IT’S BEEN A torrid couple of summers for anyone associated with Leicestershire.
Having finished winless and last in Division Two for the second year in a row, spirits were already low at Grace Road. The Foxes won none, drew six and lost ten in the four-day format last season – the last time they won being a two wicket victory over Gloucestershire back in September 2012 – and they failed to advance in either the Royal London One-Day cup or the NatWest T20 Blast.
Chief executive Mike Siddall then left the club and was followed out by three of the best young players the county has produced in recent years – all-rounder Shiv Thakor (Derbyshire), promising fast bowler Nathan Buck (Lancashire), explosive opener Greg Smith (Nottinghamshire) and one-day captain Josh Cobb (Northamptonshire). Director of cricket Phil Whitticase shortly followed, with the club also announcing operational losses of £225,153 for the year.
Leicestershire have of course previously produced international quality players and lost them to neighbours Nottinghamshire, with Stuart Broad, James Taylor and Harry Gurney among those moving up the road to enhance their England opportunities. The lure of Trent Bridge is understandable, however alarm bells must have sounded within the Grace Road hierarchy as Buck, Cobb and Thakor jumped ship to sign for fellow Division Two clubs who, minus Lancashire and Surrey, are of a similar stature to Leicestershire.
The rebuilding process is now underway, with former Derbyshire, Sussex and Warwickshire batsman Wasim Khan taking over as chief executive and ex-Australia all-rounder Andrew McDonald assuming the head coach duties. The experienced former Glamorgan batsman Mark Cosgrove has been appointed captain after his arrival, with the dependable Ned Eckersley selected as his understudy.
Ins: Aadil Ali, Zak Chappell, Neil Pinner (all youth), Mark Cosgrove (UKP), Kevin O’Brien (Surrey, for Twenty20 from 15 May-26 June) Clint McKay (Australia, from 26 April), Grant Elliott (New Zealand, for Twenty20, initially for first 10 matches)
Outs: Shiv Thakor (Derbyshire), Nathan Buck (Lancashire), Josh Cobb (Northants), Greg Smith (Nottinghamshire), Anthony Ireland, Michael Thornely (both released).
With a number of key figures leaving Grace Road, the buck falls to those who remain to find their best form if Leicestershire are to have a successful season. In the batting department, while Cosgrove, Eckersley and Angus Robson will be key cogs, the importance of Ireland international Niall O’Brien across all three-formats is evident.
O’Brien topped the averages in the County Championship for the club in 2014, while he also made a century in the RL Cup against Hampshire. The loss of Josh Cobb and Greg Smith in particular leaves a vacancy at the top of the order in one-day cricket, a role which the explosive wicketkeeper-batsman may be asked to take over.
The Dublin-born leftie made 75 against India and 79* versus the West Indies in the World Cup and Leicestershire will be hoping the older O’Brien brother can replicate that sort of form in all formats this summer.
Player to Watch
Although 2014 was a season to forget for many, it was a breakthrough year for promising all-rounder Tom Wells. The 22-year-old established himself as a regular in the T20 side, utilising his powerful hitting in the middle order to finish the summer with a career strike rate of 125.45.
Wells made 51 against Birmingham Bears (off 30 balls, included three sixes and four fours) in an innings which epitomised his style of play in the shortest format. A slight side strain stopped him from contributing regularly with the ball, while his form in the one-day format failed to match his exploits in the T20 Blast.
Although Wells only made one appearance in the County Championship last season, he made 82 in a total of 184 in 2013 against Hampshire and his aim for this summer will be to establish himself as a competent all-rounder across all three formats.
Australian fast bowler Clint McKay will lead the attack in all formats from April 26. The 31-year-old Victorian has featured mostly in one-day internationals for his country, taking 97 wickets at an average of 24.37 in 59 one-day internationals, including a hat-trick against England back in September 2013 in Cardiff.
Although he has only played one Test and six Twenty20 internationals, McKay is reliable campaigner having taken 142 first-class wickets in domestic cricket, as well as featuring for the Mumbai Indians and Sunrisers Hydrabad in the IPL and the Melbourne Stars in the Big Bash.
In addition to McKay, Leicestershire have also brought in one of New Zealand’s World Cup stars, Grant Elliott, initially for the first ten matches of the T20 Blast. The South African-born 35-year-old will again add much needed experience in a youthful dressing room, having featured in 67 ODIs for his adopted country since leaving home for new horizons in 2001.
Elliott’s recent World Cup displays – a match-winning 84* against South Africa in the semi-final and his 83 versus Australia in the final – show he has the nerve and skill to make a big contribution for the Foxes.
How they’ll fare
It can hardly get much worse for Leicestershire than the last two seasons, but there is certainly some hope at Grace Road that their new-look side can achieve something of note this season. The Australian core to the team – McDonald, Cosgrove and McKay – will bring much needed steel and nous to a squad which certainly possess plenty of young players with potential (Robson, Taylor, Wells & co).
Although 2015 is likely to be a season of rebuilding following the loss of so many key players and backroom staff, Leicestershire’s first aim will be to get that elusive win in the Championship. An early victory would provide the platform for a healthy year.
Realistically a mid-table finish in Division Two would be a decent achievement, while in the shorter formats the Foxes will be aiming to progress beyond the groups and into the latter stages of the 50-over and Twenty20 competitions.
v Glamorgan, Sunday 12th April at Grace Road
Season Odds (via SkyBet)
LV County Championship Division Two: 33/1
Royal London One-Day Cup: 40/1
NatWest Twenty20 Blast: 33/1