Ajmal pulls out of Worcestershire contract

Pakistan off-spinner Saeed Ajmal has been forced to withdraw from his contract as Worcestershire’s second overseas player for this season’s Friends Life t20 competition.

Ajmal’s return to New Road was always shrouded in doubt because of Pakistan’s fluid international schedule.

Confirmation that he would not be able to fulfil his contractual commitments to Worcestershire after Pakistan firmed up a tour to Sri Lanka which clashes with the county Twenty20 Cup competition.

“Losing a player of Saeed’s quality is a big disappointment. However, we are extremely active in finding a replacement for the t20,” said Worcestershire director of cricket Steve Rhodes.

Ajmal had a brief but successful stint with Worcestershire last season and was keen to return to New Road provided his international commitments permitted.

Apart from taking important wickets Ajmal also encouraged fellow off-spinner Moeen Ali to develop a ‘doosra’.

Ajmal used his own ‘doosra’ to deadly effect during the winter to spin England to a 3-0 Test series defeat in the United Arab Emirates.

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Premier league previews for the 2012 club cricket season

Mal Loye will be joining Finedon Dolben in the Northamptonshire league as a player/coach

Mal Loye will be joining Finedon Dolben in the Northamptonshire league as a player/coach

It’s local, it’s good to watch … and it’s free. So this summer, turn up on a Saturday and support the top teams in your area. Here is our correspondents’ full set of previews for every ECB premier league or equivalent in the country. The leagues are arranged by region and official ECB premier leagues are marked with an asterisk.

Scotland
Scottish National league
With the new league structure in place – an eight-team Eastern Premier and an eight-team Western Premier – the winners will play off for the overall title. Carlton look favourites to retain their crown, but watch out for a reinvigorated Grange. Gary Heatly

Ireland
Munster
Cork County have been the dominant side over the last decade thanks to top players like Ross Durity and Bruce Koch. But the young Cork Harlequins have been showing glimpses of potential over the last two seasons and could cause an upset this year. David Gash

Leinster
Railway Union, with Kenny Carroll, Trent Johnston and Kevin O’Brien knocked North County off their perch last season. However, Johnston will not be at Union this season (his new club is not yet known). Merrion and The Hills shouldn’t be written off as they too boast quality within their ranks. DG

NCU
Only four points separated North Down from second place Warringstown last term and they will no doubt be in the shake-up come September. Keep an eye on CIYMS though who have made a number of high profile signings, notably Irish international batsman Chris Dougherty, who joins from Brigade. DG

North West
In a notoriously close league, Limivady were just pipped at the post by Brigade last year and they will be looking to get one over on their near neighbours this season. Strabane were disappointed with their fourth position and will be out to prove a point. DG

Wales
North Wales Premier*
Llandudno hope to regain the title from Connah’s Quay after losing it in controversial circumstances last year (see November issue). Colwyn Bay have signed South Australia quick Jake Haberfield while fellow countryman Marcus Adams has joined Mochdre. The allrounder bowls both right arm seam and left arm spin. Luke Sellers

SWALEC Premier*
Simon Jones could cause a stir after being allocated to Newport. Last year’s runners-up Bridgend threatened legal action after losing the league title to Cardiff because of points docked for a poor pitch. The two face each other in the second game of the season. LS

North West
Cheshire County*
Champions Nantwich will be without last year’s prolific overseas man Glenn Batticciotto but are still in pole position to complete a hat-trick. Hyde, reinforced by ex-Lancashire second XI batsman Chris Tipper, could be the main threat. Andrew Collomosse

Liverpool Competition*
Not many leagues can boast the presence of two current County Champions among their ranks. But Lancashire left-arm spinners Simon Kerrigan and Stephen Parry will be twirling away for champions Ormskirk and 2011 runners-up Bootle respectively, subject to county commitments of course. AC

Northern Premier*
St Annes and Leyland, last year’s top two, are favourites but expect a challenge for a first crown since 2008 from Netherfield, reinforced by the arrival of South African Jacobus Pienaar. AC

Bolton*
Lancashire Cup winners Greenmount completed a league double last year but Farnworth and Egerton have a realistic chance along with Horwich, who last won the title in 1983. AC

Central Lancashire
How appropriate if Middleton, runners-up in 2011, were to go one better as a tribute to their former professional Basil D’Oliveira, who died last November. Champions Norden, seeking a hat-trick, will not go quietly, however. AC

Lancashire
Todmorden celebrate their 175th anniversary this year so what better time to improve on last year’s third place and win a first championship since 1957? Champions Lowerhouse, Accrington and Ramsbottom will have other ideas. AC

