April 19, 2001

Australian county imports for 2001: a guide

It's that time of year again. Pitches are being prepared, whites are being dusted off, boots polished, and, bats are being removed from cricket bags with fervour. It's also that moment in the calendar when the annual influx of Australian arrivals at county cricket clubs takes hold.

Following dominant performances from imports from the southern hemisphere for much of the last decade, another twelve players from Australia are back to lend a hand to county sides this season. While a number of them are as yet largely unknown to England audiences, don't mistake that as a sign that their impact will be minimal. Lest you thought that an Ashes year might reduce the presence and quality of Australians in county competition, it's time to start thinking again.

Here's our guide to what you can expect from each of them:

Michael DiVenuto (Derbyshire): A stylish left-handed batsman from Tasmania who enjoyed a magnificent season with Sussex in 1999. His 2000 summer at Derby was nowhere near as prosperous but it would be a surprise if he didn't compensate this time around. Plays beautifully crisp, authoritative shots off both the front and back foot and has no obvious weaknesses against either fast or slow bowling. A former underage player of immense potential and an ex-one day international representative for his country, at least three states are said to be jockeying for his services in Australia next season. Anyone who has watched him in full flight would well understand why.

Martin Love (Durham): One of the most underrated players in Australian domestic competition, Love is a gifted right handed batsman. Mainly used in the number three position for state team Queensland, the twenty-seven year old has been one of the key figures in a golden era for the Bulls which has netted them four first-class titles in the space of the last seven Australian seasons. More defensively inclined but his easy yet technically correct strokeplay makes him something of a right handed version of highly rated former England captain David Gower. There is a lovely, calm air about his play and he can concentrate resolutely for long periods. An outstanding choice as an overseas import; expect him to surprise many people with his quality and productivity.

Stuart Law (Essex): Little introduction about Law is needed for Essex fans, who have delighted in his ability to plunder runs relentlessly for the county ever since he played for it for the first time in 1996. A very capable right hander, he is particularly strong off the back foot and has a real liking for the cut shot and the cover drive. Now thirty-two years old, his batting is slightly more restrained than it was in earlier times but he has lost little of his old timing or placement. His tactical acumen also precedes him and is well reflected in the fact that he is the only man in history to have captained Queensland to a first-class title in Australian domestic competition. Following yet another triumph in 2000-01, that's a feat he has now achieved the small matter of four times.

Jimmy Maher (Glamorgan): Another Queenslander and another who has been at the core of that state's success over recent seasons. Started his interstate career as a middle order batsman but has matured into a high quality opener - and was even briefly tried in the position in Australian one-day international teams in the 1997-98 season. The left handed Maher is not particularly tall but handles pace bowlers with assurance (his cutting, pulling and hooking of the ball is outstanding) and uses his feet well to spinners. Has an outgoing personality and a wicked sense of humour and it will be a surprise if he does not win over the respect of his new teammates and supporters quickly and easily.

Ian Harvey (Gloucestershire): Another now established star of the county circuit following two excellent seasons with the club - two seasons which have yielded as many as five one-day title victories. Harvey is an accomplished all-rounder who adds aggression with the bat to his skills as an attacking medium pace bowler. Just for good measure, he is also a very capable fieldsman, especially in the slip and gully regions. He will be lost to Gloucestershire during the one-day international leg of Australia's tour of England and, such is his importance, the club's 2001 fortunes may well come to depend heavily on how well it is able to cover for him in his absence.

Daniel Marsh (Leicestershire): A surprise signing as an overseas import to some, Marsh is the son of the former Australian wicketkeeping icon, Rodney. He is a capable all-rounder, although the Leicestershire hierarchy will be forced to rein in its expectations if it imagines that his skills as a spinner (of the left arm orthodox variety) equate to those of Anil Kumble, who was the overseas professional at Grace Road last summer. It's as a middle order batsman that Marsh is at his best; he is a solidly built right hander who plays his shots with terrific force, particularly through cover and mid wicket. A highly reliable player for Tasmania over the last five Australian seasons, it is likely he will take a while to adapt to his new surroundings;once he does, though, many serviceable contributions will come Leicestershire's way.

