A gelid December morning at Old Trafford. The water vapour in my breath condenses into droplets which look like a small cloud. The Christmas trees in the Lodge are nothing but appropriate. Summer, whether the last one or the next, seem distant indeed on such days. It is not so long ago that a county cricket club was manned by a skeleton staff at this time of year. Nobody expected to see cricketers around the place
The modern club - a business, of course - is very different and nowhere is the change more noticeable at Lancashire's home than in the indoor school where the mood is purposeful, busy, intent. Healthy foods are laid out for players and coaches alike and three of the lanes are occupied. Behind the nets a weights session is taking place under the supervision of the county's strength and conditioning coach Phil Scott. Then the players are taken to do exhausting shuttle runs up the steps of one of the stands. The figure of Jack Simmons lumbers across my mind.
At the end of their final session the cricketers are steaming like racehorses on the Lambourn downs, no one more so than the permanently coltish Tom Smith, a player whose list of injuries in recent seasons rivals that of a Group One thoroughbred. Another image, that of Smith limping round the Fenners pavilion with an ice-pack strapped to his thigh, flits into my head. This morning, though, the 26-year-old all-rounder is his typically cheerful self, happy to chat and carefully optimistic about the future.
"We're doing things a little differently this winter," he said. "We've all got individual programmes and there's been a lot more skill work. Then it'll be more team-orientated in the new year. So far, I think all the lads would agree that it's been a very productive winter. My own work has focused a lot on my batting. There were a few technical issues I had to sort out, really just tinkering with a few little bits and bobs, but it's going okay at the moment.
Very high on Smith's wishlist when he lets in 2013 will be an injury-free season, although he knows that such things are not achieved by crossing one's fingers and hoping like hell. Injury was primarily responsible for restricting one of the most naturally talented cricketers on Lancashire's staff to just 20 appearances in all formats last summer, and while those outings included a 44-ball century at Worcester in the CB40, they also featured just eight successes with the ball. Getting Smith on the park from April to September is a major priority
"I must admit that the last two years have been very frustrating but we're very lucky in that we have a very good medical team here and they've put a lot of effort into getting me fit," he said. "We're now trying a couple of new things and I've got my own programme that I have to do before every day. Basically - simple as it sounds - it's a series of leg strengthening and stretching exercises, all of them specific to my hamstring, so that next season I'll be fit and strong.
"Phil Scott has come in and he's working us very hard which is good for us. My own aim is to play as a major all-rounder in all forms. I haven't really bowled much in one-day cricket over the past couple of years and that's partly down to myself because I haven't bowled that well to be honest. But it's something I want to go back to doing.
Smith is also happy to put the work in at home, although he hasn't completely ruled out a short trip abroad this winter. "A group of players are away and it's good as a youngster to go to other countries and experience different conditions," he said. "But as you get older you're happy to stay at home because you can tinker with things just as well here as you can away. We're quite happy working on our games here as we've got a good set up."
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