North Lancs & Cumbria
Despite losing skipper Stuart Horne because of work commitments, Furness start favourites for a fourth successive title. But Haverigg, who have recruited former West Indies batsman Brenton Parchment, could be dark horses. AC

North East
North East Premier*
Champions South Northumberland snatched back their title from Chester-le-Street in the final over last season and this duo will be the front runners again. Although South North’ will miss the runs of Chris Hewison who has moved on after ten years, they have secured batsman Joe Coyne who has spent two seasons with Durham Academy. Bob Crosby

Durham Senior
With a second division proposed for 2013, this year could be the last featuring the current member teams. Champions Kimblesworth will take some catching but they won’t have too much to spare over Boldon, whose young batsman James Coyne is one to watch. BC

Northumberland and Tyneside Senior
Four-times champions Swalwell have replaced Durham and Scotland’s Kyle Coetzer with Chris Hewison. With former Durham men Nicky Philips and Ian Pattinson, the team should withstand the customary challenge from Shotley Bridge and Neil Killeen’s Annfield Plain. BC

North Yorkshire & South Durham*
In the ECB’s latest premier league, Champions Marton, who clinched the 2011 title at the death in September, look favouriters. Runners-up Hartlepool hope to have PCA umpire of the year Michael Gough available when his duties permit. Sedgefield, once the base of Wayne Larkins, make their premier league debut. BC

Yorkshire
Yorkshire County Premier*
It’s hard to see anyone denying York a sixth successive crown but after winning the League Cup last year, the Yorkshire Academy’s progress will be closely monitored by league and county supporters alike. AC

Bradford
In 2011, Woodlands fought off surprise challengers Farsley to land a fifth title in seven years and will fancy their chances of a sixth. As ever, though, there will be no shortage of contenders, with East Bierley and Cleckheaton likely to be in the shake-up. AC

Central Yorkshire
Wrenthorpe are looking to complete a hat-trick of championships and will be the team to beat. But Methley won their last seven matches in 2011, as well as reaching the Yorkshire Council final, and will be a threat if they hit the ground running. AC

Huddersfield
Honley have dominated with six titles in seven years and know what it takes to get over the line. But one of these days, Delph & Dobcross or Kirkburton will lose the nearly men tag. AC

South Yorkshire
Whitley Hall and Elsecar were top dogs in 2011, but Treeton are serial winners, too, and can be expected to mount a challenge along with Whiston. AC

Midlands
Birmingham and District Premier*
Last year’s winners Barnt Green will take some beating under the shrewd captaincy of former Warwickshire all-rounder Dougie Brown. National cup winners Shrewsbury, who have recruited Nottinghamshire and England Lions batsman James Taylor, will be Barnt Green’s biggest threat. Paul Bolton

Derbyshire Premier*
The former Derbyshire seamer and Ockbrook & Borrowash captain Kevin Dean has been elected to the county’s committee but those commitments are unlikely to prevent him from tormenting club batsmen again. PB

Leicestershire Premier*
Loughborough pipped Market Harborough to the title last September and the pair are expected to slug it out again. Loughborough should see more of seamer Tom Wells, son of former England rugby forwards coach John, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury. PB

North Staffordshire and South Cheshire*
Longton have set out their ambitions of taking the title by signing Audley trio Craig Barker, Dave Fairbanks and Richard Holloway plus batsman Richard Hassall from champions Wood Lane. Cheadle have recruited Derbyshire batsman Garry Park and former Worcestershire opener David Wheeldon. PB

Nottinghamshire Cricket Board Premier*
Former Nottinghamshire and Northamptonshire batsman Bilal Shafayat has joined the West Indian Cavaliers but the team has lost former Pakistan off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq to increased coaching commitments. Defending champions Clifton Village have lost former Derbyshire batsman Dan Birch to Kimberley and former Surrey and Nottinghamshire batsman Darren Bicknell has joined Caythorpe from Belvoir. PB

East
East Anglian Premier*
Champions, and national cup finalists, Cambridge Granta, are not renewing their association with Jason Coleman, the allrounder who led them to back-to-back league titles. Swardeston, national T20 champions in 2010 have lost Kiwi allrouder Jaden Hatwell. If Vauxhall Mallards can keep a strong squad together, they could take advantage. Andrew Abbott

Lincolnshire Cricket Board Premier*
Current champions Bracebridge Heath will take some beating but with six clubs naming new captains and several useful overseas signings, the league is likely to be even more competitive than 2011. Ann Boulton

Northamptonshire*
Finedon Dolben – bidding for an 11th title in 14 years – have recruited Mal Loye as coach and he is expected to play in roughly half their matches. However, Northampton Saints, runners-up by a single point in 2011, also look stronger with the signing of ex-Notts seamer, Andy Oram. Andrew Radd

