Despite winning the Royal London One Day Cup, Warwickshire’s overall season in 2016 was disappointing. Sixth place in the Championship and failure to get beyond the group stages of the NatWest T20 Blast represented enough of an underachievement for Director of Cricket Dougie Brown to lose his job.
Brown departed after 27 years at Edgbaston. He has been replaced by the combination of Ashley Giles as Sport Director and Jim Troughton as First Team Coach.
The key issue for the new coaching pairing is what might be termed the hole in the middle.
There is a group of talented players who are in the thirty-plus age range. The two Ians, Westwood and Bell, Jonathan Trott, Tim Ambrose, Chris Wright, Rikki Clarke, William Porterfield and Keith Barker are all likely to form the core of the team and have the credentials in terms of experience and results to justify their selection.
There are several players at the other end of the age range. Batsman Sam Hain, leg spinner Josh Poysden, seamers Mark Adair and Aaron Thomason, wicket keeper-batsman Alex Mellor, left-arm spinner Sunny Singh and batsman Andy Umeed are all under 25. They look to be a useful batch of young cricketers, but whether these are men of promise remains to be seen.
We could add to the list of youngsters 23-year-old pace bowler Olly Stone, recruited from Northants. However, a cruciate ligament and cartilage injury from last year looks likely to keep him out of the game for at least the first half of the season. How soon, if at all, he can get back to full form and fitness is in the lap of the gods and the physios.
With apologies to vegans and vegetarians, where is the meat in the middle of the sandwich? Where are the players in the 26 to 29 age bracket? Well, there is, of course, Chris Woakes. But we can largely discount him for he is now IPL-bound and then is likely to star for England in all formats. So step forward Oliver Hannon-Dalby, 27 years of age. If at last he can achieve consistency in his fast-medium bowling, he may well play an important part in all formats. But he stands alone in that middle age bracket where players should be at the peak of their youthful powers.
Overseas star Jeetan Patel has played every game in every competition for the last two years and topped the PCA Most Valuable Player (MVP) rankings in 2016. But his resurgence as an international player for New Zealand this winter has been watched with mixed feelings by Warwickshire supporters. He seems almost certain to feature for New Zealand in the Champions Trophy. Maybe Singh or Poysden can step forward, though Patel will leave a massive hole to be filled.
Ins: Olly Stone (Northants), Colin de Grandhomme (New Zealand – T20 Blast), Grant Elliott (New Zealand via Kolpak – T20 Blast)
Outs: Varun Chopra (Essex), Laurie Evans (Sussex), Richard Jones (Leicestershire), Recordo Gordon (released), Luke Ronchi (Leicestershire), Matthew Wade (Australia)
All rounder Rikki Clarke enters his 16th season of first class cricket with good reason to be proud of his record of form and fitness. He has appeared in 76 of the 79 matches the club has played in the last two years. In 2016, he was in the top ten of the MVP rankings.
In addition to his fast-medium bowling and middle order batting, he remains one of the best catchers of a cricket ball that the game has ever seen. In the whole history of the County Championship, of those with at least 250 catches, Clarke has the highest ratio of catches per match.
Player to Watch
21-year-old Sunny Singh was born in India but brought up in Birmingham and is a product of the Warwickshire youth system. He impressed for the second team in 2016 and coach Jim Troughton speaks highly of his bowling in pre-season matches.
Singh may well get the opportunity to show what he can do and seems to have the ability and positive attitude needed to succeed.
Jeetan Patel will continue as the overseas player in all competitions. Now nearly 37, he surely has in him at least one more season at the top of his game.
Patel is almost certainly responsible for recommending two of his two fellow Kiwis who will be available for the T20 Blast. Colin de Grandhomme has a formidable record as a hitter of a cricket ball with a strike rate of 171.04 from his 100 T20 matches. He can also open the bowling so could be a fine acquisition. Alongside him, experienced all-rounder Grant Elliott will come into the T20 squad as a Kolpak signing.
How they will fare
This could be a transition season for the Bears. The main aims will probably be little more than survival in the Championship, where a quarter of the teams will be relegated, and a better effort in the T20 Blast.
The recruitment of Elliott and De Grandhomme for the Blast suggests that a reclaiming of the T20 title is a top priority. Whether De Grandhomme proves to be a big man in terms of results as well as in name and stature remains to be seen.
In the Championship, the top order batting was unreliable last year so much will depend on whether key batsmen such as captain Ian Bell and Sam Hain can put behind them a season of under-performance. An improvement on last year’s sixth place may realistically be the limit of the team’s objectives.
As for the Royal London One Day Cup, the club will naturally want to retain the trophy. But in all truth, they would probably exchange a win in this competition for T20 success. So it may be in the 50 over competition that some of the young players will get their best chance to shine.
v Surrey, 7 April at the Oval
LV County Championship Division One: 11/2
Royal London One-Day Cup: 8/1
NatWest T20 Blast: 12/1