Last season, Warwickshire, thinly disguised as the Birmingham Bears, won the NatWest T20 Blast. That accomplishment, alongside taking second place in both the LV= County Championship and the Royal London One-Day Cup, could give them a claim to be the team of the season in 2014.
Director of Cricket Dougie Brown’s confidence in his squad is reflected in the absence of comings and goings during the close season. The only signing – and it’s a major one – is the recruitment of Brendon McCullum for the T20 Blast.
A big unknown for the Bears is international calls. If Jonathan Trott is able to resurrect his Test career, then the feeling among all Bears fans will be one of delight, but the team will miss his runs. Chris Woakes (currently injured) is now on a central contract; and it remains to be seen whether or not his and Ian Bell’s international futures have been damaged by having been part of the England World Cup debacle. As usual, William Porterfield will leave the Bears from time to time in order to continue his excellent captaincy of Ireland as they seek a place at the cricketing top table.
2015 will be a key season for several players. Can Anglo-Australian prodigy Sam Hain match or surpass his debut season’s performances in the Championship and maybe begin to make a similar impact in the shorter forms? Will we see the Laurie Evans who was man-of-the-match in the T20 final or the Laurie who struggled for most of the 2014 season and averaged a little over 10 in the Championship? Will Chris Wright and Boyd Rankin be formidable spearheads or suffer from the recurring injuries that have dogged their recent careers?
Answers to those questions will help to determine whether the Bears can maintain their challenge for trophies in all competitions.
Ins: Brendon McCullum (New Zealand, for the T20 Blast)
Outs: Jim Troughton (retired and now on coaching staff); Shoaib Malik (not re-signed)
There is quite a weight of expectation resting on the shoulders of new Warwickshire captain Varun Chopra. As an opening batsman, he was outstanding in all competitions last year, compiling almost 1800 runs. He also deputised for the injured Troughton as captain with impressive calmness under pressure, not least during the thrilling final over of the T20 final.
Chopra also retains international ambitions that are surely realistic if he can continue to score steadily and heavily. A popular character at Edgbaston, there is no doubt that he will have the full support of the squad as he copes with the pressure of balancing his priorities.
Player to watch
Ateeq Javid is a young player whose career is at a key stage. Aged 24, he has come up through the junior ranks at Edgbaston. He made his mark two years ago with some accomplished innings in four-day cricket. Along with Laurie Evans, he lost his place in the four-day side last year but became a key figure in the one-day set-up, not just as a lower order hitter but also as an effective off-spin bowler. His dismissal of Kevin Pietersen – caught and bowled – was a key moment in the T20 semi-final. “He hit the ball back at me so hard my hands hurt,” he recalls. “And KP was grumpy!”
In his transition to an all-rounder, Ateeq owes much to Jeetan Patel who has been his bowling mentor. This year, Ateeq looks to establish himself fully in all forms of the game with both bat and ball. His motivation is strong. From a disadvantaged inner-city background, he says that cricket has given him an escape that contrasts with so many of his contemporaries who found themselves on a path that involved drugs and crime. He freely acknowledges the debt he owes to cricket and to Warwickshire. 2015 could just be the year when he repays that debt with match-winning performances.
Jeetan Patel is more a Bear than a Kiwi these days and returns as the main overseas player. Last year, he was an ever-present in all competitions. He took 107 wickets and won the coveted Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. Recognition as one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year is being proclaimed by everyone at Edgbaston as a totally deserved honour. Chris Woakes told Deep Extra Cover: “He’s a great guy and a great cricketer. As a friend, it’s fantastic to see.”
When you factor in that Jeetan is a total team man both on and off the pitch, it makes him an almost irreplaceable asset. Bears fans will not even want to contemplate the possibility that he might get injured.
Fellow New Zealander Brendon McCullum will have a much briefer stay, playing in most of the T20 Blast games. But his reputation is such that expectations are high that he will have a massive influence both on results and crowd numbers. The hope expressed by Club Chairman Norman Gascoigne last year was that the presence of Shoaib Malik in the T20 line-up would engage local cricket-lovers of Pakistani origin and boost crowds to between 10,000 and 15,000 for home games. That didn’t really come off, despite the Bears’ success in the competition. McCullum’s appeal is likely to be broader, attracting cricket lovers generally, especially those who like to see dynamic hitting.
How they’ll fare
There’s no doubt that, with a high quality squad, Warwickshire go into 2015 full of hopes that they can challenge in all competitions. At the same time, Director of Cricket Dougie Brown recognises that nothing is guaranteed. The team only just scraped through the qualifying stages of the T20 Blast last year. Although second place in the Championship was a great effort, Yorkshire were the stand-out team in the four-day game and inflicted two defeats on the Bears. “We lost twice by an innings to Yorkshire,” says Dougie, “which tells you a bit about where they are and where we are.”
Two of the areas on which the coaching staff have focused in the close season are fielding and power at the top of the order. “We are a steady fielding side, but there is scope for us to be better,” says Dougie. The recruitment of Jim Troughton as fielding coach can only help in this respect. As for the power hitting, the squad have worked hard on this and the addition of McCullum should make a difference.
Overall, the Bears have a well-motivated and skilled squad and can realistically expect to be highly competitive in all forms of the game.
Whether or not all of this translates into trophies for Varun Chopra and his team is where the luck of the game comes in. It was the late and much-lamented Richie Benaud who said that success as a cricket captain is 90 per cent luck and 10 per cent skill. But, said the inimitable Richie, it’s best not to attempt it without that 10 per cent.
v Hampshire, Sunday 19th April, Edgbaston
Season Odds (via SkyBet)
LV= County Championship Division One: 9/2
Royal London One-Day Cup: 12/1
NatWest Twent20 Blast: 9/1