May 2, 2013

What is the point of Worcs?

If Worcestershire's aim is simply to live on handouts and avoid the wooden spoon, criticism of their county status may be justified

You know things aren't going well when your season looks in disarray before the home fans have even witnessed a ball bowled in anger.

Worcestershire's enforced early season tour has allowed developments at New Road to continue apace. But it's the developments on the pitch that have left Pears fans searching for answers a mere three weeks into the new campaign.

A hard-fought (albeit rain-affected) draw against a much-fancied Lancashire side provided hope that an immediate return to Division One was possible. But thumping defeats in Cardiff and Southampton have provided stark evidence that a side that managed just one Championship win last season may not fare much better in the second tier.

It is still early days, of course, and the visit of Leicestershire on May 8 should remain a date to cherish by cricket fans in the county, irrespective of results to date. The overwhelming frustration amongst supporters, though, is that the clearest of problems has not been rectified during the winter - namely the need to strengthen a frighteningly thin squad. I'm willing to wait longer than three games before making judgments - three successive away games have offered little prospect of seeing the team in action, let alone an opportunity for greater analysis. My thoughts instead turn to our place in the ever-changing world of cricket.

The club's insistence on living within its means can only be commended - the stark reality is that without such financial prudence we might not have a club to support at all. But the question I can't shake from my mind is simple: is it enough to simply survive?

The truth is that Worcestershire are a small club from a small county, with no prospect of international cricket in my lifetime (and I'm only 24). Not that cricket fans in the county have to travel too far for their international fix, with Edgbaston, Trent Bridge and Sophia Gardens all within a 90-mile radius. England development sides, women's cricket and touring sides are also gratefully welcomed to New Road. But even this summer's visit of the Australians, a tradition that dates back over 100 years, can't help us compete with the burgeoning TMG counties.

So with neither the facility to host full-blown international cricket nor the finances to compete with the big boys, what is our raison d'être? If counties exist to develop future England talent then we should be very worried. Recently announced Champions Trophy and England Lions squads featured not one Worcestershire representative. Moeen Ali certainly has the ability to push for international honours but he still needs a summer full of runs to back up his talent. Aneesh Kapil and Ed Barnard have both represented England Under-19s in the past 12 months but they have a long way to go in their cricketing careers yet.

I think back to the exciting Worcestershire side that gracefully bludgeoned its way to victory in the 2007 Pro 40 competition. It included the likes of Steve Davies, Vikram Solanki, Graeme Hick, Gareth Batty and Kabir Ali - men who have all represented England, albeit with varying degrees of success. Compare that team with the class of 2013. Ostensibly the squad contains a raft of England-qualified players, many aged 26 or younger, certainly enough to meet the ECB's requirements for incentive payments. But doesn't this just prove that we are simply survivng, aided by handouts but doing little to justify them. How many Worcestershire players have realistic England ambitions, or at least the raw talent to challenge for international honours one day? In truth, very few.

Steve Rhodes has insisted that supporters should be patient and keep faith in the side; indeed he picked out 'seven players to watch' during the AGM. But if results continue to disappoint then concern will turn to outright dismay. Indeed some supporters have thought twice about renewing their memberships on the back of a less-than-promising start. We scoffed in unison at Mark Nicholas' assertion in 2010 that we were one of several counties who "exist for no obviously justifiable reason" and should relinquish our first-class status. If avoiding the ignominy of the wooden spoon becomes our end-of-term goal then I can only begin to wonder whether he might have had a point.

Craig Nicholson describes himself as a cricket writer masquerading as a magazine sub-editor. Guilty of excessive hashtagging on Twitter here