Bears look to conceal soft underbelly
Amid effusive praise for Warwickshire in the aftermath of a glorious 2012, pre-season murmurings of blasphemous dissent began to emanate from supporters around the counties - a fad that picked up pace faster than Suresh Raina's heart rate in the face of short pitched bowling.
Aspersions directed at the Bears top order placed it under greater scrutiny than North Korea's ballistic missile programme; at least in the eyes of a county cricket Twitterati evidently cheesed off with anything Midlands-related possessing the audacity to render itself praiseworthy. What if your lower order doesn't make the same contributions, they asked. Rikki Clarke exceeded expectations, they said.
Kim Jong-un might have labelled it jealousy, and then threatened violent retribution. Mercifully, Warwickshire's own response has, thus far, involved little more hazardous than willow and leather (though word has emerged of UN inspectors seeking to investigate the destructive nature of a substance known as Chris Wright).
They've started with comparable predictability to the rogue state, too. If a fourth century opening stand in nine innings against Derbyshire was the successful, intent-signalling launch that the cricketing world would fear, then their reliance upon the middle order against Durham was the sputtering dud that crashed in to Edgbaston reservoir shortly after takeoff.
Warwickshire's batting is comparable to an iceberg - the lower two thirds are vastly more substantial than the top, and often inflict the most damage. Lower-middle order runs were a hallmark of success in 2012 - a trend that has very much continued into 2013 and, as skipper Jim Troughton will tell you, a tactical ploy to best take advantage of an ageing ball and tiring attack - but it is perhaps an unhealthy reliance given that Keith Barker is now sidelined for six weeks and it appears a case of when, not if, Chris Woakes is summoned by England across all formats.
Top order foundations must be laid in their absence; Ian Westwood and William Porterfield - men that provided vital innings at crucial times last season, yet endured indifferent form for the most part - have not covered themselves in glory in the formative stages of this campaign and are already under pressure. Sadly, they look to be the soft underbelly of a bear with otherwise exceptionally thick skin. Those blasphemers might have had a point.
Regardless, the Bears remain capable of outlasting most; it is when pitted against more incisive attacks that a true examination awaits. An early opportunity to brush aside new arrivals Derbyshire - one such opponent that did appear hopelessly outgunned - was dismally curtailed by drizzle, an unfortunate climatic intervention all too familiar with Edgbaston of late. We see some rain, don't we? If Noah had resided here all those years ago, his ark - albeit hosting a bedraggled congregation of squabbling seagulls and underfed pigeons in place of a purportedly more exotic menagerie - might have required an additional coat of Ronseal.
The scourge of Edgbaston's coffers lingers, but of greater immediate concern was the acute schizophrenia Warwickshire had seemingly developed during the winter; rampant with the ball before struggling to eviscerate the tail (Derbyshire mustered 226 after being 117 for 7, while Durham reached 284 from 68 for 6); unyielding with the bat before conceding flurries of wickets.
It was a bemusing lack of killer instinct, unbecoming of champions, which carried over to their second outing against Durham where, if c Jekyll b Hyde had appeared on the scoreboard, few would have batted an eyelid. The spectacle of four horsemen - noticeably apocalyptic in appearance - galloping across the outfield as Clarke spilled a catch did cause jaws to drop, though.
Reassuringly, a resounding fourth innings trouncing of Paul Collingwood's side - who admittedly possess an omnishambles of a batting line-up - has allayed fears of the condition becoming terminal. The current fixture at Taunton will indicate whether it is truly in remission.
Oh, and a word on Twenty20. Moments after settling on the bleachers at the Birmingham End last week I became party to a conversation on cricket's youngest format. "I'll be here for the 40 over stuff but I shan't bother with that Twenty20," chimed one elderly wag. "Oh good Lord above no!" exclaimed a moustachioed companion, "it's all crash, bash and bloody thrash; total nonsense."
I had highlighted the need for improvement in the format in my season preview; based on that conversation, it is little wonder that an annual lack of progression seldom causes much chagrin among the residents. The stereotypical county member lives on; moments later, as if to spite them, captain Jim Troughton was stumped following a wild charge down the wicket. It's a funny old game.