County previews 2014 March 27, 2014

Leicestershire have potential to improve

Last year 9th, CC Div 2; 4th North Group, FLt20; 5th Group C, YB40

2013 in a nutshell
Wretched. Leicestershire finished bottom of the County Championship without a single victory and came uncomfortably close to the record-low for a points tally in the modern era. They also failed to progress in the limited-overs competitions, were beaten at home by The Unicorns in the Yorkshire Bank 40, saw two of their best young talents arrested after a fracas in the city centre, posted a significant financial loss off the field and were thwarted in their aims of developing their Grace Road ground as a multi-sports complex.

But there was some light amid the gloom. Josh Cobb impressed in the YB40 and led the side to memorable victories over Somerset - Leicestershire chased down 323 with an over to spare - and Gloucestershire, while Ned Eckersley, with four Championship centuries and 1275 Championship runs, emerged as one of the outstanding young talents in the county game. But he lacked support - no-one else reached even 700 runs - and the bowling's toothlessness was underlined by the fact that the top three wicket-takers all claimed their victims at a cost of more than 40 runs apiece. Matthew Hoggard and Claude Henderson, fine cricketers with excellent careers behind them, retired at the end of the season.

2014 prospects
Expectations need to be tempered, but there is no reason Leicestershire cannot improve this season. As ever, it seems, the club possesses a crop of talented young players. Already there has been encouraging news off the pitch. Leicestershire have negotiated the release from a restrictive covenant that had limited their development plans for the ground and should, as a consequence, be able to open new revenue streams over the coming months and years.

The club have also secured the return of Ramnaresh Sarwan as overseas player for most of the season and brought in Dan Redfern to compete for a batting spot and Charlie Shreck to add some experience to the bowling. While the recruitment of a 36-year-old seamer might, in normal circumstances, raise questions about the long-term vision of the club, such is the dearth of experience at Grace Road at present that Shreck's signing makes some sense.

But there are still clouds in the distance: not only has Shiv Thakor been ruled out of action until the end of June with a finger injury, but several of the club's most promising young players - Cobb, Eckersley and Thakor - are out of contract at the end of the season. Already the vultures are circling. If Leicestershire want to progress on the pitch, they need to retain such players.

Key player
The mercurial Cobb. On his day, the 23-year-old looks an outstanding batsmen with the precious ability to clear the boundary and a wide range of strokes. Other days, he looks as if he may have lost the use of his feet and have failing eyesight. But if he is able to convert his excellent 2013 YB40 form - 578 runs at 52.54 - to the longer-format in 2014 - he averaged just 14.62 from 11 Championship games in 2013 - it will go a long way towards improving his side's fortunes.

Equally, as captain of the limited-overs teams, he might be expected to play a role in planning the long-term direction of the club. But with his own future very much in question - a host of counties hope to lure him away by the end of the season - he might prove an imperfect leadership choice.

Bright young thing
It says something for Leicestershire's enduring ability to develop players, that there are several candidates. Certainly Thakor, Cobb and Eckersley could all go on to play at a higher level. But Rob Sayer may be the next Leicestershire player to attract attention of richer neighbours. The 19-year-old offspinner may have to wait a while to win an opportunity at first-class level but, having impressed at the Under-19 World Cup, looks to be a player of some potential.

Ramnaresh Sarwan returns to captain the Championship team, bringing much-needed experience, with Josh Cobb captaining the limited-overs sides. Phil Whitticase is head coach.

ESPNcricinfo verdict
Leicestershire are better than they showed in 2013. While a sustained promotion challenge is most unlikely, they are more than capable of lifting themselves off the bottom of the table and enjoying some decent days in the limited-overs competitions. But retaining the best of their young players remains a challenge.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo