“Crisis? What crisis?” a 1970s Prime Minister is said to have asked, as the country slipped into chaos, and there may be some involved with Warwickshire County Cricket Club saying the same. Anything is possible. After all, 16 million Americans apparently believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows.
Increasingly, however, the scale of the Bears’ failure has become impossible to ignore. Six defeats in a row, and bottom place in their group of the Royal London Cup was bad enough, especially when just last September, the club were winners of that competition.
In the Championship, the story is even worse. After just six games, four innings defeats leave the team firmly at the bottom of the table, 40 points adrift from the safety of sixth place. Relegation to the second tier seems almost inevitable.
All teams experience highs and lows, so maybe it is now simply Warwickshire’s turn to suffer. This, however, is one of the biggest clubs in the country with a team that has won all three of the county tournaments in the last five years. Such a dive into failure is hard for the team’s supporters to accept.
In truth, those in the know have seen this decline coming. Warwickshire Chief Executive Neil Snowball admitted as much when he spoke to Deep Extra Cover last month.
“Overall 2016 was a challenging season …We saw a bit more of the decline we saw in ‘15,” he said.
It was because of this decline that Director of Coaching Dougie Brown lost his job at the end of the 2016 season. Ashley Giles was tempted back to Edgbaston from Lancashire and took up the new post of Sports Director, with Jim Troughton taking over as first team coach.
Growing old together
At the heart of Warwickshire’s problems is the fact that they have an ageing team. Eight or more over-thirties have appeared regularly in all formats. Many of these have proud records of achievement both for the Bears and at international level.
Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott lead the way. Wicket keeper batsman Tim Ambrose, too, never let England down in his brief international career.
New Zealander Jeetan Patel was one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year for 2015 and has been probably the most successful overseas player in English cricket in the last five years.
Rikki Clarke has found his true home at Edgbaston after a troubled early career. He has constantly delivered runs and wickets in all formats as well as catching everything remotely in reach.
And so we could go on.
There is Keith Barker, a left-arm seamer and often an effective batsman who could conceivably have played for either England or West Indies; Boyd Rankin, a bowler of real pace with international experience, both with England and Ireland and; William Porterfield, a highly effective one-day player possibly now on the brink of becoming a Test match captain.
Then there are those such as Ian Westwood and Chris Wright, who never had any international pretensions but have often delivered match-winning performances at county level.
Such a formidable group of players demands respect. But the truth is that age has caught up with them, as it does with all sportsmen sooner or later.
Trott is still scoring steadily, but Bell has struggled to combine captaincy with making runs. In the Championship, Ambrose, Porterfield and Clarke all have batting averages well under 30 whilst Clarke, Barker and Rankin’s combined bowling average is well north of 50.
Failure to recruit
Whatever the long term gains from getting Giles back, one of the downsides was that, by the time he was in post early in 2017, opportunities for recruiting players from other counties had all but disappeared. Those with the most to offer, such as Durham’s Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick, had already been snapped up.
In any event, Warwickshire’s efforts at recruitment have not been all that successful over the last couple of years. You could pick a more than decent team from the players rumoured to be of interest to the Bears, but who have either moved elsewhere or decided to stay put.
This season, Worcestershire’s Tom Kohler-Cadmore declined to make the short trip up the M5 to Edgbaston and went instead to Yorkshire.
As for the early season rumours that Moeen Ali might return to Warwickshire in order to play top division cricket, that now seems like a sick joke as Worcestershire press for promotion whilst the Bears are likely to replace them in the second tier.
Warwickshire did sign Northants pace bowler Olly Stone in 2016. No sooner had they done so than Stone suffered a serious knee injury. He has so far not bowled a ball in anger for his new club. His debut is eagerly awaited.
The gap in the middle
At Warwickshire, there is a distinct lack of players in the 25-29 age band who should be at their peak. Chris Woakes is one, of course: a star player who is a Bear through and through. But England’s gain has been Warwickshire’s loss. The best the club can hope now is for Woakes to play a few games in between England commitments, or maybe when recuperating from injury.
Other than Woakes, the only player in that middle age range is Oliver Hannon-Dalby, an honest tryer with the ball, a non-contributor with the bat and the kind of player that captains try to hide in the field, only to find that the ball still seeks them out at crucial moments.
Gone but not forgotten
When the over-thirties held sway, the club was willing to release players such as Varun Chopra and Laurie Evans.
Chopra captained the team to the NatWest T20 Blast title in 2014 and was a reliable batsman in all formats. Laurie Evans was man of the match in the T20 Blast final, so had much to offer as a one-day performer, even if his own estimate of his abilities often ran ahead of others’ opinions.
But both have left the club in the last 12 months, Chopra in particular departing in circumstances that suggested unresolved problems of morale and team spirit beneath the surface.
Where are all the young players?
All counties hope that young players will come through their youth system and put pressure on the senior players for their places in the team.
Sadly for Warwickshire, there has been over the last few years a succession of young players who have made it to the first team but failed to establish a place. Recordo Gordon, Freddie Coleman, Jon Webb, James Ord – all gone, with no other counties waiting to snap them up.
Rays of hope
As for the present crop of young players, there is at least some hope.
Left arm spinner Sukhjit (Sunny) Singh has shown signs of promise.
Leg-spinner Josh Poysden has been starved of opportunities. Singh seems to have overtaken him in the queue to replace or support Jeetan Patel in the spin department, but Poysden is a dedicated and hard-working young man who has played for the England Lions and so is obviously well thought-of in high places.
Ateeq Javid, only 25, is another who has been given fewer opportunities than he might reasonably have expected and has still time to establish himself.
The jury is out on other young players. Andy Umeed made a century on debut last year but has struggled since; Matt Lamb, Grant Thornton, Aaron Thomason, Alex Mellor – maybe. Time will tell.
And then there is Sam Hain, the Hong Kong born, Australian educated wunderkind who burst on the scene in 2014, becoming the youngest player to score both a century and a double century for Warwickshire.
Since then, Hain’s fortunes have been mixed. A shoulder injury inhibited him for a while. Last year, he started to make a real impact in one-day cricket and in the Royal London competition this season, he averaged 65. But in the Championship, Hain averages a miserable 13 and he has developed a backlift that looks as though he is trying to poke silly point in the eye.
For his sake, and Warwickshire’s, it is to be hoped that he is not going to be one of the great unfulfilled talents of the game.
So there we have it: an ageing team, few players in their prime and a batch of youngsters struggling to make the transition.
Where do the solutions lie?
“Bring in the Kolpaks!” cry some fans. Ashley Giles is known not to be keen on this solution, but he hasn’t ruled it out. Finding players of the right calibre who are available is the problem.
“Sort out the youth system” is another call, and there is no doubt that the track record of players coming through is patchy. But, by its nature, youth systems deliver long-term results so any changes made now are unlikely to produce results for half a decade or so.
“Sack the coaches,” say others. Giles is probably safe, in that the problems started well before his return, but bowling coach Alan Richardson and batting coach Tony Frost may not be sleeping so easily. And there is, overall, a feeling that the solidarity that comes from a coaching team who all played for the Bears may have as many disadvantages as a advantages, encouraging a cosy complacency.
Fans point to the contributions made in the past by coaches brought in from the world outside Bear country. Bob Woolmer and John Inverarity, both of whom coached Warwickshire to the County Championship title a decade apart, are good examples of the value of new faces and ideas.
Maybe now that the wounds of the disastrous Mark Greatbatch experiment have healed, it is time to consider a new injection from outside.
Turning round the super-tanker
So much has gone wrong at Edgbaston that it will undoubtedly take time to put things right and get back to the days when the Bears dominated the upper echelons of the county game. All of the above solutions may be needed, as well as a large dose of patience and, in the short term, a swallowing of the bitter pill of relegation.
Neil Snowball, Ashley Giles and Jim Troughton are all characters who do not easily tolerate failure, so there can be little doubt that their efforts and talents will be applied to turning things around.
In the meantime, those who sit at the back of the Hollies Stand will no doubt be quoting, as they are wont to do, the wise words of the Roman poet Virgil:
“The descent into Hell is easy, but to retrace your steps and come out into the upper air, this is the deed, this is the labour.”
Over to you, Messrs Snowball, Giles and Troughton!