For all the claims and counter-claims that currently dominate debates about a need to quicken the pulse of county cricket, there's at least some room for common ground. Because it can't have escaped the attention of the proponents on both sides of such arguments that Australian cricketers now stand at the heart of the English domestic game.
As the counties stir into competitive action for another year, a range of high-quality Australians are back to impose their considerable influence over proceedings. And, from Durham in the north to Sussex in the south, Glamorgan in the west to Kent in the east, their bearing on the respective fates of the 18 teams is likely to be as significant as ever.
Though it seemed to escape serious attention on both sides of the Atlantic last year, it's worth bearing in mind that, among the four major prizes that were on offer in English domestic cricket in 2001, only one went to a team without an Australian import.
The sides that won the County Championship, the Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy, and the National League all shared the characteristic of hiring their overseas professional from Down Under. It was also a quality in common between the team that topped Division Two of the Championship and all three sides that won promotion from the second division of the League.
It was a powerful demonstration of the extent to which Australians have permeated English domestic ranks over the last decade.
It also added confirmation - confederacy of mediocrity or otherwise that county cricket may be in a general sense - that about the last thing that has been lacklustre in recent times has been Australia's contribution to its development. That said - and with 13 Australians back on duty - it's just as salient to note that the 2002 season looks very much like honouring the trend.
Here's our annual guide to the Australian-imported talent on show across the counties:
Michael Di Venuto (Derbyshire): Michael Di Venuto weathered an unfulfilling season at home as the combination of a serious ankle injury, food poisoning, and an unexpected axing at the hands of a ruthless selection panel all conspired to frustrate his ambitions. Yet the experienced left hander's class as a strokemaker remains undiminished. He enjoyed an excellent maiden county season in 1999 at Sussex and, though his new team has struggled in a collective sense, has been an effective contributor in the upper order in each of his two subsequent seasons at Derby. With captain Dominic Cork poised to make more appearances for the county than has been possible over recent years, Derbyshire plans to enjoy a much more fruitful summer in 2002. Its decision to appoint Di Venuto as Cork's deputy is an acknowledgement that the Tasmanian is expected to exert a major influence over its fate.
Martin Love (Durham): The county's reigning 'Batsman of the Year', Martin Love returns to Durham amid growing fervour about the team's prospects of making further inroads on a maiden title this season. Gradually starting to win the plaudits across Australia that his play has demanded for several years now, the talented right hander returns after another dominant season at home which yielded 1189 first-class runs at an average of 62.58 and a key role in another title triumph for Queensland. Also given a brief taste of captaincy responsibilities in the absence of an injured Stuart Law, 28-year-old Love looks to be playing as well as ever. He converted only one of 18 half-centuries into a three-figure score last season for Durham but the value of his consistency was inestimable. In 2002, it seems reasonable to expect another significant contribution from him.
Michael Kasprowicz (Glamorgan): Glamorgan has opted to make a break with its policy of recent years, veering away from the practice of recruiting a left handed opening batsman as its overseas professional to plump for a right arm opening bowler instead. And, that said, Michael Kasprowicz stands out as an excellent choice. He has endured frustrating runs with injury during the last two Australian seasons but remains a top-line bowler at domestic level and has been particularly unlucky not to have played far more international cricket. In each of his two previous stints at county level (at Essex in 1994 and Leicestershire in 1999), Kasprowicz was a consistent thorn in the side of batsmen. He enters a new English season fresh from claiming nine wickets in the Pura Cup Final and playing a major role in helping state team Queensland to its fifth first-class title in eight years.
Ian Harvey (Gloucestershire): Ian Harvey still has his doubters in the international arena but precious few who have studied his impact at Gloucestershire over the last three years will bother to even contemplate making a similar case at county level. The Victorian all-rounder has been a consummate import player, aligning aggression as a batsman with persistent wicket-taking as a bowler with such success that he was a key player in the attainment of a stunning five one-day titles in the space of his first two years in Bristol. The 2001 season was the Gladiators' least successful among Harvey's trio of previous sojourns to the club; by no mere coincidence, it was also the one in which he made his smallest number of appearances.
Andrew Symonds (Kent): Andrew Symonds enjoyed only an abbreviated season for Kent in 2001, having fulfilled international commitments earlier in the year and been used in the role of a replacement import for injured South African star Daryll Cullinan. But, in his two-and-a-half month stint, he still made a huge impact and was the decisive figure in clinching the victory spoils for the county in Division One of the National League one-day competition. Symonds' association with Kent dates back to 1999 and - in concert with his skills as a medium pacer and off spinner, as well as his sublime prowess as a fieldsman - he has been the epitome of clinical strokeplay throughout the years since. Like Kasprowicz, his confidence at the start of the new season should also be buoyed by an accomplished individual performance in the most recent of Queensland's five Sheffield Shield/Pura Cup Final victories.
Stuart Law (Lancashire): Stuart Law has just stepped down from his eight-year reign as captain of Queensland and is fresh from an eventful season at home - which featured a persistent battle with a finger injury and then culminated in him joining the ranks of the most successful leaders in the history of domestic first-class cricket in Australia. In his impending switch to Lancashire, after six seasons at county level with Essex, will arrive another keen set of challenges. Law's sophistication as a strokemaker, as well as his durability and determination, have made him one of Australia's finest players over the last decade and there remains little to suggest that he will be anything other than a big asset to the Lightning. His wife, Debbie, was born and raised nearby and Law doesn't appear to be entering the season with too many qualms about the prospect of learning to love life in Manchester.
