By Matt Layton
Where? Edgbaston, Birmingham
Ins: Jeetan Patel (NZ - full season), Colin De Grandhomme (NZ - T20), Will Rhodes (Yorkshire)
Outs: William Porterfield (Released), Ateeq Javid (Leicestershire)
Last Season: Championship 8th (relegated), RLODC (9th in group), T20: runners-up
2018 odds: County Championship promotion: 5/1, RLODC: 10/1, T20: N/A - Odds powered by oddschecker.com
It has been a turbulent 12 months at Edgbaston with the county suffering their 1st relegation out of Division One since 2007 under the leadership of controversial figure Mark Greatbatch. There are a number of similarities between the relegation season of 10 years previously and the Bears recent campaign where they dropped out of Division One with an incredibly poor 86 points (with 1 win) and a full 60 points behind Middlesex who unexpectedly got sucked into Division Two during the last game of the 2017 season. In 2007, Warwickshire were relegated by 14 points and although that doesn’t quite seem as bad as 2017, the turbulent leadership of Greatbatch behind the scenes was clear to see. Zimbabwean international seamer Heath Streak relinquished the captaincy after one game of that season and was replaced by Darren Maddy for the remainder. Postseason there was a restructure in coaching staff, notably the employment of Dougie Brown and Allan Donald – both former and successful Edgbaston favourites who were installed to develop the talent line of young hungry local players and enhance the qualities of the established pros within the dressing room. Ian Bell who had subsequently taken over the captaincy from Varun Chopra in 2015 who cited poor batting form when passing the reigns to Bell followed the trend by resigning the role during 2017. Jonathon Trott (maybe reluctantly) took the leadership of the team for the remainder of the season. It was an obvious and safe move at the time to try and bring some stability to their cricket.
Changing of the Guard
The winter has also seen a management reshuffle with established and well-respected backroom staff being moved on including Strength and Conditioning coach Chris Armstrong and Alan Richardson as bowling coach. They were replaced by, again, former Warwickshire man Graeme Welsh (returning for a 2nd spell as bowling coach) and Ian Westwood returning after immediate retirement early in 2017 as batting coach to support Tony Frost and the head coach Jim Troughton.
There is one common denominator that remains between 2007 and 2017 and that is Ashley Giles. Like in 2007 ‘Gilo’ answered an SOS call to be appointed to a new role of Director of Cricket and although his role has changed in wording to ‘Sporting Director’ Ashley is again very much at the helm and taking charge of rebuilding and re-establishing Warwickshire as a superpower of county cricket. The appointment of so many former Bears to guide the fortunes of the club can be viewed in 2 ways. 1: These highly qualified former teammates trust, check and challenge each other and work exceptionally well in partnership. They understand the operations of the whole club inside out and have a deep desire and passion to bring success to back to THEIR club. or 2: The management staff is too cosy, does not challenge each other which brings apathy and a culture of mediocre acceptance. All members hope the former is true and judging by the interviews and comments coming out of Edgbaston since ‘Gilo’s’ reappointment there seems to be a clear plan and structure to the development of the playing squad and direction of their cricket ‘brand’, which is the popular phrase used these days.
What Has Gone Wrong?
Even during the major successes of recent times, winning the Championship in 2012 and more recently in one day cricket, winning the T20 Cup in 2014 and One Day Cup in 2016 there was a feeling amongst members that well-established players were all performing at their peak at the same time and that some had too much negative controlling influence. Standards were allowed to slowly slip meaning results started to become inconsistent. Although these alarm bells had been loudly ringing for some time, this was not addressed. Giles must now take control yet again. Will it bring immediate returns like in 2007?
There is now a clear focus on youth. Not since Ian Bell, Chris Woakes, Ian Westwood and a little more recently Ateeq Javid has a young player developed through the Academy system to establish themselves as a first-team regular. This is a desperately poor record for a TMG County who’s catchment area covers England’s 2nd city. To date, apart from Moeen Ali’s elevation and very early departure to neighbours Worcestershire to seek 1st team cricket, the Bears have failed to capitalise on the talent of young inner-city cricketers.
