Worrying times for Worcestershire
Last year5th, CC Div 2; Group stages, FLt20; 5th in Group A, YB40.
2013 in a nutshellThe excellence of Moeen Ali and, to a lesser extent, Alan Richardson, masked some of the problems at New Road last year. Moeen, judged to be county cricket's most valuable player in 2013, top-scored for the club in two of the three competitions and scored in excess of 500 runs more than the club's next highest scorer in the Championship. Richardson, meanwhile, claimed more than double the number of Championship wickets of his closest rival and also delivered in excess of 200 overs more than the next busiest bowler. In the victories over Kent and Worcestershire, Richardson claimed 10-wicket hauls while Moeen top-scored, while in the victory over Glamorgan, Moeen recorded a career-best 250. In the victory over Northants, both Moeen and Richardson claimed five-wicket hauls. Worcestershire relied on the pair heavily.
Richardson apart, the bowling lacked potency and Moeen apart, the batting lacked consistency. Thilan Samaraweera, though he scored respectably, was past his best and the likes of Alexei Kervezee - who averaged 10.57 - and Michael Johnson - who averaged 14.15 - were bitterly disappointing. Daryl Mitchell enjoyed a good YB40 but failed to score the runs required of him in the Championship, while Matt Pardoe looked solid and offered some hope for the future. Perhaps more worrying than the modest on-field form, was the departure of a couple of younger players once thought of as 'the future' of the club. Richard Jones was allowed to leave for Warwickshire despite having a year remaining on his contract and 20-year-old Aneesh Kapil was released due to a lack of progress and will start the 2014 season playing second XI cricket for Surrey. For the club to fail to coax the best of out such players and, in the case of Kapil, to give up on them so early, is a concern. If the club is unable to compete on salaries, it is in serious trouble if it can also not compete in talent development. David Lucas and Johnson also left the club at the end of the season.
2014 prospectsIt is hard to be wildly optimistic. Without Richardson and, perhaps, Moeen Ali, there is a chasm at the heart of the Worcestershire side. The pair were head and shoulders above their colleagues in the bowling and batting returns from 2013 and the fact that no new players have been brought in to compensate is a concern. Jack Shantry was the club's second highest wicket-taker in the Championship last year - he claimed 34 - but he will require far greater support from the likes of Chris Russell - 16 wickets at 44.37 last year - or Graeme Cessford - 15 at 34.93 - if the Worcestershire seam attack is to make any impact.
Worcestershire supporters are braced for a chastening season. There is some hope. In the likes of Kervezee and Gareth Andrew, Worcestershire have talented players who are capable of more than they delivered last year. Ross Whiteley is an all-rounder of some potential, too. Capable of bowling at a sharp pace and hitting the ball hard, he could prove a wise recruit in all formats. So should Saeed Ajmal, who might just be the best overseas player in the 2014 season. The club are currently talking to other options as a second overseas player in the T20 Blast. Junaid Khan and Brett Lee are among the more intriguing possibilities.
With promotion looking most unlikely - it may well be events at the other end of the table that occupy the minds of Worcestershire supporters - the best hope is a run in the limited-overs competitions, but without Moeen there will be an absence of quality batting and the burden on Ajmal looks onerous. The completion of the long-awaited hotel at the ground, and with it some new facilities for the club, also offers hope of greater revenues in the future. That will be crucial as Worcestershire seek to retain and attract players.
Saeed Ajmal could prove to be a wonderful signing. One of the finest spinners in world cricket, he should be able to bowl a large number of overs and give his side both some control and a potency with the ball that is unmatched in the rest of the squad. There are some concerns about the burden he carries, though.
Bright young thingThe presence of several highly-talented young players within the Worcestershire system provides the club's brightest hope. In Tom Kohler-Cadmore the club have a 19-year-old batsman who broke schoolboy records at nearby Malvern College, while Ed Barnard, who was part of the England side in the U19 World Cup, is an all-rounder who has more than a hint of class with the bat. But it is Tom Fell who offers the most immediate prospects of success. A 20-year-old batsman who made a good impression in 2013, more will be required of him this season and he should benefit from the exposure to first team cricket. In the longer-term, Worcestershire need to get the best out of such talents, rather than seeing them leave for other counties - like Steven Davies - or fail to develop - like Jones or Kapil.
Captain/coachSteve Rhodes, the director of cricket, seems to have been a feature at New Road as long as the chestnut trees and cathedral. And, under the leadership of David Leatherdale, the chief executive and former teammate of Rhodes, he probably has a job for life. Matt Mason remains as bowling coach and Daryl Mitchell remains as captain. Whether that leaves Worcestershire overly cosy or run by passionate men with more knowledge for the club and passion for their roles remains a moot point. Both points probably have an element of truth.
Worcestershire is something of an anachronism in the modern world. It seems many supporters are happy so long as tea is served in a timely manner in the Ladies Pavilion and, judged by that standard, 2014 will no doubt be a success. But whether the club's bucolic charm is in keeping with a high-performance centre of sporting excellence is another matter. If Moeen is required by England, the squad looks thin and only the presence of Ajmal offers hope of avoiding the wooden spoon. Questions about recruitment, retention and talent development need to be asked, but Worcestershire's slide into mediocrity seems to have been accepted with a phlegmatic shrug by members. The example of Northants and Derbyshire shows that more can be achieved from clubs of similar resources.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo