THERE is a theory that Worcestershire's prospects would rise with every week that Graeme Hick is exiled from Test cricket. The benefits are obvious. Hick and Tom Moody are two of the most destructive and consistent batsmen in the county game and if they were to be in harness for a full summer, very few sides would relish a visit to New Road.
In particular, the speed of their scoring in the championship would give the bowling attack more time to take 20 wickets in a match.
A tempting thought, maybe, but one which has to be balanced with other factors. For this year, Hick would have the incentive to complete 100 first-class centuries (he requires 10 more), but to isolate him in the county game for a longer period would remove some of the purpose in his cricketing life.
David Houghton, a fellow-Zimbabwean and the county coach at New Road, is one who believes that it would be a waste if Hick were to be cast off to potter along to a benefit. Even from Worcestershire's point of view, he requires the stimulus of the international arena, or at least the incentive of playing for a recall.
``I am hoping very much that he will get into the England side this summer,'' Houghton says. ``He is a Test cricketer and he needs that stage. The ideal situation would be for us to see the best of him in the early weeks of the season - and then he goes off to play for England.''
Coincidentally, it was during a pre-season visit to Zimbabwe where he might have toured with England - that Hick resumed after taking a winter off for the first time in seven years.
Waiting for him in his homeland was Houghton, now repatriated to Worcestershire after coaching and playing for Zimbabwe in two Tests against England and in what proved to be an embarrassing one-day series for Michael Atherton's side.
Of those events, Houghton dead-batted the obvious questions. ``England are a better side than we saw here,'' he countered. ``My personal view is that they came here expecting a warm-up for New Zealand and found it a lot tougher than they expected.''
Digging deeper into the diplomatic bag, he continued: ``If they play to their potential they can give the Australians a good battle this summer. I'm not going to say they will win because I'm sitting here at home watching the Aussies playing some good cricket in South Africa.''
Home is a luxury plot in Harare, with swimming pool and tennis court for the leisure hours, but when it comes to cricket, he is strong on the work ethic. Worcestershire's players reported to a camp at Turk Mine for five days' fitness training prior to defeating Matabeleland in a first-class fixture. The emphasis then switched to one-day games.
``Got to be ready for the B & H Cup,'' Houghton insisted. ``Every year I've been at the club we have made a bad start, but this time we must have a good first month.''
Moody missed the tour because of Sheffield Shield commitments with Western Australia and Reuben Spiring stayed home after after a knee operation. Otherwise, the batting was much as expected: Tim Curtis, Phil Weston, Hick, David Leatherdale, Gavin Haynes and the fast-maturing Vikram Solanki.
Wicketkeeper Steve Rhodes, himself a batsman in the 1,000-runs-a-season category, captained a side showing changes, and for the better, in the bowling department.
All-rounder Haynes is back after missing all of last season with a knee injury, Bobby Chapman has arrived from Nottinghamshire and, most signnificantly, Phil Newport will want much more than his quota of five championship appearances last summer.
If Newport, now 34, can hold together form and fitness, there would be a good blend in an attack with the experience of Stuart Lampitt and Richard Illingworth and the continued development of Alamgir Sheriyar, the left-arm fast bowler.
There were times last season when Sheriyar was erratic and costly, but when everything fell into place, he was a matchwinner in three of the most emphatic victories. ``He was a good signing,'' Houghton says, ``and now we're looking for him to have a strong second season.''
Bearing in mind the extent of their injuries, it was an achievement for Worcestershire to maintain a sliding-scale improvement in the championship: 15th in 1994, 10th in 1995 and up to seventh last season.
This owed much to the influence of Moody as captain and batsman and, in addition, his bowling last year when one-day economy translated into championship wickets. Late in the season, he took 21 in three games, including a career-best match return of 13 for 159 against Gloucestershire.
Houghton is distinctly upbeat. ``We have 14 or 15 first-class players for 11 places. The team will be moulded in the first six weeks or so and I'm quite optimistic.''