Home Counties
Home Counties Premier*
A changing of the guard at Henley, champions in 2009 and 2010, means that High Wycombe, who sprang a surprise when they romped home last year, are the favourites – just – in a highly competitive league. Josh Burrows

Surrey Championship*
The Champions, Wimbledon, will be further strengthened by the young Australian leggie Tim Monteleone and Australian ODI specialist John Hastings. Reigate Priory, with the Murtagh brothers and Neil Saker, will probably be the closest challengers. On the advice of the police, league games will be suspended on the weekend of the Olympic road race. JB

Middlesex County*
Is it all about Ealing? Well, probably. David Holt’s team, spearheaded by Chris Peploe, will be chasing an eighth successive victory and have developed the knack of winning ugly. The team to watch will be Eastcote with four young Middlesex players in Tom Scollay, Gurjit Sandhu, Ravi Patel and Adam Rossington. JB

Essex Premier*
Half the 2012 season will be 100-over win/lose games with the other nine matches played on a 110-over win/lose/draw format. Brentwood’s youngsters are still the side to beat but newly promoted Buckhurst Hill are Essex indoor champions and also coming up from Division One are League Cup champions, Shenfield. JB

South East
Kent*
Maurice Holmes, a 21-year-old offspinner dubbed, the ‘English Murali’, will return to Sevenoaks Vine after a stint in Warwickshire. However, he may not be allowed to bowl his doosra which was found to be illegal last season. Former champions Bromley are strengthened by the arrival of former Essex and Surrey left-hander Richard Clinton from Bickley Park, who have themselves recruited the Indian one-ODI wonder Abhijit Kale. Mike Vimpany

Southern Electric Premier*
Havant, champions three times in the past four seasons, expect to rely on an unchanged squad. Bournemouth, though boosted by Scott Barlow’s return from Budleigh Salterton as captain, have lost teenage batting prodigy Michael Porter to the Hampshire Academy and Oxford UCCE hopeful Simon Watkins. MV

Sussex*
Hastings & St Leonard’s Priory defend their crown without the influential Jason Finch, who ended a glittering club career after last season’s title triumph. Left-hander George Campbell replaces him as captain, boosted by Sri Lankan Sujith Perera, who has joined from Taplow. Preston Nomads expect Antiguan Carl Simon to return, alongside Sussex Academy prospect Matt Hobden. MV

West of England
Cornwall*
Last year’s title race went down to the wire and it is set to be the same again in 2012 with St Just, Callington and Werrington set to challenge reigning champions Truro. Paul CC Captain and Cornwall allrounder Justin Stephens has joined Falmouth. LS

Devon*
The Devon Premier League will be straight win/lose cricket for the first time in its history in 2012. Bovey Tracey are likely to be the main threat to champions North Devon after signing ex-Devon skipper Neil Hancock. LS

West of England*
Former Somerset batsmen Robin Lett will be looking to lead Bath to a third successive title after taking over from ex-Gloucestershire seamer Tom Stayt. The league has introduced powerplays and free-hits for a front foot no ball. LS

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Patterson earns Yorkshire call-up for Essex game

Steve Patterson knows he must make the most of his opportunity for Yorkshire against Essex at Headingley as competition for places is about to become even fiercer.

The 28-year-old seamer had some injury problems last season and in County Championship appearances took only 21 wickets at 46.33.

The much less experienced Iain Wardlaw was preferred in the opening match against Kent, but Patterson did enough against Leeds/Bradford MCCU to earn a call-up.

He is well aware that competition will intensify with the imminent arrival of an overseas fast bowler. And Tim Bresnan is also available for the next two Championship matches– against Kent  at Canterbury and Leicestershire at Scarborough.

Yorkshire are thought to be pursuing 22-year-old Australian left-armer Mitchell Starc, from New South Wales, who has been capped three times at Test level.

Starc is with the Australia squad in the West Indies but has not been selected for the first two Tests and was not in the party for the one-day series.

Yorkshire will almost certainly make their move if, as expected, Phil Jaques’ status as a non-overseas player is confirmed by the ECB.

Director of cricket Martyn Moxon said: “We are looking at a few options and I’m hoping something might happen in the next few days.

“It was in our thoughts anyway to look for an overseas player, but I think that has been probably stepped up after the first game. We weren’t at our best with the ball against Kent and we need to improve our consistency.”

“The lads are working hard and trying very hard, but we have struggled to maintain that pressure with the ball.”

