Shropshire captain Steve Leach insists his team must hit the ground running when they begin their Unicorns Knockout Trophy campaign this weekend.
The county face Staffordshire, runners-up in last year’s competition, in their opening group game at Shrewsbury’s London Road ground on Sunday.
Shropshire memorably won the one-day competition for Minor Counties clubs in 2010 and were then beaten in the 2013 final by Berkshire, but they have been knocked out at the group stage in the last three years.
Leach is hopeful Shropshire can perform better in the 50-over format this season and is encouraged by the number of talented young players pushing for selection.
Leach said: “In the not too distant past, we have won the competition and also been to the final again, but with the four group games it makes it very tough. Once you get out of the group, you probably feel like you can win the competition really.
“We seem to say the same thing every year, but it’s so important to get off to a good start and we’ve installed it in all of the players that we have to peak for April 23.
“That can’t be a rusty game, we can’t be brushing off the cobwebs, we need to be ready for playing Staffs at Shrewsbury.
“Within the group, we’ve got a Cheshire team that’s always very strong and have made some additions, both of last year’s finalists in holders Herefordshire and Staffordshire, while we also play Wales, so without doubt this is the strongest group out there.
“We need to make sure we’re all systems firing from the first game onwards.”
Staffordshire, again captained this season by former Worcestershire and Gloucestershire batsman Kadeer Ali, beat Shropshire by eight wickets in a group match at Leek last year when Leach’s side did not do themselves justice.
“That was one of the major disappointments from last year,” he stressed. “It seemed to be a season of extremes, big highs and big lows, and that was certainly one of the big lows.
“That Staffordshire game, once we were knocked out of the competition, was a big disappointment, but we back ourselves and we’ve got to right a few wrongs from last year.
“We’ve got to look to bat time and be disciplined with our bowling. If we make full use of the new ball and our spinners bowl tight, and we field as well as we did in our warm up game against Worcestershire’s second team, I think we’ll be in with a very good chance.”
Shropshire have retained the services of influential professionals David Wainwright and Alex Wyatt for a second season while Leach and the county’s director of cricket Karl Krikken are excited by the youngsters pushing for places.
Shrewsbury all-rounder Dillon Pennington, Wellington wicketkeeper Charlie Mackelworth and Shifnal all-rounder Charlie Home all featured in the recent warm up match against Worcestershire’s second team at Wrekin College.
“It’s very encouraging,” said opening batsman Leach. “What we’re starting to see is a conveyor belt of young talent coming through and what can easily go unnoticed when it comes to Shropshire cricket is how many people we’re putting into the first-class game.
“We have an impressive amount of players now, well over a dozen, that are affiliated with first-class counties.
“We’ll certainly be looking to hone in on some of that young talent. Myself and Krikk are very aware that six months is a very long time, and with the young lads, as I did only a few years ago, you seem to live in the indoor cricket school all winter, so it’s a long period for those guys to have improved, and I’m sure they’re good enough to get their chance now and make a big impact on our games.
“It’s very simple as if guys go away and score runs and take wickets in the Birmingham League then they put themselves in the frame and they’ll get picked.
“I was very impressed with young Charlie Mackleworth’s glove work against Worcestershire and I know that Dillon Pennington’s hot property at the moment. He seems to bowl very quickly, he’s got good skills and obviously he’s already got a Birmingham League premier division hundred so he can bat.
“Charlie Home was very consistent for Shifnal last year, certainly with the ball, and then later in the season, when he got his chance with the bat, he did very well. He’s got a second team hundred for Northants so these are all young lads pushing for a chance to play. It’s exciting times for the future.”
The first ball will be bowled at Shrewsbury at 11am on Sunday and admission is free.
Pictured: Shropshire’s director of cricket Karl Krikken and captain Steve Leach are all set for the new season this weekend.