THE return of Saeed Ajmal as Worcestershire’s overseas player can soften the blow of Alan Richardson’s shock retirement, according to County skipper Daryl Mitchell.
Veteran seamer Richardson was the New Road club’s talisman during four wicket-laden seasons.
However, despite having another year to run on his contract, the 38-year-old dropped a bombshell over the winter by revealing he was retiring to take up the role of bowling coach with Warwickshire.
One of Wisden’s five cricketers of the year in 2012, Richardson claimed a superb 254 wickets in 60 matches for Worcestershire at an average of just over 22.
While that kind of contribution is nigh-on impossible to replace, Pakistan international off-spinner Saeed can shoulder a large part of the wicket-taking burden with his craft and guile.
Mitchell has backed the up-and-coming New Road youngsters to help fill the seam bowling void.
He said: “It was a disappointing blow when we found out Richo was retiring, but with Saeed coming in as our overseas player then, hopefully, he will take some of those wickets we are losing.
“With consistent performances throughout the year then, come September, we can be in with a shout of pushing for promotion.
“I think that is realistic because you can get some momentum in four-day cricket and go on a bit of a run and we will have a real match winner in our side with Saeed.
“Also, there are some good young seamers across the squad and they will need to dovetail well as the season goes on and cover the loss of Richo between them.
“Gaz (Andrew) and Shants (Jack Shantry) are the two senior bowlers now Richo has left and they are both pretty consistent performers.
“Jack had a good season last year and he can build on that, but the likes of Charlie Morris will be with us a lot more now he has finished his degree at Oxford Brookes.
“Chris Russell also bowled really nicely in pre-season and he is another who needs to step up to the plate.”
Mitchell believes his youthful side can hit the ground running, starting with tomorrow’s LV= County Championship Division Two opener at Hampshire (11am).
He added: “This is always a really exciting time of year with pre-season having ended and we’re looking forward to starting the real stuff. Abu Dhabi was a fantastic pre-season trip, a good 10 days away with a lot of hard work, plenty of hours in the nets and a lot of games played, too.
“It was good to get that cricket on board, though, and great to spend time with 17 of us away together.
“If you are in Division Two, then there’s only really one goal and that is to get out of there, so we will be trying to win promotion.
“There will be some very good sides in Division Two again this year but, if we can perform consistently, we will have a chance.
“We picked up five wins last year, which was the same as Northants who went up, so we will have to try to avoid the runs of defeats we had at times last season.
“There are no easy games in first-class cricket, the Rose Bowl is not a nice place to have to go first up, but we will enjoy it and it will be a good challenge.
“Hampshire have some good players, but we can hopefully catch them cold and get some points on the board early on.”