CHESHIRE chairman Gerry Hardstaff is brimming with confidence that his county have the potential to charge for honours this term.
But, despite two wonderful victories in their first two matches of this year's campaign, Hardstaff admits he is not about to start predicting it is going to be easy for his team to challenge for silverware.
"We couldn't have asked for a better start to the season," said Hardstaff, "but we're not about start to counting our chickens just yet. I think we have got a very strong this year, probably because the availability of players seems a lot better.
"We used over 35 players last season and that doesn't help, because you really need to try and keep a consistent side. In an ideal world that doesn't happen because players have work commitments and sometimes they are required to play for their clubs.
"But hopefully this year that will change. Ideally we would like a squad of about 16-17 players we can chose from. If we can keep those players involved for all the matches then I'm sure we can do very well."
Indeed, a memorable six-wicket win against Dorset in their opening Minor Counties Championships 3-day game, coupled with a polished 21-run victory over Northumberland in the M.C.C.A. Knockout Cup has certainly been proof that Cheshire mean business.
Last year was a transitional period for the county, even by Hardstaff's own admission. But the experienced chairman, who has been brought up playing for an looking after the best interests of Cheshire for over a decade, is confident that with skipper Andy Hall at the helm, things are heading in the right direction.
"It take times for a new captain to settle in," said Hardstaff. "Ian Cockbain did a fantastic job for Cheshire, but when a new captain comes in there are bound to be changes and some transition.
"Unfortunately, last year Andy wasn't helped with the availability problem we had. We had some good young players which did come through and take their chances well, but you need a good blend of youth and experience - and I think we have got that now.
"It was a disappointing season last year, but we can build on that and there's no reason with the players we've got why we can't do much better this season."
And for Hardstaff, having the strongest possible squad is a priority if Cheshire are going to be serious title-contenders.
"We did as well as we could have been expected to do last year," added Hardstaff. "We used a tremendous amount of players, but you need a strong squad and need to get as far as possible with at least 75 per cent of the games, ideally 80-100 per cent of the games, with your strongest team out.
"Bearing in mind some types of games we might pick a different type of side. For one-day games and for the 3-day games. That wasn't the case, but we are in a building process and situation.
"A lot of the old, established players have now gone, so we are looking to bring in younger players, who are hopefully good enough to play. But that takes time and hopefully some of these young lads, who have come through our youth representative sides will progress into the county side.
"If they are not good enough then they shouldn't expect a regular run in the side, but it also boils down to commitment. I understand that for some of them it is a problem because of work commitments and all sorts of reasons.
"However, it is a big commitment to play for Cheshire and we look for players who really commit themselves to play for us. Probably, dare I say this, but instead of their clubs. I understand their decision either way, there's no antagonism about it all, it's just one of those things you have to accept. But if we want a good county side it is important we get our players on a regular basis."
Despite availability problems last year Cheshire have looked at home with their squad and the changes they have made for their cup and Western Division campaign have both worked in their favour.
Changes were made for the M.C.C.A. Knockout Cup win over Northumberland, despite winning a Dorset the week before. However, with two wins in the bag it is hard to doubt the Cheshire committee's selection policy.
"It's good for county cricket in general if Cheshire are doing well," added Hardstaff. "We still have a lot of players who are learning and developing, but we hoped last year that some more players came through. We were let down by players last year, but I hope that will change this year. We want players who are proud to play for Cheshire."
And although Hardstaff is happy with Cheshire's solid start to the season, he is looking forward to the return of popular all-rounder Paul Bryson coming back into the fold. The New Brighton ace has missed both of Cheshire's first two matches after landing a job with the Wigan Authority.
However, with a stack of runs and county caps safely tucked in his belt, Hardstaff has every confidence Bryson will help add another dimension to the team as they push for honours.
"Bryson is a player you do want," said Hardstaff. "Over the years he has proven to be a quality player in Minor Counties cricket, with a tremendous will-to-win and commitment. He is a good, hard-working cricketer with the right attitude, and that's the type of player we want. We are in a transitional stage though and once all the bits come together the future should look very bright."
Cheshire play Berkshire at Alderley Edge in the second of their 3-day Minor Counties Championship games (June 22-24). Admission free. Refreshments and food available all day. They then meet Hertfordshire at Welywn Garden City on July 6th in the quarter-finals of the M.C.C.A. Knockout Cup.

For more information contact Cheshire Press Officer Neil Goulding on 07931-376811.