By Neil Goulding
EXPERIENCED Cheshire all-rounder Neil Cross has been itching
to play for his county this season, but because of work commitments
has yet not been able to offer his services to the Minor Counties
Championships or cup causes.
That's because Cross, who has been a regular for the side during the last seven years, landed a job offer he just couldn't refuse.
The former Bowdon and New Brighton star was asked to coach cricket at Bridgewater High School in Stockton Heath, Warrington, a leading cricket 'Centre of Excellence'.
And when you've been playing the game for so long you just can't turn down such an exciting an offer, especially when it involves teaching kids the game you love, admits Cross, now starring for Oxton in the Murray Smith Accountants Cheshire County League E.C.B. Premier Division.
"I had to put work first instead of Cheshire for a change this year," said Cross, who averaged 44 with the willow for his county last term. "I've really missed not playing this year, but I've played for seven years and I thought I had to take this job. You can't beat teaching cricket and playing the game as well for a living.
"It's a massive commitment to play for Cheshire and it would be ideal if you could play in every game, but you have got to work as well. I'm delighted to be back though. I went to watch the boys beat Dorset in the 3-day Championship game at Oxton and I was very impressed with the way they played. It's always going to be hard watching from the sidelines, but hopefully I get a big knock and take some wickets for Cheshire when I get a chance."
Cross' availability is mirrored by that of another all-rounder, Paul Bryson, the talented New Brighton player, who has still not played for Cheshire this season having landed a job with the Wigan Authority.
However, although Cross hopes Bryson will return to the frame, he believes Cheshire still have enough depth in talent to cause a few ripples on the county scene this term
"I think Cheshire have got a really strong side this season," said Cross, who gets married later this month. "It was hard last year, again because of availability, but with Dave Pennett in the side and the likes of the younger lads such as Nafees Din and Danny Leech doing well, the future looks very promising.
"The younger boys took their chance last year and with a few of the older players, like myself, Andy Hall and Richard Hignett, there's a nice balance in the side. It's important to have a nice blend because you want players who have been there before to help the younger players grow."
Indeed, but Cross his only 30 now and, even by his own admission, is optimistic that he has a few years ahead of him in the Minor Counties game.
"I scored 79 not out against Wales at Oxton last year," Cross said, "so I'd like to be able to get a few runs this season as well. I've not been in great form with the bat just yet, I seem to get started and then get out, but you have to take the rough with the smooth. That's cricket and hopefully a big knock will set me up again for a good run with the bat."
But as well as being a useful asset in Cheshire's strong batting line-up, it is Cross' bowling which could come to the rescue of this county.
Cheshire have a good spinner who turns the ball away from the bat in Robin Fisher, the slow left-armer who plays for Bootle in the Liverpool Competition. However, it is no secret an experienced off-spinner would probably be a huge help in the 3-day matches when the pitch starts to deteriorate.
"I think you need two spinners, whether it be the one-day game or the 3-day competition," said Cross. "I think it gives you a nice balance and gives you an alternative when you want to rest your frontline bowlers.
"I'm confident I don't disrupt the side at all because I can bat as well, so Cheshire can use me in both format of games."
And with Cheshire maintaining an unbeaten run in their opening three matches, Cross is backing his county to challenge for honours this season if they can keep their form going.
"Confidence breeds winning and you want to keep winning once you're on a run," added Cross. "There's no reason why we can't get to Lords this season in the Knockout Cup and in the Championship there are no sides we should be afraid of because we have played them all before."
Coming from a man who has twice played at Lords, Cross has every reason to believe Cheshire can be very successful.
"We had a great year in 2000 in Ian Cockbain's last year as captain," said Cross, "but last year was definitely a transitional period for the county. It was hard because there were a lot of younger lads playing.
"However, we beat Bedfordshire in 1996 and Lords and also played Herefordshire in 2000, so we are capable of challenging for honours. Unfortunately, we lost to Herefordshire, but there is no bigger incentive than to play at the 'Home of Cricket' and prove yourself. I think Cheshire and all the players, including myself, have got to keep our options open. You never know what might happen!"