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COUNTY CHAMPIONSHIP DIVISION TWO 2016

The Aussies who ended a 992-day winless run

15 May 2016
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How a trio of Australians have been key to the mini-revival of English county side Leicestershire

About the Writer:
 @LouisDBCameron

A Victorian fast bowler who has played Shield cricket, Louis joined the cricket.com.au team with assistance from the Australian Cricketers' Association's Internship Program

On a blustery early May afternoon in Canterbury last year, Leicestershire were on the verge of claiming its first win in a four-day match in almost three seasons.

In the last session of the final day of their County Championship game against Kent, quicks Clint McKay and Charlie Shreck picked up three wickets in four overs, leaving the Foxes three more wickets to get in 23 balls to claim a drought-breaking win.

But Sam Billings and Mitch Claydon denied them by dead-batting the remaining deliveries to hold on for a draw. The match, Leicestershire’s third of the 2015 season, was its 33rd consecutive Championship game without a victory.

"You could say there was a bit of a culture of losing, but I think it was more a case of the guys not knowing how to win," McKay told cricket.com.au this month of his first season as the club's overseas player last year.

"There were times when we’d get into winning positions and we just didn’t know how to win."

He wasn’t exaggerating.

When McKay arrived at Grace Road at the beginning of the 2015 northern summer, the last time Leicestershire had won a Championship match was in 2012.

In 2014, the club had not taken 20 wickets in any of its four-day games and had only managed to pick up full batting bonus points on three occasions. To make matters worse, at the conclusion of that summer they lost four of their best players – Josh Cobb, Shiv Thakor, Nathan Buck and Greg Smith – to other counties. And capping off a truly disastrous season, the club announced a loss of almost $A450,000.

Wholesale changes were made for 2015, starting with the recruitment of three Australians; McKay as their overseas player and strike bowler, Mark Cosgrove (signed as a local player) as captain and middle-order batsman, and Andrew McDonald as coach. Together, the trio were tasked with turning around the battling club’s fortunes.

On paper, there was an element of risk in each of the signings. McDonald had never coached a team before and was still a contracted player with South Australia when he was appointed, Cosgrove had never captained at first-class level, and McKay had only been selected for one Sheffield Shield game for Victoria the preceding season.

Cosgrove was perhaps saddled with the toughest role of his compatriots, carrying expectations not only to lead the side’s brittle batting order but also to gel an inexperienced team that had become accustomed to failure.

"I think that might have happened," Cosgrove told cricket.com.au when asked if there was a culture of losing ingrained in the Leicestershire changing-room.

"People say winning is infectious, but so is losing. Winning can become a habit just as losing can.

"We got into some winning positions ... but you could tell it was a nervous changing room."

McKay, a former Australian ODI Player of the Year, was also under no illusions about the extent of the challenge.

Clint McKay
McKay says Leicestershire simply didn't know how to win // Getty Images

"I knew it was going to be hard work," he said.

"I hadn’t really been around the club and you hear all the stories, but until you actually walk in there and see it for yourself, you don’t really know what to expect.

"When I walked in last year, there were a few issues going on from an off-field point of view and Andrew McDonald was still putting things in place.

"They were sorting it all out but you could see it was a place on the rise."

Less than a month after that 'nearly' moment against Kent, the Foxes finally recorded their first Championship victory in 992 days, defeating Essex by six wickets in Chelmsford.

"That game down there (against Kent) and the game we won against Essex – it wasn't pretty," Cosgrove reflected.

"We made hard work of the Essex game – we lost a few wickets chasing in the final dig, but we got the win on the board.

"That win gave everyone a little bit more confidence and bit more belief that we can actually play at this level and perform at a really good standard."

Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the victory was it the fact it was achieved without dominant performances from Cosgrove or McKay. Instead, seamers Charlie Shreck and Ben Raine picked up 14 wickets between them for the match, while Sydney-born Angus Robson made 120 and 71.

Considering four players (Raine, Robson, Lewis Hill and Tom Wells) had never played in a winning Championship match and only three (Matt Boyce, Ned Eckersley and Jigar Naik) had played in Leicestershire’s previous win, McKay says it was a "massive" moment for the club.

"There were guys in that team who’d never been part of a winning game of first-class cricket," the 33-year-old said.

"It was great for the rest of the boys who’d been around Leicestershire for a while to get a win.

"The biggest thing was getting them to understand how to win games of cricket and to get that feeling that hopefully they’ll want more and more.

"I think we saw last year, just from that game, they came on leaps and bounds. We were very competitive for the majority of the rest of the season.

"We won another game (against Derbyshire in August) and definitely should have won one or two more - we were in great positions and the weather went against us.

Mark Cosgrove
Cosgrove has led the side's batting in recent seasons // Getty Images

"But that’s all part of the game and we at least we got an understanding about what it’s like to win games of cricket."