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Howell given his Gloucestershire chance at Kent

Former Hampshire batsman Benny Howell will make his Gloucestershire debut in the LV County Championship match with Kent at Canterbury, starting on April 19.

The 23-year-old has been registered by the club to play in the fixture as replacement for Dan Housego, who has been sidelined by a shoulder problem.

Howell has been playing for Gloucestershire second XI this season and hit a double century for them against Surrey IIs at Bristol yesterday. He was released by Hampshire at the end of last season.

Skipper Alex Gidman said: “Benny had done everything right since joining us and clearly had a lot of ability. He was unfortunate to be released by Hampshire and has responded to that decision very positively.

“It’s a shame that Dan has suffered an injury so early in the seaon. I am not sure of the exact extent of it, but I am told he will be out for at least a week.

“That gives Benny his opportunity to bat at three for us in what is sure to be a very tough game. We beat Kent twice last season, but they have made a lot of changes and have some experienced new players.”

Howell was born in France. He made his Hampshire Second XI debut in 2005 and played one Championship match last season, scoring 71 against Lancashire at Southampton.

The right-hander, who bowls medium pace, has also played Clydesdale Bank 40 cricket for Hampshire, hitting 122 against Surrey at Croydon last season, and has a top score of 29 not out in the Twenty20 Cup competition.

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Swann wins England’s winter MVP award

Graeme Swann has been named the winter’s most valuable England player after his ten wickets in the Second Test against Sri Lanka helped Andrew Strauss’s team to retain top spot in the Test rankings.

The spinner held off a late charge from team-mate Kevin Pietersen to collect the FTI MVP award and a £2,000 cheque for the charity Lowe Syndrome Trust.

Swann’s haul in Colombo took him to 39 wickets in total in all formats over the winter. He also contributed 189 runs and took five catches in the field.

His achievement completes a hat-trick of wins in the competition following similar heroics on tour in 2009 and during the home series in 2010. And it was all the sweeter as it ensured the Three Lions held on to their coveted No 1 status in Test cricket.

Swann said: “I’m delighted to have won the FTI MVP after what has been a tough winter and it’s obviously great that we’re still number one too.

“It is nice to win any award but it is especially pleasing to win one where you are compared to your team-mates on hard statistics.

“Losing the three Tests against Pakistan was a real blow, but we picked ourselves up in the ODIs and again after the defeat in Galle to prove there’s plenty of fight in this team.

“The performance in Colombo bodes well for the summer, and hopefully we can carry that momentum into the Test series against the West Indies.”

As well as his ten-wicket haul, Swann picked up 6 for 82 in the second innings in Galle. He also scored 34 and 39 with the bat against Pakistan in the first Test in Dubai and took 4 for 107 with the ball. He finished the overall FTI MVP England winner by being 12 points clear of Pietersen.

Sebastian Mathews, senior vice president of FTI Consulting, said: “Congratulations to Graeme on his win, not only for this winter but for becoming the first person to win a hat-trick of England FTI MVP awards.

“It was a very exciting end to the winter FTI MVPs where he was run very close and this sets us up for an exciting summer of cricket ahead.”

View England winter MVP listings

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Dexter takes a break from Middlesex captaincy

Australian batsman Chris Rogers will take temporary charge of Middlesex when they take to the field at Lord’s against Durham on Thursday following Neil Dexter’s decision to temporarily stand down from the leadership.

Rogers has agreed to take over as temporary captain for the second time having led the county side for the final three games of the 2011 County Championship campaign while Dexter nursed a broken finger.

South African-born Dexter has started the season in poor form with the bat and is keen to nurture his own game before taking on the responsibilities of leadership again.

Managing director of cricket at Middlesex Angus Fraser said: “I applaud Neil for his selfless and honest behaviour. I selected Neil as captain because of the standards and values he holds, and he never lets you down.

“His captaincy during the thrilling three-run victory over Surrey was outstanding. It played a major role in turning potential sorrow into delight.

“He is, however, unhappy with his current form with the bat and believes extra time spent concentrating on this part of his game will help him return to his best the quickest, which is what we all want.

“Once Neil’s form returns, as it inevitably will, and he is happy with where he is at, the captaincy will return to him.”

Fraser added: “We’re fortunate to have a player of Chris Rogers’ standing as back-up. He captained the team very well at the end of the 2011 and is happy to stand in now to help the team’s cause.”

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Andrew not ready for competitive match

Worcestershire have not included Gareth Andrew in their squad for this week’s County Championship match against Surrey at The Oval despite his surprise appearance in last week’s friendly against Oxford MCCU.

Andrew was expected to be out of action until the end of May after he had major surgery during the winter on a knee ligament injury.

