(Photo: Getty Images)
By Paul Edwards
In the 16 seasons from 2002 to 2017, Warwickshire won two County Championships and four limited-overs trophies. They spent just one of those seasons outside the First Division – a record no other county can match.
Then last year the Bears won one of their 14 Championship matches and finished bottom of the table, 60 points behind the other relegated side, Middlesex. It was a grisly way in which to end a rather glorious era.
To their credit, the Edgbaston coaches did not attempt to gloss over their county’s deficiencies. When he was appointed Director of Sport in the winter of 2016-17, Ashley Giles knew that he and first-team coach Jim Troughton had a major job on their hands. Winning the Royal London One-Day Cup the previous season had merely applied a large sticking plaster to a body needing major surgery.
“Without question relegation was disappointing but while it wasn’t inevitable, we did feel that we’d been on the slide for a couple of years,” said Giles. “We weren’t able to arrest that slide last season.”
Just so, and it was indicative of Warwickshire’s situation that recruitment began in mid-season. Adam Hose arrived from Somerset and Rikki Clarke was swapped with Surrey’s Dominic Sibley. One or two other experienced cricketers, including the former skipper, Ian Westwood, announced their retirements, although Westwood has recently returned to Edgbaston as a coach.
And while it was nothing like enough to prevent relegation, it was at least encouraging that a Bears side containing exciting young cricketers like Aaron Thomason reached the final of the T20 Blast.
“There were bright shoots last year, most notably getting to the final of the T20, and disappointing as the rest was, we could have snuck another competition there,” said Giles. “We played some very good cricket in the second half of that competition. We recruited well and played a very positive and modern brand of cricket. That is something we have to continue.”
Many of Warwickshire’s players have spent this winter abroad. Others will very soon be using the giant tent which has been erected over one of the net wickets at Edgbaston. But whatever work they have done, all Giles’s players will rock up in a few weeks and receive the same message, the same call to arms.
“We aren’t the side we were a few years ago and we all have to work harder,” said Giles. “We have the experience and the quality in all departments but it takes a lot of hard work as well. The coaches’ job is to get more out of the players and my job is to get more out of the coaches and the players in turn. All of us have a responsibility to create the right environment and culture.
“I guess we’re challenging people this winter and saying to them: how good do you want to be as individuals and as a team? We’ve had about half the squad abroad playing cricket but they’ll all be back in town come the first week in March. We can then sit down and assess what we want out of this season and how we want to play our cricket.
“There have been some changes to our management team as well and I think we’re just starting to bed in and get the right work ethic in place.”
Giles’s goals are all very laudable but he probably knows very well that he will be judged on whether Warwick-shire win promotion this season. The same applies at Middlesex, of course. Yet one imagines that Northampton-shire, Sussex and Kent will mount a decent challenge – and four other counties might view their omission from that list as an early team talk.
“Everyone wants us to jump back into Division One and that’s fantastic and it has to be a goal. But as well as seeing an improvement in how we play our red-ball cricket, I really want us to work more effectively as a team, ” said Giles. “The most important thing for me is that we recognise that we’re playing for Warwickshire and we’re playing for the Bear. That is our identity and represents something bigger than any individual.
“Division Two isn’t an easy division and we haven’t been there for a while. We’ll have different grounds, different facilities and we have to understand that cricket can be tough in Division Two. We will have to work incredibly hard together to be successful.”
Perhaps it is as well, therefore, that Warwickshire will be led in 2018 by Jeetan Patel, one of the most formidable competitors in the English game. Patel’s comments about last season are probably unprintable but his desire to put things right at Edgbaston can be taken for granted.
“Jeetan plays with his heart on his sleeve and we have one of the best overseas players there’s ever been in the English game,” said Giles. “But it’s important everyone backs him up. For example, we have to get more out of Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott and our other senior players. They can still offer a huge amount to our team before they finish playing, whenever that might be, and that includes bringing more trophies to Edgbaston. In addition, we also have a number of very promising young players pushing for regular places in the first team.”
Another of Patel’s responsibilities will be to encourage left-arm spinner Sukhjit ‘Sunny’ Singh – the first county cricketer to emerge from the Chance to Shine programme. Singh is one of a number of Bears on one-year contracts, although Giles is at pains to stress that doesn’t suggest a Damocletian sword is hanging over anyone. It simply means Warwickshire are planning carefully and hoping to avoid recent traumas.
“I remember Glen Chapple telling me he was on a one-year contract for five years in a row and that was when he was the best bowler in the country,” Giles said. “A one-year contract is an opportunity for a player to show us what he’s got – in performance and desire.
“We’ve gone through a period in which we have had a certain amount of conflict with the players. We’ve pushed and poked, made some difficult decisions and challenged them across all areas, but only because we want them to be as good as they can be.
“Ultimately, we all want the same thing: to be the best team in the country again. We have had an incredibly tough 12 months and we really don’t want to go through that again.”