Warwicks take Bear hug on the title
Warwickshire 215 for 2 (Chopra 115*) lead Worcestershire 60 (Wright 5-24, Barker 5-36) by 155 runs
Like a wrestling bout between a seal and a polar bear, this has been a disturbingly unequal contest between local rivals with little in common other than geography.
Warwickshire treated Worcestershire not as an obstacle to the Championship title, but as a road. Worcestershire, who recorded their lowest first-class total since 1971 and their lowest ever against Warwickshire, were brushed away with an ease quite unbecoming of this level of cricket. Having chosen to bat first on a blameless wicket, a total of 60 was not just woefully inadequate, it was embarrassing. Tellingly, their senior pro, Alan Richardson, tweeted an apology to supporters at the close of play. "That's about as bad as it gets," he admitted. "It can't be easy watching us sometimes."
This was a depressing day for Worcestershire. Not only did their distant hopes of salvation recede to the point of invisibility, but it was hard to conclude that the future was very bright, either.
Lacking the budget of most of their Division One rivals, Worcestershire have had to recruit more through the address book than the cheque book. Some of the players they have brought in are decent cricketers and may well shine in the Birmingham League. But, in arguably the toughest first-class domestic competition in world cricket, they look some way off the pace.
The underlying issue is not just a lack of quality at the club - though that is one issue - but also the failure to coax the best out of the talent they do have. The likes of Moeen Ali, Vikram Solanki, Ben Scott, Alexei Kervezee, Richard Jones, Gareth Andrew, Daryl Mitchell and Aneesh Kapil all have the ability to prosper at this level. Yet all have endured disappointing seasons. Failure as widespread as that suggests something in the environment at the club is wrong.
The fact is that only two men in this team - overseas batsman Phil Hughes and captain Daryl Mitchell - average over 25 in first-class cricket this season - that they have failed to score 350 in a Championship innings this season (they have passed 300 only twice) and that, in this game, their first and second change bowlers were men with 12 first-class wickets between them. One - Joe Leach - barely gets a bowl in the Birmingham League and the other - Nick Harrison - gained selection after a List A performance where he conceded 83 in seven overs against Lancashire including 30 in one over. His first ball at this level was a wide and his second a long-hop that was cut for four. Aged only 20, he has the time and the talent to develop into a decent cricketer. Right now, however, he looked somewhat out of his depth.
Some will call for Steve Rhodes, the director of cricket at New Road, to be sacked. But even if Worcestershire was that sort of club - and it really is not - there is no chance of that. Not only will the club remain loyal to a man who has, in the last two or three years, achieved rather a lot with rather a little, but they can scarcely afford the cost of jettisoning a long-term employee. Besides, the club know they will not find a more passionate, hard-working coach. In the long-term, it is anticipated that the development that will see the start of construction of a hotel on this ground within a few weeks will allow more money to be invested into cricket at the club. In the shorter-term, many of these players will have a chance to develop in the lower division. It may not be such a bad thing.
Some changes have taken place already. Solanki has been dropped - not an encouraging scenario for Surrey supporters who will welcome him as their replacement for Mark Ramprakash next season - while Scott is pursuing opportunities outside cricket having been told that he will not be offered a contract extension. Scott remains a keeper of the highest class, but his failure to score runs consistently has undermined his career.
"I feel quite embarrassed by our batting," Rhodes admitted afterwards. "It was a terrific wicket, but either technically or tactically, we batted very poorly. They bowled exceedingly well. But some of those dismissals…Well, it was men against boys. If I had played like that as a youngster in the Yorkshire leagues, I'd have had my backside kicked. But they are young and when you are young you make mistakes. It's been a disappointing day."
Cricket is a wonderfully unpredictable game, of course, and Worcestershire might yet stage a remarkable recovery. But on the evidence to date, the gulf between these sides is vast. Warwickshire, it should be remembered, are without several first choice players. Not only are Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott, Chris Woakes and Jeetan Patel absent on international duty (Woakes could yet be drafted into this game in place of Tom Milnes), but Tim Ambrose is absent with a thigh injury that may well keep him out of the CB40 final. Trott, too, may struggle to return for that game.
Here it was the bowling of Chris Wright and Keith Barker that gave Warwickshire the initiative. The pair bowled unchanged throughout the slightly extended first session - extended so as to include the entire Worcestershire first innings - and both achieved not just five-wicket hauls (Barker's fifth of the season; Wright's second) but surpassed 50 Championship wickets in a season for the first time in their careers.
Huge credit for their emergence must go to Warwickshire's bowling coach, Graeme Welch. Jim Troughton, the Warwickshire captain, referred to them as "unpolished diamonds" when they arrived at the club but, through the skills and belief instilled by Welch, they have developed into high-class bowlers that would find a place in many international sides. It is worth noting that both men went unwanted elsewhere: Barker first offered his services to Lancashire, while Wright has passed through the hands of Hampshire, Middlesex and Essex. Welch, in identifying and nurturing their talent, will have played as big a part in Warwickshire's success this season as anyone.
"We wanted to have a bowl anyway," Jim Troughton, the Warwickshire captain said afterwards. "And then neither bowler would give the ball back."
They complemented each other nicely: Barker, left-arm and persistent, found late swing, while Wright, right arm and a bit sharper, found seam and swing movement. The pitch had a hint of green and the conditions were overcast, but there were no terrors in either. Rhodes rated it as "one of our better wickets".
The truth is that the batting was painfully thin. Mitchell, perhaps deceived by Wright going wide on the crease, played across a straight one; Hughes, Matt Pardoe and Brett D'Oliveria pushed unnecessarily at ones that left them; Kervezee prodded at one he could have left and Ben Cox pulled obligingly to a deep fielder. Leach was beaten by inswing and Moeen Ali, feet in concrete, by outswing.
Later Varun Chopra, in registering his third Championship century of the campaign, provided not only a nudge to the England selectors but surpassed the Worcestershire total on his own. Alan Richardson demanded respect and, on 44, Chopra survived an edge off the admirable Chris Russell that flew through the slips for four. On the whole, however, Chopra eased to a century characterised by some elegant drives and dismissive cuts with ease.
It all means that, if Warwickshire score 350 and win this game, the Championship title will be theirs. Warwickshire do not have one hand on the County Championship trophy. They have it in a Bear hug.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo