In the lead up to the 2016 domestic season, ecb.co.uk will be running a series of features with all 18 first-class counties. Leicestershire performance director Andrew McDonald is hoping to take inspiration from Leicester City’s success this season.
Leicestershire do not have to look far for inspiration as they bid to end their three-year residency at the bottom of the Second Division of the County Championship. It is only a couple of miles from the Fischer County Ground, as Grace Road has been renamed over the winter, to the King Power Stadium, where another set of Foxes have risen from the foot of the Premier League to its summit over the last 12 months.
“Even when I was back home in Australia for a couple of months, Leicester City were big news over there,” reflects Andrew McDonald, who would be happy to end September with a new nickname as the cricketing Claudio Ranieri.
“Obviously everyone in Leicester is excited and behind them, but I think the whole world is to be honest. It’s an outstanding sporting story, and it’s not over yet. I wouldn’t pretend to be a massive fan of them but I’ve been to a few games since I first came over here as a player in 2010.
“It’s a great example of what you can do with a bit of belief and confidence to turn a team around – first under Nigel Pearson, and then Ranieri’s come in and sprinkled a bit of magic.”
McDonald may have been unable to lift Leicestershire from the bottom of the table in his first season as coach, but they did at least avoid a third summer without a Championship win, finally breaking the drought on a memorable morning at Chelmsford in June and following up with a home victory against Derbyshire two months later.
But McDonald was never going to be happy with a third consecutive wooden spoon – even if the 35-point margin by which Leicestershire trailed eighth-placed Derbyshire was exaggerated by a 16-point deduction for a poor disciplinary record – especially as it was accompanied by mostly miserable performances in both of the one-day competitions.
So he has turned Tinkerman over the close-season, signing three established county performers with considerable experience in Neil Dexter from Middlesex, Mark Pettini from Essex, and Paul Horton from Lancashire.
That will give Leicestershire’s batting line-up a vastly different look in 2016, with Horton set to open with Angus Robson – another Sydney-born but England-qualified right-hander – and Dexter and Pettini to join captain Mark Cosgrove in the middle order.
“First and foremost we were looking at where we wanted to take the club, and that meant getting good people,” McDonald explains. “Yes they’ve also got good leadership skills which was important because it was an area we identified last year where we needed to improve. And not forgetting the fact they’re very good cricketers.
“They’ve settled nicely into the squad, and the pre-season camp we’ve had in Dubai has accelerated that process too.”
Leicestershire sit out the opening round of fixtures in the Specsavers County Championship, opening their campaign against Glamorgan in Cardiff from April 17.
— ICC Academy (@ICCAcademy) March 13, 2016
That means some extra time for Cosgrove and Clint McKay to recover from the Sheffield Shield final, in which they could well line up on opposite sides when South Australia face Victoria at the Adelaide Oval next week.
Leicestershire will be especially keen to have McKay on board to set the tone from the start of the season after he missed last year’s opener – also against Glamorgan in Cardiff – because it clashed with his wedding.
The tall Victorian still ended the season with 58 wickets from 12 Championship appearances, a tally surpassed by one by Ben Raine, the bustling former Durham seamer – with veteran Charlie Shreck one behind on 57.
McDonald is confident that all three can enjoy another productive campaign – dismissing second-season type concerns for Raine, and the fact that Shreck turned 38 in January – and is excited by the potential of Zak Chappell, the 19-year-old from Lincolnshire who made 96 on his first-class debut but is primarily a fast bowler.
With Umar Akmal and Rilee Rossouw on board for the NatWest T20 Blast, the Foxes are clearly targeting a return to the quarter-finals to encourage further increases in attendances – and they can only improve on a winless 2015 record in the Royal London One-Day Cup.
But McDonald is not writing off the possibility of a promotion challenge in the Championship – even in the year when only one of Division Two’s nine teams will be going up.
“You set out at the start of the year to win the comp,” he said. “Every team has to build and prepare with that mentality. On the way anything can happen. But at the start of the year we believe you’ve got to aim as high as you can.”