July 23, 2013

Warks dream of title-defence turnaround

Players returning from injury, attacking captaincy from Varun Chopra, victories in T20 - things are looking up for the champions

How quickly things change in Championship cricket. Mere weeks after being firmly encamped within the drop zone, Warwickshire might well have commenced what would be the single most effort-laden turnaround since Ian Blackwell was last sent back by his partner upon attempting a tight single.

I've only made a brief foray in to the wonderful new library at Edgbaston - an excellent addition to the stadium that is well worth a visit - but I would wager that, had I perused the log of withdrawals, I'd have found a Mr D. Brown scribbled next to ESPNcricinfo columnist Ed Smith's publication Luck. He's been searching for it for some time.

As highlighted in my previous Supporters' Network piece, luck can be a cruel mistress. Her disposition toward the Bears in the earlier part of the season, though, was not so much to taketh away with both hands as to stroll in to Edgbaston, mask 'n' all, and rob Warwickshire blind. That's the view from the stands, anyway, and Brown too must quietly have wondered how he'd drawn her wrath as an injury list lengthy enough to bring Manchester City out in a cold sweat mounted.

Recent weeks have seen the focus shift from luck to sheer, unbridled relief. Relief at the weather, which has seen the unheralded but invaluable Jeetan Patel spin a web of deceit around opposition batsmen (Patel is Division One's fourth-highest wicket-taker with 37, and comfortably the most successful spinner, although Lancashire's Simon Kerrigan has 44 in Division Two). Relief at England's apparent acknowledgment that Chris Woakes is far more of a red-ball cricketer than he ever will be white, thus allowing him to return to doing what he does best for Warwickshire (those Twenty20s against New Zealand were bittersweet for Bears supporters - seeing one of our own represent his country is always a proud moment, but the mauling Woakes suffered in a format in which he has never truly excelled ensured it was tinged with pity and sadness). Moreover, relief that a host of key performers returned to fitness and saw us approach full strength for the first time in what seemed an age.

Boyd Rankin is perhaps the foremost of the latest returnees, particularly in light of Chris Wright's long-term absence through injury. An unusually dry month has lent pace and bounce to previously saturated wickets and few in the country are better equipped to exploit it. The recent England convert adds precious variation to what has, at times, looked a slightly one-paced seam attack. He and Woakes combined with Keith Barker, Wright and Patel against Middlesex to form an attack as potent as a male rodent inadvertently poisoned with Viagra.

Of equal importance is the return of middle-order batsman Laurie Evans following a hand injury, my 'one to watch' ahead of the season and a player that has looked in promising form throughout. Evans is a batsman capable of grinding out runs through a tough period of play but, crucially, with the ability to move through the gears and dominate an attack as conditions dictate. In this respect he stands alone among the Warwickshire top order, a virtue displayed when compiling a magnificent, match-defining 178 against Nottinghamshire. Evans consumed 260 balls in reaching his first Championship century for Warwickshire, but just 71 more to reach his career high score. Such a capability could prove crucial in forcing victories during a run-in where anything less likely signals a death knell for any lingering hopes of clinging on to the title.

A word for the captaincy of Varun Chopra, too. Jim Troughton - a man that has garnered the utmost respect of his charges and instilled a great team ethos at Warwickshire - is undeniably a fine leader, but there remains a feeling among some members that he places somewhere to the far left of conservative in his captaincy. That is not to call it unsuccessful - Alastair Cook is of the same mould - but at the business end of the season where aggressive, bold cricket becomes requisite to win matches, it isn't ideally suited to the violent conquest that Warwickshire seek.

Conversely, Chopra has set about the task with all the intent of Shane Watson trying to get out leg before wicket. Seeing a batsman of the eminence of David Hussey besieged by six close fielders last week was cricket at its most engrossing and, most significantly, it paid handsome dividends. His declarations have been equally astute.

Many great leaders do not seek power but find it thrust upon them. If Warwickshire can win the Championship, history (okay, the new Edgbaston library) will surely add the name Varun Chopra to the list, somewhere alongside that of Joan of Arc, perhaps.

The doom and gloom of June has lifted. We've discovered how to win at Twenty20 (though, as I write, we have capitulated to 73 all out against Somerset more swiftly than Australia expend their DRS reviews). We might even, however unlikely, retain the Championship. But then it's always the hope that kills you.

After receiving a golden duck on debut, Andy Bloxham opted to write about cricket instead. He tweets here