Warwickshire may prove team to beat
Last year4th, CC Div 1; Group stages, FLt20; 7th in Group A, YB40
2013 in a nutshellIt says something for the expectations at Edgbaston that a fourth place finish in the Championship is considered a disappointment. But, after winning the title in 2012 and assembling an unusually strong squad, much was expected last year. Warwickshire never really challenged, though, and endured a wretched limited-overs season. They finished bottom of the YB40 group, beneath the Netherlands, and gave themselves an impossible task in FLt20 after losing their first three games.
There were mitigating factors. New director of cricket, Dougie Brown, almost never had a full squad to select from with his side disproportionately hit by injury and England call-ups; at once stage they were lacking five bowlers who had been in England squads in previous months. The prolonged loss of Chris Wright and Jim Troughton with back injuries was particularly damaging. After it became clear that they had no hope of progressing in the YB40, they also decided to use the remainder of the competition to provide experience to younger squad members.
There were success stories, too: Keith Barker continued his development and looked one of the most dangerous new ball bowlers in the country, while Varun Chopra underlined his status as one of the most consistent batsmen in county cricket. Laurie Evans and Ateeq Javid also made huge strides with the bat and were largely responsible for keeping the side's head above water at times. No side lost fewer games in the Championship's top division than Warwickshire and the presence of three players in the England XI for the final Test exemplified the contribution to the England cause.
2014 prospectsExpectations remain high at Edgbaston. With arguably the strongest bowling attack in the country and a batting line-up that goes on forever and will include, for at least the first month of the season, Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell, Warwickshire expect to mount a serious challenge on the Championship. The new ball will be taken by Wright and Barker with Chris Woakes, hoping to force his way into the England team as an allrounder, first change and vying for a place at No. 5 or No. 6 in the batting line-up. Rikki Clarke and Boyd Rankin will provide back-of-a-length pace once the shine of the ball has worn, though how the latter returns after a chastening winter with England remains to be seen. Jeetan Patel, whose off-spin bowling and aggressive lower-order batting have proved so valuable in recent seasons, returns as primary overseas player and will again prove especially potent when utilising the footmarks created by Barker.
After Kumar Sangakkara and Shahid Afridi turned down approaches, Shoaib Malik has been brought in as a second overseas player in the T20 Blast. Richard Jones, signed from Worcestershire, Recordo Gordon and Oliver Hannon-Dalby will compete for bowling spots when call-ups and injuries allow. The one potential weakness looks to be in the batting. If Trott and Bell are absent, there are holes in the line-up that will need to be filled by the likes of Freddie Coleman or Sam Hain.
The absence of Troughton will be felt keenly in the opening weeks of the season, too. While his batting has been a fading force for some time, his leadership skills are highly respected and cannot be easily replaced. Warwickshire hope that the move to 50-over cricket will aid their accumulative style and, with a team stuffed with allrounders, they should improve their limited-overs form.
Key playerTim Ambrose is one of the forgotten men of English cricket. Despite the fact that he remains one of the best glovemen in the country, has a Test century to his name and scored an unbeaten 76 in his last Test innings - at Bridgetown in 2009 - he is seldom mentioned as an alternative to Matt Prior et al. But England's loss is Warwickshire's gain and, in the 31-year-old, they have a tough, experienced cricketer equally adept at digging his side out of trouble or pushing on following a strong start. There are some worries about long-term wear and tear issues - a hip problem has been a recurring theme of recent seasons - but if Ambrose can remain fit for all three formats, Warwickshire look a much stronger side. Peter McKay, an able keeper and decent batsman though not in Ambrose's class, is his deputy
Bright young thingSuch was the impression that Sam Hain made when he appeared at a first team net session, several senior players remarked that he might just be the most talented young batsmen they had seen. Hain, like Sam Robson of Middlesex, was brought up in Australia - he has played for Australia U19 - and could yet return there. He did not score the second XI runs anticipated of him in 2013 but, at 18, has time on his side. Warwickshire, will keen not to burden him with expectation, are suggesting privately he could be the successor to Bell. Aaron Thomason, a 16-year-old seam-bowling all-rounder, is unlikely to break into the 1st XI this season, but looks an exciting prospect.
Captain/coachDougie Brown enters his second season as director of cricket, but with Alan Richardson having joined as bowling coach from Worcestershire. The previous bowling coach, Graeme Welch, who doubled as assistant coach, has moved on to Derbyshire. Tony Frost is the batting coach. Jim Troughton remains club captain but will miss the first few weeks of the season following surgery on a long-standing back injury that might hasten the end of his career. In his absence, Bell or Chopra will captain.
ESPNcricinfo verdictAt full strength, Warwickshire have as strong a squad as any and may prove the team to beat in the Championship. But while they surely have the bowling depth to withstand the inevitable call-ups and injuries, the depth of their batting will be sorely tested should Trott be recalled to rejoin Bell in the international teams. Even so, they should be able to improve substantially on their limited-overs form and will surely challenge for the Championship title. The downside of the expectation at Warwickshire is that pressure will mount quickly should results not go their way.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo