Warne looking to go one better with Hampshire

Published: Saturday, April 15, 2006, 23:53 [IST]
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London:"Never make a great player angry, it just makes them play better." Former Australia captain Ian Chappell's oft-quoted remark applies equally to his compatriot Shane Warne ahead of the start next week of the English County Championship season.

Last year Hampshire skipper Warne, as well as starring in arguably the greatest Ashes series of them all, still found time to lead the county to one of the most successful seasons in its history.

The southern side winning the C and G one-day Trophy and finishing runners-up to Nottinghamshire in the first-class county championship by a mere two-and-a-half points.

But before Hampshire thrashed Nottinghamshire in the final match of the season the title had already been decided.

In their previous fixture Nottinghamshire captain Stephen Fleming managed to persuade Kent counterpart David Fulton, whose team had a slim chance of taking the title, to agree to a lopsided last-day run-chase of 420 in 70 overs.

Kent duly failed to get anywhere near their victory target, Nottinghamshire won their first title in 18 years and Warne labelled the whole deal "one of the dumbest things I have ever seen in my life" while Kiwi skipper Fleming, not perhaps used to getting one over on the legendary leg-spinner kept quiet.

So it is fair to say that Warne, whose leadership has transformed Hampshire from a band of happy-go-lucky players into a competitive outfit, will be even keener this season than he was last to end the county's 33-year-wait for the Championship pennant.

Warne is a rarity in many respects, not least in that he is one of the few genuinely world-class players who still features in county cricket.

Whereas once each county could boast at least one foreign star on its books, the huge growth in the international fixture list and the accompanying financial reward, means fewer of the game's elite now spend the northern summer in England and an even smaller number stay for the whole season.

There are exceptions. Lancashire's former Australia batsman Stuart Law has become so attached to the 'old country' he now has British citizenship and so no longer qualify as an overseas player at all.

Warwickshire have one of the most interesting combinations of overseas talent in their captain Heath Streak, the former Zimbabwe fast bowler who produced many of his best performances for his country when skippering the Africans and New Zealand left-arm spinner Daniel Vettori.

Much mocked over the last few years, the county game - of which Surrey's departing Australian coach Steve Rixon said in 2005 a "good percentage" was "a cesspool of mediocrity", had had reason to feel pleased with itself in recent times.

County supporters point to the way in which Middlesex batsman Andrew Strauss and Northamptonshire left-arm spinner Monty Panesar took to Test cricket as evidence of an improving domestic standards.

But as England's poor one-day form in India has shown, the same claims cannot be advanced for the limited overs game, a worrying sign in the run-up to next year's World Cup.

It's certainly not for the want of matches.

Indeed many observers reckon that and the fact the shorter game has always been seen in cricket's birthplace primarily as a mone-making exercise and 'not the real thing' which lie at the heart of England's one-day woes.

And the one-day workload will increase with the C and G Trophy now transformed into northern and southern conferences from a straight knockout.

Meanwhile the counties can expect to see even less of their England stars. With seven Tests, against Sri Lanka and Pakistan, 10-one day internationals and two Twenty20 matches, this will be the longest international home season for English cricketers on record.

Given the Champions Trophy, the Ashes tour and World Cup that follow, the likes of Andrew Flintoff face a daunting schedule.

Few English fans expect the euphoria of the Ashes to be repeated this season or indeed ever at all.

As far as 2006 goes, most will settle for seeing their heroes come through in one piece.

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