If you had asked Warwickshire members, supporters and players what their top priority was for the 2018 season, most would have said just one word: promotion.
And so, despite the failure to qualify for the knockout stages of either of the white ball competitions, the Bears delivered. Going back to the top flight of the Specsavers County Championship as Champions at the first time of asking was an excellent achievement.
It was clear from early in the season that the last two games, against fellow challengers Sussex and Kent, would most likely prove decisive.
By batting Sussex out of the rain-affected game at Hove, Warwickshire guaranteed their coveted promotion. Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott shared one last great stand, adding 230 runs together before Trotty went off into a well-earned retirement.
So when Kent arrived at Edgbaston, the second division title was still up for grabs.
In fact, the Bears outplayed their opponents to win by an innings and 34 runs. Openers Dom Sibley and Will Rhodes both scored hundreds; and on what turned out to be their farewell appearances, pace bowlers Keith Barker and Chris Wright took ten wickets between them. It was a thoroughly professional all round display.
Overall in the Championship, Warwickshire won nine and lost just two of their 14 games. Although Kent won one more game, the Bears claimed 41 batting points compared with Kent’s measly 16. All of their four wins in the last six games were by an innings.
Ian Bell enjoyed a triumphant resurgence as a batsman, topping 1,000 Championship runs and averaging almost 56. Trott was not far behind, with 935 runs.
Part way through the season, there were rumblings amongst supporters that, in recruiting Will Rhodes from Yorkshire and Dom Sibley from Surrey, the Bears had made a big mistake. The opening pair struggled both individually and as a partnership. By the halfway stage, their average opening stand was just 19.
Then something clicked and they became truly prolific, their partnerships thereafter averaging 96. They ended the season with over 1700 runs and eight hundreds between them.
What of the bowlers? Captain Jeetan Patel wheeled away, delivering more than 400 overs of testing off-spin and claiming 56 wickets. But the real excitement came from the genuine pace of Olly Stone (43 wickets in seven games) and Henry Brookes (21 wickets in just five games). Keith Barker, Ryan Sidebottom and Chris Wright all gave excellent support.
And let’s not forget the ever-reliable Tim Ambrose, who took 57 catches to add to his 656 runs.
The white ball season was much less successful for the Bears. They came to the last qualifying game in both the Royal London One Day Cup and the Vitality Blast, with a chance of qualifying for the knockout stages. In each competition, they came up against the same nemesis in the form of local rivals Worcestershire and, in particular, their own ex-player, Birmingham-born Moeen Ali.
In the Royal London, Moeen scored 114 off 75 balls and also took 3-40, taking his team to a one wicket victory that ensured top place in the Group and eliminated the Bears, who had to settle for fourth place. They were maybe unlucky in that they had two no-result matches; and with the same points (11) and net run rate, they would have actually topped the South Group. Tournaments are decided, however, on hard realities and so the Bears went out.
Sam Hain averaged over 100 and was well supported by Rhodes, Bell and Trott. Olly Stone and Jeetan Patel largely carried the bowling with 22 wickets between them, though Henry Brookes also made an impact.
In the Vitality Blast, Moeen did it again, this time hitting 115 off just 56 balls with 12 fours and seven sixes. To be fair other results conspired against the Bears that night, so even if they had managed to defeat the Rapids they would still have missed out on a quarterfinal place. Six wins from 14 games was a poor return for the 2017 finalists.
Yet again, Ian Bell was the star batsman with 580 runs. In support, Adam Hose and New Zealander Colin de Grandhomme all made good contributions.
The real problem for the Bears in the Blast was the bowling. Captain Grant Elliott took 19 wickets and Oliver Hannon-Dalby had 16.
But this was a season where every one of the eight teams that qualified for the quarter finals regularly picked at least one wrist spinner, who in each case proved to be a key member of the bowling attack. By contrast, the Bears always included England Lions leg-spinner Josh Poysden in their squad but, mystifyingly, only picked him four times. When he did play, along with Jeetan Patel he was the most economical bowler.
Others such as Boyd Rankin, Aaron Thomason and Will Rhodes came and went without much success, leading to the conclusion that the Bears couldn’t really identify their best T20 bowling attack.
Colin de Grandhomme was supposed to be an all-rounder but well before the end of the Group matches, Grant Elliott had obviously given up on him, the big man’s five wickets having cost almost 50 runs apiece with an economy rate of 10.86.