Michael Hussey (Northamptonshire): The Western Australian is coming off the least productive of his six full Australian first-class seasons to date but Northants should not have too many qualms about the quality of this selection. Hussey is compact and well balanced at the crease and is ideally suited to a role as a first-class opening batsman. But he is also a versatile player; he tends to bat further down the list in one-day cricket and has been a prolific scorer in the middle order for his state in limited-overs matches in recent times. Was offered one of only twenty-five Australian Cricket Board contracts at the start of 2000-01 - ahead of players like Maher and Jamie Cox - in a pretty strong signal of how highly he is rated in the general scheme of things in Australia.

Greg Blewett (Nottinghamshire): Not for the first time in his career, Greg Blewett was dropped from the Australian Test team twelve months ago. He also struggled the last time he came to England as a county player - scoring 655 runs at 31.19 for Yorkshire in 1999. But it seems hard to place much store in either of those two factors when assessing the chances that Blewett will play a huge role for Nottinghamshire this year. The South Australian is a very talented cricketer - a high quality upper order batsman, underrated medium pace bowler and dynamic fieldsman - and should prove a big acquisition. Significantly for a team that lacks big name batsmen, he enters the season having amassed 1162 runs (at 68.35) for South Australia in the recently completed Australian first-class summer.

Jamie Cox (Somerset): Another who was unlucky to be overlooked when Australia's Ashes party was announced, Cox is back to lead Somerset for a third successive year. As popular in the county as he is back home in Tasmania, Cox's mature style as an opening batsman and a captain has helped the side maintain first division status in both the County Championship and the National League ever since the concept was introduced. Has just enjoyed another fabulous year at the helm of Tasmania, in which he scored 1170 first-class runs (at an average of 65), was awarded the Pura Cup Player of the Season title, and led the Tigers to their highest finish on the table for four years. "After two solid and threatening years, I think this could be the year of the Sabres," he recently enthused.

Murray Goodwin (Sussex): Goodwin has experienced a roller-coaster last twelve months, having returned to Australia after a near to four year stint in his native Zimbabwe - a sojourn that allowed him to play 19 Test and 71 one-day international matches. Whereupon he completed a season of extremes for Western Australia at domestic level - in a vastly expanded programme, he struck the highest-ever season aggregate by an individual in interstate one-day matches and included within that performance the all-time highest score by an individual in a single innings in the competition. But, by the end of 2000-01, he was also left to reflect on a demoralising first-class season which netted him just 145 runs (at an average of 11.15) and which compelled his omission from the side. At Sussex, he will be hoping to rekindle the form that he brought to his one-day cricket and to his batting in England last year. Back then, he played some sparkling innings for Zimbabwe - including a spectacular hand of 63 against his new county.

Andy Bichel (Worcestershire): A consistently brilliant bowler for Queensland over the last decade, it's hard to believe that Andy Bichel isn't among the sixteen players chosen in the Ashes party. Even more hard to believe, in fact, when one considers that he captured six wickets in an innings in his last Test - against West Indies in Melbourne less than four months ago. But Australia's loss is clearly Worcestershire's gain. Patrons at New Road last year delighted in witnessing Glenn McGrath spearhead their attack; this year the pressure will not be relaxed significantly. Bichel bowls superb line and length, moves the ball both ways, and is one of the game's most earnest competitors. Under the coaching of another Australian stalwart in Tom Moody, he will also offer Worcestershire handy runs in the lower order with his mix of patient defence and heady aggression.

Darren Lehmann (Yorkshire): Many at Yorkshire believe there isn't a better overseas professional than Darren Lehmann and it's hard to argue with their judgement. In his three seasons at the club, the South Australian left hander has proved himself a major asset and a major drawcard with both the reliability and the style of his batting. He is a superb player on the attack but equally impressive has been his capacity to play long, measured innings on the often bowler-friendly pitches upon which Yorkshire is required to play. Recently honoured with selection as one of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year in 2000, he has been left out of Australia's one-day and Test squads to England. It is therefore close to a certainty that he will be near to the top of the list of leading runscorers in county competition yet again this season.