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Even those bookmakers still wincing at the memory of the third-degree finger burns sustained at Headingley '81 were willing to quote Leicestershire in telephone numbers at the start of last summer. In the manner of casino owners when a high roller hits town, or a candidate on a wet election day, they would probably have sent a car round for anyone in Aylestone or Ashby-de-la-Zouch who fancied a punt on their team in 1992. "Leicestershire for the Championship? Certainly, sir. What odds would you like?"
In the event, they would have kept their money, but not without the odd nervous tic along the way. Leicestershire, widely fancied for the wooden spoon, mounted a serious challenge for the County Championship that only evaporated when Essex ran away with it in the closing weeks; and by beating Essex in the semi-final of the NatWest Trophy at Grace Road, they rewarded their supporters, who had been waiting for the opportunity to head south for a September Cup final at Lord's since the Gillette Cup began and the road to London was the sort on which people pulled the Morris Oxford into a lay-by for a picnic.
Considering that there had been rather more activity at the player-exit gate than the spectator-entrance turnstile in recent years, these were impressive achievements. Since Leicestershire won the Benson and Hedges Cup in 1985, the combination of steadily declining morale and a failure to attract players from outside their own modest resources had made them one of the softer touches on the circuit. The 1992 renaissance was, by general consent, a tribute to the determination of their 37-year-old captain to pull his county out of an apparently endless rut by the application of old-fashioned virtues such as hard work and team spirit.
Three years previously, NIGEL EDWIN BRIERS, born in Leicester on January 15, 1955, had taken charge after David Gower left to join Hampshire, and the county's declining fortunes did not improve for the next two summers under the care of the Australian coach, Bobby Simpson. Briers then decided that enough was enough. He called the players together, pointed out that the club had done nothing with so-called star names in the dressing-room, and that here was the chance for everyone to start pulling together. Anyone who did not could expect regular invitations to turn out for the Second Eleven.
Briers insisted on punctuality and smartness, reasoning that a side that lacked discipline off the field was unlikely to have much on it, and he himself became a much more positive captain out in the middle. Having initially led the side in the absences of Gower and Peter Willey, he had been understandably more concerned about not losing matches than winning them, but after a hesitant first year as official captain, gradually generated more confidence both in himself and his team. Briers had been earmarked by Ray Illingworth as a potential leader in the mid-1970s, and when he finally took charge, he became the first home-grown captain of the club since Maurice Hallam was replaced by Illingworth in 1969.
He had been groomed for leadership both with Leicestershire Schools and England Youth teams, and might have inherited the job earlier but for two things. Leicestershire were such a strong side when Briers became a regular member of the playing staff in 1975 that it was no easy task establishing himself as a fixture in the team. He also chose, after becoming the club's youngest ever debutant in 1971 (aged 16 years, 103 days), to spend the next four years establishing employment credentials in teaching. Educated at Lutterworth Grammar School and Borough Road College, Isleworth, he now teaches PE and history at Ludgrove School in Wokingham.
By the end of 1983, Briers would have been an ideal choice as captain. However, Gower was chosen to succeed the sacked Roger Tolchard and for the next three years Briers suffered a series of personal setbacks. He lost both his form and his confidence in 1984 and 1985, and in 1986 his forearm was so badly broken in a game at Hove that he was almost forced to retire. However, after further unsatisfactory periods under the captaincy of Willey and, for a second time, Gower, Briers was chosen to take over in 1990, and despite the distractions of a benefit season, responded with his best ever season and scored 1,996 first-class runs.
In many ways, this was no surprise, as Briers thrives on hard work. A cliché it may be, but he is the model pro; first into the nets, a stickler for practice, and almost irritatingly neat, tidy, and well-ordered with his kit. Furthermore, he has not missed a Leicestershire game since 1987, and has played some of his best cricket for the club since inheriting the captaincy in his mid-30s. An elegant, predominantly front-foot batsman, Briers remains a very fine fielder in the covers, but perhaps his greatest quality is his undiminished enthusiasm for the game.
He is also a good communicator (although perhaps less so to his batting partner when he is looking for a single to get off the mark) and together with the new coach, Jack Birkenshaw, has restored harmony and stability to the side. Last summer, he also completed 1,000 runs for the sixth summer running (ninth in all) and was rewarded with a new contract that will take him into his 41st year. "When you are losing all the time, it does get to you," says Briers, "which is why last year was so rewarding. I don't know how long I can go on, but whenever I do finish, it is my dearest wish to leave behind a damn good side."