There are seeds of optimism, however. Sunny Singh is developing and became the 1st player nurtured through the ECB Chance to Shine programme in the country to make a first-team debut and carries the hopes of the clubs’ Asian support. Ed Pollock and Aaron Thomason burst onto the scene during T20. Andrew Umeed showed signs of gritty promise. A day-night 113 off 392 balls demonstrated he has the application to open the batting in 4-day cricket. England U19 International trio George Panayi, Liam Banks and Henry Brookes have broken into the first team and the average age of the playing squad has been reduced further with the signings of Dominic Sibley (22) Adam Hose (25) Will Rhodes (23) from Surrey, Somerset and Yorkshire respectively. Although this may bring with it less experience, it is hoped the level of athleticism in the field and application on and off the pitch will be enhanced. The club has high hopes for middle-order batsman Matt Lamb in 4-day cricket, having semi-established himself for 7 games at number 5 during 2017 he will, however, need to improve his shot selection in order to improve his current average of 23. It is also another huge season in 4-day cricket for Sam Hain. One of the best one-day openers in the country averaging 61 with 5 hundreds and 7 fifties from 26 games in 50 over cricket and 829 runs in 29 games in T20, it is a mystery to all at Edgbaston as to why he cannot transform this form into 4-day cricket. He seems to have the technique (a carbon copy for Jonathon Trott) but averages just 31 from 47 matches and without a hundred all last season only contributing a small handful of scores above 30. It is hoped that Oli Stone is fully fit after his serious knee injury which kept him sidelined for nearly all of last season can stay fit and spearhead the pace attack in all forms. If he does, expect International recognition with the youngster sure to be on the England Lions radar.
It is also a huge season for a number of senior pros in 4-day cricket. Jeetan Patel the new First-class skipper will have to set the tone for his young talents (and his captaincy heir Dom Sibley). He will have to draw upon all the years of outstanding service his have given Warwickshire to maintain his own level of performance whilst taking responsibility for the team. With the bat, Ian Bell without a hundred last season for the first time in his career surely must fill his boots in the second tier. Jonathon Trott, the same. These two are crucial to stabilising the top 6 in order to allow the younger players like Umeed, Lamb, Banks, Alex Thompson and Pollock to establish themselves. Dom Sibley will open the batting and should score runs and Adam Hose could be a surprise signing at 5 or 6. Tim Ambrose found form towards the end of last season must score more consistent runs. Normally playing 5 bowlers Ambrose needs to take more responsibility at the crease. The Surrey bound Rikki Clarke leaves a large, deep all-rounder hole at 7. Will Rhodes will fill that void and having played within Championship winning squads at Yorkshire, he comes with pedigree and expectation. Amongst the seamers expect the ever-reliable Keith Barker to swing his way to 50+ wickets. In addition as one of only one of 2 players to average more than 30 last season (Trott the other) the all-rounder will again be crucial to Warwickshire’s hopes of promotion. He is in the last year of his contract and needs a big season after slightly disappointing last year with the ball. Ryan Sidebottom was THE shining light after being signed from Birmingham League cricket mid-season and took 24 wickets @ 25 last year. It is also big seasons for experienced seamers Chris Wright and Boyd Rankin who will hope to rekindle their performances of recent past.
In T20 cricket expect Warwickshire (Birmingham Bears I think they are called!) to again be in and around the knockout stages. Experienced T20 specialist Grant Elliot will again captain and big hitting Colin De Grandhomme will fly in to hit the ball into the city centre. Ed Pollock will set the tone at the top of the order and has developed a growing reputation as a one-day hitter. Expect pace off the ball with Jeetan Patel and Josh Poysden providing double spin and a battery of medium pace seamers bowling offer cutters and all types of slower balls. Adam Hose will provide the middle order fireworks to complement the classical top order play of Bell, Trott, Sibley and Hain. The lure of another finals day at their home ground seems to inspire the Bears in T20 cricket.
One Day Cup
50 over cricket may become 3rd on the list of priorities this season behind the Championship promotion hunt and the glitz and glamour of T20. A number of young players will be given a run in the team meaning inconsistency may be present in this form of the game. The Bears will be competitive however if they do not start well and look unlikely to challenge for quarterfinals expect players to be rested for Championship and T20.
Like in 2007 county members will be hoping (and expecting) to gain immediate promotion back to Division One. But with a competition second tier this year, it will be a tall order. Middlesex and Sussex will lead the race for the top spots and I expect those two to take the honours. 20 wickets from the likes of Barker, Patel et al, should be achievable but 1st innings runs which had served Warwickshire so well in recent years, but were so desperately lacking last season could prove to be the defining factor.
In T20, Birmingham Bears will hope to make finals day yet again and the Chief Executive will certainly demand it. With a squad now packed full of dynamic one day cricketers, the pressure will be on to go all the way in the Blast. The One Day Cup will be a physical and psychological challenge during May and June. Not losing sight of the clubs apparent Championship priorities during the mid-summer glut of white ball cricket could be key come September.
Where I think they will finish:
County Championship: 3rd
One Day Cup: 5th (North Group)
T20: Semi Final
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