For Warwickshire, fifth place in the County Championship in 2015 was their worst result in five years. On 21 July, they stood in second place, ready to challenge leaders and eventual champions Yorkshire. Instead, the Bears failed to win another Championship game and suffered some heavy defeats. The strength of the lower middle order batting could no longer compensate for the frailties of the top order, where Varun Chopra and Jonathan Trott had indifferent seasons and William Porterfield faded out of contention as a four-day player.
The pace bowling remained strong with Boyd Rankin, Rikki Clarke and Keith Barker all exceeding 40 wickets. Even better, overseas spinner Jeetan Patel claimed 58 wickets and continued to be the rock around which the rest of the team built their efforts.
In the NatWest T20 Blast, the Birmingham Bears sailed effortlessly into Finals Day but then, on their home ground, slumped to 14-4 after less than four overs of their semi-final against Northants. End of story. Porterfield and Ateeq Javid made good contributions to the T20 campaign, and Brendan McCullum plundered 158 not out off only 64 balls against Derbyshire.
The Royal London One Day Cup added to the grim second half of the season for the Bears. Although it was the one competition where Chopra did justice to his batting talents, three wins from eight games left them sixth out of nine in their group.
In 2016, it will be vital that the Bears don’t start where they left off last season. The squad is largely unchanged, though Brendan McCullum’s stint in Bear’s clothing didn’t last long. The biggest difference may be that Ian Bell and (possibly) Chris Woakes are likely to spend less time in the England set-up and more time playing for the Bears. Indeed, Ian Bell has taken over the captaincy from Chopra, who will now concentrate on his batting. Bell’s batting skills, as well as his leadership, should provide the boost the team needs.
As always, injuries or lack of them could make a big difference to the outcomes at the end of the season. Last year, Jeetan Patel and Rikki Clarke were ever-present in all competitions. They came third and fourth respectively in the PCA Most Valuable Players ratings. But Jeetan is rising 36 and Rikki is 34, so fans will look anxiously at whether they can stay fit and retain their edge for another long season.
For the long-term future of the club, it would be good to see more of the young second-team players pushing for a place, something that they failed to do last year, with the exception of leg-spinner Josh Poysden.
Off the field, Colin Povey has retired as Chief Executive and been replaced by Neil Snowball, who comes with excellent sporting and business credentials.
Director of Cricket Dougie Brown has shown faith in his squad by making few changes. Warwickshire are an ambitious club, so Brown will need his charges to show that the second half of last year was a mere blip. Neil Snowball has said that he wants the team to win at least one trophy a year for the next five years, so the bar has been set high for Dougie and his men.
Ins: Alex Mellor (Staffordshire)
Outs: Tom Milnes (Derbyshire), Tom Lewis, Pete McKay (both released)
Key player this season could well be Rikki Clarke. In his time with the Bears, he has matured as a player and as a person. He bowls intelligently at a still lively pace in all forms of the game; and with the bat, he is highly dangerous in the middle order. Clarke has a wide range of shots and has become much more selective in choosing the right one for the situation.
As a catcher of a cricket ball, he holds a remarkable record. Of all those who have ever played in the County Championship and who have taken at least 250 catches, Rikki has taken the most (1.529 to be precise) per match.
Had he reached his cricketing maturity just a few years earlier, he could have become a key figure for England. As it is, the Bears are undoubtedly seeing the best of him.
Player to Watch
Such was the impact made by Sam Hain when he burst on the scene aged only 18 in 2014 that last year’s efforts – two hundreds, three fifties in 17 knocks with an average in the mid-thirties – were seen as a disappointment. In truth, he was hampered by a shoulder injury that kept him out for a month. Now refreshed and recovered, after a non-cricketing winter back in Queensland, he is raring to go. He should score heavily in four-day cricket and is keen to make his mark in the shorter forms. And, as the selectors are no doubt aware, he qualifies for England later this year.
New Zealander Jeetan Patel returns to Edgbaston for his seventh season. He has taken 183 wickets in all competitions in the last two seasons and must now be reckoned just about the most successful, and popular, of all the Bears’ overseas stars.
Dougie Brown has teased that another overseas player may join for the T20 tournament, but there has been no announcement so far. Brown has made it clear that he will only sign someone who adds something different to the squad. The Birmingham Bears have plenty of imaginative stroke players, but maybe what they need is a top-class hitter in the McCullum/Gayle/Brathwaite mould. Can Dougie find the right man?
How they will fare
There is no shortage of teams with hopes of lifting the County Championship but for sure Warwickshire will hope to be in the mix at the end of the season. As for the one-day competitions, the Birmingham Bears must have realistic hopes of making it a hat trick of finals appearances. In the Royal London One Day Cup, anything will be better than last year’s lacklustre performance.
Overall, the team should do well in all competitions but may just miss out on a trophy.
v Hampshire, Sunday April 10th at the Ageas Bowl
Specsavers County Championship: 6/1
NatWest T20 Blast: 11/1
Royal London One Day Cup: 12/1