While a total of two wins from 16 Championship games, four victories from 14 Twenty20 matches and none from eight one-day cup games was hardly a breakout season, 2015 was a small step forward.

As for the three Australians, they showed why they’d been entrusted with turning around the club's fortunes.

Cosgrove plundered 1093 runs, including four tons in the Championship, while McKay took 81 wickets for the year across all three formats. And the pair both credit McDonald for building a platform for future success.

"I think he’s been a massive part of it," McKay said of his former Victorian teammate. "Seeing the work he does behind the scenes is fantastic and it shows how committed he is.

"There’s no doubt he’s doing something right. Everyone around the club knows how good a job he, (CEO) Wasim Khan and the assistant coaches are doing.

"Everyone’s on the same page now, fighting for the same cause."

Cosgrove admits McDonald "shook things around a bit" last season and points to an increased professionalism in the team's attitude to match preparation.

"Training has been a lot better and we’ve been training a lot more," he said.

"The guys are starting to realise now not just what it takes to be part of a four-day team but actually how to be a successful four-day team.

"Training has definitely gone up and the attitude of players around him has definitely gone up as well, which is fantastic."

As the relentless English domestic season wears on, one of the most difficult aspects of a county coach’s role is finding a balance between scheduling training between games and giving players a well-earned rest.

Consider, for example, Leicestershire’s punishing schedule in June of the 2015 season. In a 22-day period from the 5th to the 26th, the team had only four non-playing days. The period included two blocks of six consecutive days of cricket. That’s in addition to the 840 kilometres of travel between grounds, as the team drove from Nottingham to Leicester to Manchester to Derby to Birmingham to Cardiff and finally finishing back in Leicester.

Australia’s domestic schedule looks leisurely by comparison. Neatly divided into blocks for the different formats, the Matador BBQ's One-Day Cup begins the season and is followed by the Sheffield Shield, split into two halves around the KFC Big Bash league. The separation of four-dayers, one-dayers and T20s allows players to train specifically for the demands of each format.

McDonald, who helped Leicestershire win its last piece of silverware (the 2011 Friends Life T20 title) and Cosgrove, who played three seasons for Glamorgan before joining the Foxes, both understood the different challenges that an English summer throws at players.

Andrew McDonald
Coach Andrew McDonald has been a welcome addition // Getty Images

Yet Cosgrove admits he and both McDonald struggled to know whether scheduling training between games would be of any benefit to their increasingly weary squad as the season progressed.

"It’s different over here because you don’t play (limited-overs matches) in blocks like in Australia," Cosgrove, 31, said. "So you don’t get a chance to practice as much.

"It’s tough, you go from a four-day game into a T20 game into another four-day game then into a one-day game.

"Definitely, we battled with (finding a balance between playing and training) last year a little bit, to be honest.

"Playing the amount of cricket that we do means it can be quite hard to find time to upskill aspects of our game.

"Hopefully this year we’ll find that balance between giving guys some time off (between matches) and training so guys can improve their skills."

The Australian triumvirate has returned for the new season in 2016 and both McKay, who recently announced his retirement from international and Australian first-class cricket, and Cosgrove, dumped from the Redbacks’ contract list for 2016-17 despite playing all 11 Shield matches last season, look set to make England their main cricketing base.

As has McDonald, who played alongside McKay at the Sydney Thunder during BBL|06 but was present for the majority of Leicestershire’s pre-season.

Adding some batting depth was also a focus in the off-season. In 2015, only Cosgrove averaged more than 40 in the Championship (minimum five innings) and with four tons, the skipper posted as many centuries as the rest of his teammates combined.

The addition of county stalwarts Paul Horton, Mark Pettini and Neil Dexter for 2016 has paid immediate dividends, with all three notching centuries in the four-match old Championship season so far.

"Last year we had a very young batting group so it’s good to get a few more senior heads around the group in general," McKay said of the new recruits. “They also strengthen the batting.

"It just gives us a little more reliability through the opening stands and the middle-order."

Today, Leicestershire’s prospects are looking as bright as they ever have in the time since McDonald led the Foxes to the T20 title in 2011.

They sit in second on the Division Two ladder after four matches of the Championship, ten points off top spot (in 2016, only one team will be promoted into Division One). They could easily have been in first position, with poor weather having thwarted them in three matches when they were in winning positions.

And the East-Midlands-club’s improvement looks timely.

There have been grumblings in recent years that 18 counties may be too many for the English domestic scene and Leicestershire could have been a prime target for a cull, if the ECB were indeed considering one.

Wasim Khan’s admission after his appointment in 2014,that he could be Leicestershire’s last CEO if the club’s miserable on-field run continued was not made theatrically.

And while ascension to the top flight of English cricket this year would represent a colossal transformation, every victory and every positive step forward is a marked improvement for a side that, not so long ago, simply "didn’t know how to win".

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