DEC: Can we start by taking a look back at what happened on the pitch in 2018?
Neil: On the pitch, the number one priority was to get back to Division One of the Championship. We did that in the right way. There was a lot of hard work, right from the moment when, pre-season, we put a marquee up in the nets area and the guys were slogging away when there was snow outside. Having worked hard through the winter, they hit the ground running and played good, hard four-day cricket.
Warwickshire has had the reputation in the past of being a very tough team to beat and we wanted to get that back, which I think we achieved.
We went into the last two rounds of matches knowing that two out of us, Sussex and Kent would go up. So for me, to go down to Hove and get a hard-fought draw was one of the highlights of the season. Then the final game against Kent was effectively a cup final, which we won by an innings.
Of course, I don’t have a crystal ball. We know there is a difference between Divisions One and Two; but if everyone stays fit and we don’t lose too many players to England, we’ll have a good crack at Division One.
I was really pleased for Jeets [club captain Jeetan Patel]. We felt that he had the attributes to be a good captain, but he had to learn on the job because he hadn’t done a lot of captaincy before. In fact, he was outstanding in getting the most out of the players.
I was also really pleased for Ash [Sport Director Ashley Giles], Jim [First Team Coach Jim Troughton] and all the coaching squad. I was particularly delighted for [bowling coach] “Pop” Welch – for us to be the only team in either division to get maximum bowling points was testament to the bowlers and to his work with them.
DEC: What about white ball cricket?
Neil: It’s fair to say that2018 was a disappointing season, a case of close but no cigar!
We were “Moeened” in the final matches in both the 50 over and T20 competitions.
[In fact, ex-Bear and Birmingham-born Moeen Ali scored 114 off 75 balls in the final Royal London match against the Bears 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. In the Vitality Blast, Moeen did it again, this time hitting 115 off just 56 balls with 12 fours and seven sixes to push the Bears down to sixth place in the table]
I thought we were unlucky in the 50-over competition; but in the Vitality Blast, we missed a good opportunity. We had a horrible weekend where we played really badly in all three games – we bowled badly, in particular.
So overall, it was a mixed season on the pitch but I was very pleased with what we achieved in the Championship.
DEC: What about activities off the pitch?
Neil: Off the field, it’s been a good year. Our hospitality, conference and events and major match experiences have all gone well. Financially, the International T20 and the Vitality Blast Finals Day were very successful.
The India Test, however, was a tough sell. The early finish on day four hurt us, as did the Wednesday start. A full day four would have made the difference, financially, between a decent Test and a really good Test. So that was disappointing from a business point of view.
DEC: And you must have been pleased with the 2020 to 2024 major match allocations.
Neil: Yes, our absolutely number one goal this year was to get a good major match award because that is what drives our business. So we are delighted. We got the best allocation of all the international grounds after Lord’s.
That was a credit to everyone here – the effort put into hosting, the investment in facilities, the investment in match day experiences, plus the support of Birmingham City Council. Ian Ward, the Leader of the Council, came down to Lord’s to be part of our pitch to the assessment panel, which shows his commitment.
So that allocation gives us certainty from 2020 to 2024 and we now have a solid business plan for the next six years.
DEC: What about 2019? It looks like a busy year ahead.
Neil: Well we’ve not really stopped since the last ball was bowled against Kent. We are working with the ECB on the Cricket World Cup, with Steve Elworthy and the organising committee. The ticket sales for the five matches here at Edgbaston have been terrific.
We also put the Ashes tickets on sale much earlier because we wanted to run a ballot, which we’ve never done before; and that’s been hugelysuccessful – off the charts! We’ve pretty well sold out the first three days already, which is unprecedented at this stage.
In 2019, we’ve got the World Cup, the Ashes, the domestic season including Finals Day; and also it’s the 25thanniversary of when Warwickshire did the treble, which we intend to go big in celebrating.
There has never been a bigger year for cricket at Edgbaston.
DEC: Can you tell us more about celebrating the 25thanniversary of that 1994 season when Warwickshire won an unprecedented three trophies?
Neil: Well, we are supporting the publication of a book written jointly by Pat Murphy and Stephen Chalke. It should be really special with previously unseen photos that we’ve managed to source and a lot of first hand content from both our own and opposition players. Pat’s enjoyed talking to the captains of some of the teams that played against Warwickshire to get their perspective.
And the book will, of course, cover Lara’s 501.
We are also putting our heads together about having a showpiece dinner, not just for the ‘94 squad but as a catalyst to get all our living Bears together.
DEC: We’ve read a lot about plans for the new competition, The Hundred; and Edgbaston is going to be home to one of the eight new teams. What’s the latest on that?
Neil: The next round of communication should come in the first quarter of 2019 with a much more co-ordinated narrative. Part of the reason for a lot of the negativity that’s surrounded The Hundred is because it hasn’t been communicated very well. In fact, it’s been pretty awful.
Now there is some momentum and those of us who are host venues are very much involved, working with the ECB executive in forming an organising committee to deliver The Hundred.
The trials at Trent Bridge were really useful in focusing minds around some of the detail of the format and playing conditions. A lot of work is going on concerning team brands and how the player draft will work so after a pretty rocky start, there is real momentum to put the nuts and bolts together.
We have all encouraged the ECB to have a proper narrative next time we go to the public around what the competition is and the playing format.
The plan is to have it all wrapped up by the end of March. It really needs to be done before the start of the season, bearing in mind that the player draft will be in October.
DEC: Back to Warwickshire – do you expect any squad changes before the start of the season?
Neil: Well, Liam Norwell and Craig Miles have already joined from Gloucestershire and have really impressed so far.
