket Chairman is Durham-born David Bailey, who made his name as a Lancashire player in the 1980s before committing to a career in estate agency and turning to Minor Counties and league cricket in Cheshire, playing for Didsbury, Alderley Edge, Northwich and Bowdon.

The new 1st XI selection committee comprises David Bailey (Chairman of Cricket), David Sharp (Convenor), Sandy Scrimgeour (Team Manager), Andrew Hall (Captain). The newly named 'A' XI Selection Committee comprises those 4 plus Steve Amison (CYC and CCB represenattive) and Andrew Newton (Captain). It is planned to invite a network of scouts to comb the county for talent to make the grade in Minor Counties cricket.

Full 2006/7 fixture schedule - MCCA Knocout Cup: v Cumberland (30 April @ Grappenhall), v Shropshire (7 May @ Shrewsbury), v Herefordshire (14 May @ New Brighton) and v Northumberland (21 May @ Tynemouth). Minor Counties three-day Championship: v Berkshire (11-13 June @ Chester Boughton Hall), v Cornwall (25-27 June @ Cornwall), v Dorset (9-11 July @ Nantwich), v Herefordshire (23-25 July @ Alderley Edge), v Wales (6-8 August @ tbc) and v Shropshire (20-22 August @ Whitchurch).