Leicestershire will start their County Championship campaign on Friday on minus 16 points and with their captain, Mark Cosgrove, banned for one match after they were dramatically punished on the eve of the new season following an incident last week against Loughborough University involving their seam bowler Charlie Shreck.
The club’s punishment, which also includes a £5,000 fine and a further eight points suspended for one year, was handed down for chalking up five such incidents in the space of 12 months. They now become the second side in Division Two to start the summer with a deficit against their name after Durham were relegated for financial reasons last October and docked 48 points. While the 39-year-old Shreck has seen points put on his disciplinary record for a level one breach of the code of conduct for “using language that is obscene, offensive or insulting and/or making an obscene gesture”, Cosgrove is banned for being captain on all five occasions and will now miss their third match, against Glamorgan on 21 April.
Speaking on BBC Radio Leicestershire, Cosgrove said: “You play hard cricket and sometimes it boils over. This is a big punishment for us, it hurts the boys bad. Hopefully we can learn and get better. We have to be disciplined. If we don’t learn now, I’m not sure we ever will.”
“Charlie is very disappointed and apologetic. He overstepped the mark. We’ve got to take it and move on.”
The club, who are understood to have suspended Shreck for two matches internally, was the subject of a hearing by the England & Wales Cricket Board’s Cricket Discipline Commission on Thursday with the resulting punishment handed down less than 24 hours before their season gets under way at home to Nottinghamshire on Friday.
It is the second time in two years that Leicestershire have received such a stringent punishment for poor player behaviour, with the club docked 16 points and given a £5,000 fine suspended for 12 months after pleading guilty to five incidents of dissent towards umpires and opposing players in August 2015.
The CDC statement said: “In reaching this decision the Panel reminded Leicestershire that repeated breaches of discipline are a matter of serious concern. This is the second occasion on which the club has committed a similar offence, with all 10 Fixed Penalty breaches occurring within three years.”
Meanwhile Jason Gillespie has tipped Surrey to be the dark horses this year in what he predicts will be a four-way battle for the Division One trophy along with the defending champions, Middlesex, Somerset and his former club, Yorkshire.
Gillespie, who was head the coach when the White Rose won two County Championship titles in 2014 and 2015, believes the new eight-team, 14-match format in the top flight – a switch he has some reservations about – will lend itself to a fiercely competitive season when it gets underway on Friday with Essex hosting Lancashire, Surrey at home to Warwickshire and Yorkshire versus Hampshire.
“Every coach and captain in Division One is going to be stressing to their players about the need to play ruthless and disciplined cricket,” said Gillespie, who after returning to Australia over the winter to be with his family is back in English cricket on a short-term deal coaching at Division Two Kent.
“My heart and head says Yorkshire have the players and the depth to challenge for the trophy but, if I’m honest, I think they will be one of four teams. Middlesex are a strong unit that are very well led, Somerset proved last year as runners-up they know how to get results and, for me, Surrey are the dark horses to watch out for.
“We played them last week in a two-day friendly and they have every base covered and appear a happy, relaxed unit under my close friend [head coach] Michael di Venuto. There is depth in the batting with Scott Borthwick and Mark Stoneman arriving, the seam attack is strong and they have plenty of spin options with Gareth Barry, Zafar Ansari and Borthwick’s leg-breaks.”
With two teams set to go down – name another sport that relegates 25% of sides from its top division – and Gillespie expecting Essex to be strong enough to avoid the drop, the early hunch is that Warwickshire, Lancashire and Hampshire will be looking down rather than up come the end of the season.
The latter could yet surprise, however, having brought in South African internationals Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw over the winter. Their recruitment prompted a collective sigh outside of the Ageas Bowl, given they both signed on Kolpak deals and Hampshire only stayed up by virtue of Durham – a team made up of 75% academy products in 2016 – being relegated for financial reasons.
The England and Wales Cricket Board are looking at ways to cut the number of Kolpak deals – cricketers who make use of an EU loophole to be registered as non-overseas players – after 11 such arrivals into the county game over the winter and while Gillespie has no issue with one or two in a squad to raise the standard, he considers there to be a tipping point.
He said: “A quality Kolpak signing is going to be a benefit to cricket in this country but in the mid to late 2000s it got ridiculous and one game [Leicestershire versus Northamptonshire in 2008] 12 of the 22 players weren’t eligible to play for England. Once you get to three or four in a side plus an overseas player, I’m not convinced that’s right.”
Gillespie will work with Kent until the end of May before Allan Donald, their intended deputy to head coach Matt Walker, arrives following a visa delay and while he expects his new club to be firmly in the promotion race – they begin at home to Gloucestershire on Friday – the 41-year-old sees relegated Nottinghamshire as likely occupants of one of the top two spot.
Durham, who start their campaign next week at home to Notts, represent the division’s great unknown given they start on minus 48 points as part of their punishment but have a team, albeit without the departed Borthwick and Stoneman, that finished fourth in Division One last year.
Gillespie added: “Everyone thought it was a pretty harsh penalty but it is what it is now. In my time in county cricket they have always been the one side where you know you are heading into a scrap when you play them – some of our greatest battles at Yorkshire were against them – and this punishment will give an already tight-knit squad even greater motivation. I can see them giving it a bloody good go.”