Liam has had an ongoing hamstring problem, which we’ve got to grips with. He’s working hard with our physio, Gerhard Mostert and his team so will be starting to bowl in the New Year.
Craig is a very different character. He’s quietly come in and got on with his business. “Pop” Welch likes the look of both of them.
That apart, we are not actively looking for players, other than a second T20 overseas player.
TW: What’s the state of play in the search for that overseas player?
Neil:Ashley and his team have put a shortlist together based on what we need in terms of skills, what we have currently got and where the gaps are. That’s what we did when we got Colin [de Grandhomme] and Grant [Elliott] two years ago.
We would like to see some movement either side of Christmas so that we can go into the New Year knowing where we stand.
TW: You’ve said a lot in the past about wanting to reach out to ethnic minority communities in Birmingham and the West Midlands. Does it bother you that, as things stand at present, the Bears may have, Jeetan Patel apart, an all-white squad next year?
Neil: I’m very conscious of that. We lost Teeqy [Ateeq Javid] to Leicestershire. We all love him and he did a great job for us but he wasn’t getting the opportunities here so it was right for him to move on.
As for [young left-arm spinner] Sunny Singh, having to release him was disappointing because we had lots of hope for him. He’s clearly got some skills and talent and he has a fantastic back-story – coming through street cricket and the Chance to Shine scheme. But he has to be able to demonstrate those skills on the pitch; and part of what he needs to do is a bit of maturing and growing up.
We are very much in touch with him but we didn’t feel we could extend his contract.
So, yes, Jeets apart, we have an all-white squad. We are based in Birmingham so that doesn’t feel quite right.
DEC: What are your plans for addressing that?
Neil: We can look at our pipeline and pathway and all the outstanding work that [elite cricket development manager] Paul Greetham is doing with [development/performance coaches] Mo Sheikh and Kadeer Ali.
Amongst their charges, well over 50% are of South Asian origins.
So there is no shortage of talent at the bottom of the pyramid and starting to come through in the older age groups. These young players need to have the talent and determination and ability; then it’s our job to take them on that journey through the emerging player programme and the Academy and into the First Team.
It’s not just us. The first-class counties generally are not good in bringing these players through. There are not enough examples of where this has been done successfully.
We are pioneering a PhD study with a Birmingham City University postgraduate student. We are co-funding this with Essex – to look at the issue historically and in a linear timeframe, monitoring over a three-year timeframe to see what happens and try to understand why players aren’t making it through.
There is also the South Asian strategy, launched by the ECB this year. Three counties are piloting it – Essex, Yorkshire and Warwickshire. This is looking at things across the board, including South Asian representation in the governance structure, the player pathway and also the spectator experience.
We aren’t doing all that for altruistic reasons. It’s a core part of our business because a significant proportion of the population in our catchment area is South Asian. There’s no magic bullet, but we’re working on it!
DEC: You will be familiar with the complaints that come from Warwickshire members from time to time – that they don’t have a strong enough voice, that the history of the Club is neglected. What can you say about that?
Neil: Well, I’m excited about the new Members’ Committee that we’ve introduced as part of the new governance structure.
We used to have a management board and a general committee. Now we have a Board of Directors and a Members’ Committee. We’ve recently recruited three new members to that committee including two women. We had the first meeting recently and it was refreshing to spend a couple of hours talking about Warwickshire County Cricket Club, Warwickshire cricket and the members.
We are also going to do a members’ survey on-line for the first time to get feedback.
The other thing I am excited about is our heritage strategy. One of the things I have been keen to do is what I call the “bearification” of Edgbaston – to do more to celebrate the rich history and traditions of Warwickshire County Cricket Club and Edgbaston.
We’ve already got the timeline in Reception, which we introduced in my first year; and we’ve got a wonderful museum.
But in general, we don’t make enough of our heritage. I’ve been travelling around other venues – the Oval do it well, as do Lord’s. So I’ve taken some of the staff round there. With the support of the members’ committee, what we’ll see over this winter is a bit more around the venue celebrating our heritage and then building on that year on year – a bit more looking back and celebrating our history as well as looking forward.
DEC: Are there any longer-term plans for the Edgbaaston ground?
Neil: Yes, we are starting to look at the next phase of the Edgbaston master plan, which includes the re-development of the Raglan and Priory stands plus work on the Wyatt Stand and a little bit on the pavilion end. We can be bold enough to look at doing that because of the high quality match award. We still need, however, to diversify our revenues so we are always looking for new ideas.
DEC: You’ve told us in the past that Calthorpe Estates are planning to build a hotel over the road from the ground. Is there any news on that?
Neil: Not really. We are desperate to get a hotel in this vicinity. It would absolutely fly because there aren’t any others nearby. It would be great for match days and corporate events.
We are constantly in touch with Calthorpe Estates about what’s happening. But it could become part of the Edgbaston Master Plan going forward. That would be further down the line, to do what Lancashire and Hampshire have done, which has been a huge boost to their business. We are very much looking into that at the moment.
DEC: Finally, is there anything else that you would like to tell us about?
Neil: Yes, I must mention the Edgbaston Foundation – Ravi Masih and his team are using cricket and the assets of Edgbaston to improve the lives of young people around health and physical and mental well-being, working closely with the cricket board. We are starting to see the impact in Birmingham and the West Midlands.
Also, there is the work that the cricket board does – Ed McCabe and his team. We have had 30,000 primary schoolchildren touched in some way by cricket in the last twelve months through Chance to Shine, the All Stars programme and outreach, which is fantastic.
Everyone celebrates major match days and silverware but sometimes the grassroots stuff gets overlooked.
DEC: Many thanks, Neil, for giving us so many fascinating insights into the challenges of running a county club and a major match venue.