Yorkshire opener Alex Lees says his Yorkshire teammates are confident ahead of the 2017 season and determined to send Ryan Sidebottom into retirement with another Championship title.
The White Rose County, back-to-back Championship winners in 2015 and 2016, were deposed by Middlesex in a thrilling Lord’s finale at the end of last summer. But left-hander Lees, who will turn 24 at the start of the 2017 campaign, believes the Yorkshire squad have what it takes to bounce back.
“We were so close last year,” Lees said. “But if we’re honest we didn’t play the best cricket over the course of the season. We’ve still got a strong belief within the squad that we have the team to win it and the depth to be pushing for the title.
“Middlesex were deserved winners last year, but I think we can put things right and give them a run for their money,” he continued.
“With Middlesex winning it last year it takes the edge off us, whereas the last few years we’ve been the team to beat and the team that others wanted to knock off our perch. Teams might now have an eye on Middlesex and that will give us that little bit we need to sneak up behind teams and get the wins we need.
“Middlesex have got a settled squad with no massive international call-ups, so they’ll be up their challenging again and hopefully we can get the better of them.”
Often side’s take motivation from off-field events, and Lees cites Ryan Sidebottom’s announcement that the 2017 season will be the last season of an illustrious 21-year county career as a focus to send him into retirement in style.
“Any sort of silverware would make for a successful season and it would be great if we could send Siddy out with another Championship,” Lees said. “We’ll be doing our very best to try and do that.”
Lees has been racking up the air miles this winter. He returned on Thursday after two months in New Zealand where he played for the Bay of Plenty side and trained with the Northern Districts state squad. He wrote his name into the Bay of Plenty record books with 223 on debut in a Hawke Cup match, their highest individual score.
He is now packing his bags again to head off to Dubai on Yorkshire’s pre-season tour, which will also see him play for the MCC in the Emirates T20 and Champion County curtain-raiser against Middlesex.
"Other than the international cricket that they have over there in the UAE this is a great chance to watch some real quality cricket."
The Emirates T20 has happy memories for Lees, who lifted the trophy for the last two years when Yorkshire’s one-day captain. If MCC win it this time, Lees will have to stand back and allow MCC skipper Sam Northeast to take the glory.
“I’ll be happy for Sam to go up and get it,” he said before responding to suggestions that if he wins the competition three years running he might get to keep the silverware.
“I’m not sure I’d look forward to that. It would be quite hard to get the trophy through customs. They can keep it safely locked away somewhere,” he laughed. “We obviously have lots of pre-season nets and scenarios, but we go out there to get outside and play games. For the last two years it’s stood us in good stead for the season. Obviously I’m playing for the MCC this year so it will be slightly different and I’m looking forward to it.
“If people can get down and watch the Emirates T20 they have some great facilities, some of the best international Twenty20 players around will be playing and county cricketers who are ready and raring to go. It’s a great family day out where you see some really good cricket in the sun. Other than the international cricket that they have over there in the UAE this is a great chance to watch some real quality cricket.”
If Lees’ Emirates T20 Midas touch is to continue across the two-day event, played at the ICC Cricket Academy in Dubai on 23 and 24 March, it will be with a talented group of young players assembled under the MCC banner.
“There are eleven players in the squad so there’s no waiting around seeing if you are going to get a game or not. Obviously it’s in the interests of the MCC to take players away from their county preseasons and play them and help get them ready for the summer.
“It’s a young team that will have a ‘won’t die wondering’ mentality which will probably enable us to play our best cricket,” Lees added.
“I’m looking forward to meeting new people and to see what their characters are like. I’ve played against all of those players. It’s a handy batting line-up with a lot of depth and hopefully we can get a few decent scores, hit a few boundaries and perform well.
“We’ll want to win a couple of games so we can play another Twenty20 match in the final,” Lees suggested. “You’d like three games rather than two, so hopefully we can win. It is quite tough for the MCC playing against other sides that have already got team cohesion and been training with each other all winter, but we’ve got some good players in that team so hopefully we can perform well.”
“I’m excited and can’t wait to get out to Dubai and continue the momentum I built up in New Zealand. I played a couple of league games out in New Zealand and then I got a few runs for Bay of Plenty,” he said modestly as he referred to his double century. “I feel in pretty good touch and runs out in the middle is good no matter where you are.
Lees has regularly been touted as a future England Test opener. 2017 is a big year for him and he’s set himself high standards.
“For any cricketer it’s an ambition to play for your country, but you can’t look too far ahead,” he admitted. “If you play well for your county team then ultimately you might be afforded an opportunity for your national team.
“First and foremost is to have a good year for Yorkshire. Not just a good year, I need an exceptional year to get myself in the England frame. I’ll be focusing all of my attention on playing well for Yorkshire and we’ll see where that takes me.
“If you’d said this time last year that Keaton Jennings would be opening for England they might have laughed at you, with all respect to Keaton. But he’s gone away and worked his game out and turned himself into a brilliant player. You’re only ever one season away and he had an exceptional season last year.
“For me, I’ve had good years, but I’ve not had an exceptional season. That’s hopefully something I can do over the next few years and with a little bit of luck and hard work you never know where that may take you.”