Shropshire will give debuts to three players including former Worcestershire paceman Chris Russell when they begin their Unicorns Knockout Trophy campaign against Staffordshire at Shrewsbury’s London Road on Sunday.
Youth will also be given a chance to shine with teenagers Dillon Pennington, the Shrewsbury all-rounder, and Walmley wicketkeeper George Hargrave both introduced to a side which also features fellow teenager Charlie Home, the Shifnal all-rounder. The promising trio have all represented Shropshire through the junior age groups.
Right-arm seamer Russell, 28, played 18 first-class matches for Worcestershire and made a further 22 appearances in one-day and Twenty20 games before leaving New Road at the end of last season.
Shropshire captain Steve Leach stressed Russell is an exciting addition to the county squad on the eve of the new season.
Leach said: “Chris is a very skilful bowler with very good one-day skills, certainly at the end of the innings, and he has got a yard of pace. He’s somebody who can bowl genuinely quick.
“It’s a signing that will raise a few eyebrows I’ve no doubt with Minor Counties teams around the country. They’ll look at that and think they won’t want to be facing him. He’ll be the perfect foil for having Alex Wyatt at the other end.
“Chris will also add a lot to the changing room and behind the scenes. He’s got a lot of experience in that professional environment and hopefully he’ll bring that element of professionalism.”
Leach added Russell has just returned from a productive six-month spell playing in Cape Town in which he took more than 50 wickets.
Sunday’s side features a blend of youth and experience, with the selectors excited by the potential of youngsters Home, Hargrave and Pennington.
There is also a return for opening batsman Ollie Westbury, who struck 196 on his England under-19 debut last season. Westbury, who plays his club cricket for Shrewsbury and signed his first professional contract for Worcestershire last year, featured for Shropshire in the Unicorns Knockout Trophy last season.
Leach insists his team must hit the ground running against Staffordshire, runners-up in last year’s competition.
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 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.
“It’s very encouraging,” said 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.”
The first ball will be bowled at Shrewsbury at 11am on Sunday and admission is free.
Shropshire: Steve Leach (Shifnal, captain), Ollie Westbury (Shrewsbury), Will Parton (Shrewsbury), Charlie Home (Shifnal), David Wainwright (Castleford), Jack McIver (Shifnal), Ross Aucott (Shifnal), Dillon Pennington (Shrewsbury), George Hargrave (Walmley), Chris Russell (Wolverhampton), Alex Wyatt (Shifnal). 12th man: Ryan Lockley (Bridgnorth).
Pictured: Shropshire’s director of cricket Karl Krikken and captain Steve Leach are looking forward to Sunday’s opening match of the season against Staffordshire at Shrewsbury’s London Road.