The 28-year-old former Somerset player is making good progress and played in some of Worcestershire’s pre-season friendlies as a batsman.

He has now started bowling again and featured in the draw at Oxford as an all-rounder where he bowled 15 overs which gave Worcestershire a chance to assess his match fitness.

“Gareth is making good progress but he’s not quite there yet,” said Worcestershire director of cricket Steve Rhodes.

“We are not at the stage yet where we can say when he might be ready to play in a competitive match, but the Surrey match is certainly too early for him.”

Worcestershire do not have a second team match this week so Andrew will remain in Worcester for net bowling and to continue his rehabilitation programme.

Worcestershire have added left arm seamer Jack Shantry to the side that was beaten by Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge in their championship opener for the trip to The Oval.

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Woakes steps up ankle rehab work

Warwickshire’s England one-day international all-rounder Chris Woakes will step up his rehabilitation from an ankle ligament injury in Liverpool this week.

Woakes will travel with Warwickshire’s squad to Aigburth where he will train and have intensive treatment while his team-mates are facing defending county champions Lancashire.

It is just four weeks since Woakes badly damaged his right ankle in a freak accident when he caught his spikes in the turf while he was fielding in a pre-season match in Barbados.

The initial gloomy predictions were that Woakes had broken the ankle and he would be out of action for at least three months. But he has suffered only ligament damage and the period on the sidelines was adjusted downwards to between six and eight weeks.

Woakes is reluctant to say when he might be playing again but he has made rapid progress in the past week and has already started jogging and having throw-downs.

“I’ve had a really good week,” Woakes said. “Just a week ago I was still wearing a protective boot but now I’m able to do some light jogging and I’ve also had a few throw-downs.

“I’m not setting a specific target date to play again because you never know how your rehab is going to go. But there has been a massive improvement in the last seven days.

“I’m going up to Liverpool to get some regular treatment from the physio and to do some work while everyone is up there.”

The ankle injury was the third setback suffered by Woakes in less than a year as sore shins forced him to miss part of last season and he also had to return home from England’s one-day series in India last autumn with a thigh strain.

“The ankle was a freak injury,” Woakes said. “When it happened I feared the worst because I heard a crack and pop.

“But when I had the ankle scanned when I got home the consultant was much more positive. He said that if I had an operation I would be out for 12 weeks, but if I left it to heal naturally then there was a good chance that I would be playing again within six to eight weeks.”

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Hall returns to boost bruised Northamptonshire

Northamptonshire captain Andrew Hall will make his first appearance of the season against Durham MCCU at the Racecourse on Friday April 20.

The former South Africa all-rounder has missed the first two weeks of the season because of a calf strain sustained in an inter-squad friendly at Wantage Road and Northamptonshire have struggled in Hall’s absence.

Having battled for three days against Derbyshire at Derby in their opening County Championship match, Northamptonshire capitulated on the last day.

They were then trounced by an innings by Kent at Wantage Road last week, a miserable start to the season which was in sharp contrast to last year when Northamptonshire were unbeaten in all cricket by the start of the Friends Life t20.

Although the Durham MCCU match is not first-class – the students have already played their two matches against county opposition which will count towards this season’s averages – Hall is keen to play to find form before the return to Championship action against Essex at Chelmsford next week.

Northamptonshire are expected to play most of their frontline batsmen at Durham in the hope that they might play themselves into form against less demanding bowling than they have already faced.

New recruit Con de Lange, a slow left-armer with first-class experience in his native South Africa, is also likely to feature in the squad having been named as twelfth man at Derby.

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Hand surgery to sideline Hoggard for up to a month

Leicestershire captain Matthew Hoggard has had an operation on a hand injury which he sustained throwing a rugby ball in training last week.

Hoggard saw a specialist on Monday April 16 and had surgery straight away to pin his left hand. He is expected to be sidelined for between three and four weeks.

“How quickly he plays will be dependent upon how quickly he heals but it’s his non-bowling hand which is a positive,” said Leicestershire coach Phil Whitticase.

It is the second time in less than a year that Hoggard has suffered a hand injury in training. Last summer the former England swing bowler required surgery after he damaged his right hand hitting a punch ball in training and was sidelined for two months.

Alex Wyatt is likely to take Hoggard’s place for this week’s County Championship second division match against Derbyshire at Derby.

Leicestershire will again be missing England Lions seamer Nathan Buck and opening batsman Will Jefferson who are still recovering from the back problems that forced them to return early from the county’s pre-season tour to Barbados.

Buck remains on course to play again by the end of the month, but Jefferson will require two to three weeks of rehabilitation after a course of injections to settle his sore back.

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