Michael Bevan (Leicestershire): Leicestershire's shrewd piece of off-season recruiting will allow Michael Bevan to join Kasprowicz in gaining the opportunity of representing a third different club at county level. The redoubtable New South Wales left hander, with previous stints as a professional at Yorkshire and Sussex behind him, was county cricket's leading run scorer in 2000 but international commitments have prevented him from enjoying a sustained English domestic career. Australia's relatively lean schedule in mid-2002 is therefore, quite clearly, the Foxes' gain. Bevan's powers as a one-day international phenomenon show few signs of waning and, though he has recently been troubled by a persistent hamstring injury, he remains a heavy accumulator of runs at first-class level as well. Will miss two important weeks of county cricket on account of international duties in June, but is likely to make a huge impact in his time at Grace Road.
Ashley Noffke (Middlesex): Queensland's Ashley Noffke is heading to Middlesex to provide short-term cover for Abdur Razzaq, the county's first choice import. It represents his first taste of county cricket but it's a heady selection nonetheless given that Noffke is a pace bowler who rarely fails to impress and whose star continues to rise. He is a tall right armer and, though often used to this point of his domestic career as a change bowler, delivers with speed and accuracy and doesn't waste the new ball when it is thrown his way. Niggling injuries have slowed his development, and even cut short his first taste of representative action with Australia on last year's Ashes tour, but he would be among the leading contenders in the event that his country was forced to find replacements for Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and/or Brett Lee. Is likely to be an excellent, albeit brief, acquisition.
Mike Hussey (Northamptonshire): Mike Hussey returns to Northants after a record-breaking debut season at the club that will prove a distinctly hard act to follow. A compact and well-organised left hander, he smashed 2055 runs for the county at first-class level and added another 903 in limited-overs cricket to guarantee not only another invitation to Northampton but also a promotion to the captaincy. Is returning on the back of another outstanding limited-overs campaign for his native Western Australia, and was rumoured to be very close to breaking into Australia's one-day squad for its recent trip to South Africa. He will be hungry for further runs to emphasise the point that he now ranks among Australia's finest contemporary batsmen.
Jamie Cox (Somerset): Staff at Somerset suspect that Jamie Cox will be fired for another big English season after tasting the disappointment of a Pura Cup Final defeat with Tasmania back at home. He does have a hard job ahead of him, though, in matching the standards set in 2001 - which was clearly among Somerset's most satisfying years in county history. Cox will begin the season in the unfamiliar role as Somerset vice-captain, having decided to hand over the skipper's reins to Marcus Trescothick for the few matches in which the England star will not be absent to international duty. But that should help ease the early pressure as he attempts to replicate the approach that landed the 2001 Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy and a finish behind only Yorkshire in the County Championship itself. He is coming off a comparatively lean individual season by his own high standards in Australia, but can be expected to be a prolific contributor for the Sabres once again.
Murray Goodwin (Sussex): Odds are that another up-and-down season with Western Australia is likely to be followed by another fine season with Sussex for Murray Goodwin. The former Zimbabwe Test batsman was an outstanding signing for the county last English summer, enjoying something of a new lease of life as an opener to plunder 1654 runs in first-class matches and another 811 in the limited-overs arena. Sussex enjoyed a fine season overall in 2001, topping Division Two of the County Championship to win automatic promotion to the top flight this summer and narrowly missing out on promotion in the National League. If Goodwin's defiant batting, athletic fielding, and considerable experience rub off on his teammates to anything like the same extent as they did 12 months ago, then there's a very reasonable chance that 2002 could be just as profitable a season.
Andy Bichel (Worcestershire): The cancellation of Australia's tour of Zimbabwe means that Worcestershire will have the services of fast bowler Andy Bichel from the outset of the season. Given how consistently he combined penetrative wicket-taking with valuable run scoring last summer, that can only represent a major boost to the Royals' chances of enjoying another productive campaign. He was a standout choice as the county's 'Player of the Year' in 2001 - in a performance that made light of the fact that his predecessor as an import at New Road was Glenn McGrath and that he therefore had enormous boots to fill. Bichel was forced to miss a number of games at home in 2001-02 on account of being away with the national squad when the bulk of Queensland's matches were played so is arguably as fresh as he has ever been going into the Australian off-season.
Darren Lehmann (Yorkshire): In a sense, Darren Lehmann makes the job as a county professional harder for himself every year. For each of the four seasons that he has plied his trade as a left handed batsman and left arm orthodox spinner with Yorkshire, his impact has only become more substantial. And, as he enters his fifth campaign, he now has to back up a season that yielded the county's first title at first-class level in 33 years, and an astonishing 2593 runs in the two forms of the game. Just for good measure, he also enters the season with the distinction of being anointed as the first overseas player in history to captain Yorkshire. For all of that, though, there's no particular reason to assume that Lehmann's prolific talents will fail to sate expectation. A return to Australia for a three-match one-day international series against Pakistan will encroach on his English commitments during the month of June. But it's still hard to see him being anything other than very high up on the list of leading county run-scorers yet again.
- The 2002 English domestic season commences on 13 April and will conclude on 22 September.
Michael Di Venuto
New Zealand Academy
England Domestic Season