SSCC:Champions in Division Two
T20 Blast:Sixth in North Group
RLODC: Fourth in North Group
SSCC: Ian Bell, 1027 runs
T20 Blast: Ian Bell, 580 runs
RLODC: Sam Hain, 426 runs
SSCC: Jeetan Patel, 56 wickets
T20 Blast: Grant Elliott, 19 wickets
RLODC: Olly Stone, 12 wickets
Player of the season:
The player of the season, both for the volume of runs (over 1800 of them) and for the elegant way that he scored them, is Ian Bell.
Ironically, it seems that it was only when he gave up hope of further England honours that he started to assemble the volume of runs that must have brought him close to an international recall. Maybe, at 36, that summons won’t now come. But he for sure could not have done more to put himself back in the reckoning.
18-year-old Henry Brookes made a real impact in the first half of the season. He bowled with genuine pace and took 37 wickets across the three competitions. He also struck a couple of Championship half centuries.
Then came a major setback: he sustained a stress fracture of the back and played no more after the middle of July.
It is to be hoped, for the sake not just of the Bears but of English cricket, that he can make a full recovery because he is a stunning prospect.
Could have done better:
Birmingham-born Aaron Thomason made a big impression in the T20 Blast in 2017. This year, the 21-year-old failed to show his undoubted talent as an all-rounder. To be sure, he took some useful wickets in the Royal London competition, but in the Blast, he was a big disappointment. He averaged just six with the bat and, though he took 12 wickets, they came with an economy rate of 11.66. In addition, he may not wish to be reminded of this but he dropped an easy catch offered by a rampant Moeen Ali at a crucial stage of the final qualifying match.
He is young enough to push on past these setbacks, but there is work to be done. On the evidence of 2018, his bowling currently possesses neither the pace nor the accuracy required at the top level.
Need to work on
With various comings and goings, the make-up of the playing squad for next season is slowly emerging.
There is one issue that may be a cause of concern. In the 2011 census, 42.1 per cent of people in Birmingham classified themselves as non-white British. And yet, with the exception of New Zealander Jeetan Patel, the 2019 Bears squad could well be all white.
Of course, Birmingham is the Bears’ base but, other than in T20 cricket, the team represents the county of Warwickshire where the ethnic mix is somewhat different. And there is no compulsion for any team to mirror the make-up of the area it represents. After all, Birmingham is allegedly Britain’s most obese city; and no-one is suggesting that Andy Moles should be recalled to the Bears’ colours.
But the Club has several times in the recent past expressed the wish to appeal more to ethnic minorities within its cachement area, and an (almost) all-white team is unlikely to do that.
In addition, there is a growing catalogue of players from ethnic minorities who have left the Club. We don’t need to go back as far as the aforementioned Moeen Ali, who departed more than a decade ago. Just in the last three years Varun Chopra, Recordo Gordon and Ateeq Javid have left; and now Sunny Singh and Andy Umeed have been released, and Keith Barker has chosen to go to Hampshire.
Has there been any active discrimination? Almost certainly not – perish the thought.But the Club may want to look at the mix of the squad when, for example, considering who to bring in for the T20 Blast next year. Grant Elliott has retired and Colin de Grandhomme may or may not be invited back, so the Club has an opportunity there to address the imbalance.
As well as Barker, Singh and Umeed, Chris Wright, Josh Poysden and Boyd Rankin have also moved on: Wright to Leicestershire, Poysden to Yorkshire and Rankin to Ireland. Bowlers Liam Norwell and Craig Miles have both signed from Gloucestershire.
So the task for Ashley Giles and Jim Troughton is to find a new blend that will flourish in the higher division, as well as performing better with the white ball. Norwell and Miles have only played second division cricket so will have to make a step up.
If everyone was fit and available next season, the Bears could field a pace attack of Olly Stone, Chris Woakes, Henry Brookes and one of Ryan Sidebottom, Miles and Norwell. But Stone and Woakes may be playing for England and both are injury-prone, as are Brookes and Norwell.
So depending on factors outside the Club’s control, Giles and Troughton could either have an embarrassment of riches or find the cupboard bare.
As for the batting, who will replace the inimitable Trotty? The hope must be that one or both of Matt Lamb or Adam Hose, both starved of opportunities last season, can step up.
My ranking is based on the assumption that promotion was the top priority for 2018. Because this was achieved with some ease, the season must be rated as a success.
As for white ball results, they were not quite good enough. There were plenty of ifs and buts and nearlys; but they don’t count. If my granny had had wheels, she might have been a motorbike. So, what could have been a nine out of ten season goes down slightly to an eight.