Bears' Blast rebuild bodes well for future

Warwickshire's ageing side have struggled in the Championship but an injection of youth in the NatWest Blast has made Birmingham a force again

George Dobell
George Dobell
Adam Hose gave Birmingham's chase early momentum, Surrey v Birmingham, NatWest T20 Blast, Quarter-final, Kia Oval, August 25, 2017

Adam Hose is one of Birmingham's quartet of attacking young batsmen at the top of the order  •  Getty Images

It didn't take long for Ashley Giles to realise that change was required at Edgbaston.
There were, as ever, high expectations when he returned to Warwickshire as director of sport at the end of 2016. The club had, over recent years, won all three domestic trophies and had a playing staff full of men with fine careers behind them.
But that was the problem. Many of the best days in their careers were, indeed, behind them. And while other clubs had freshened their squads with new faces, the Warwickshire team had aged together. It wasn't just that individual players had lost a bit of their hunger or a bit of their speed, it was that there was nobody coming in to challenge them or provide new energy. The team had stagnated.
The extent of the problem became obvious after the first couple of games of the season. A Warwickshire team containing eight men aged over 30 - and five over 34 - was brushed aside by an innings in the first Championship match against Surrey. And then the second against Yorkshire. By the time they had played eight games, they had lost five - four by an innings - and were without a win. If Giles didn't know when he started he did now: this was to be a rebuilding operation.
That rebuild will surely come too late to save their Division One Championship status. They pretty much need snookers to avoid relegation at this stage. And, quite rightly, that relegation will smart at a club with a proud history and enviable budget.
But, over the last few weeks, a new Warwickshire team has started to emerge. Or maybe that should say a new Birmingham team. For, as yet, the changes have been most apparent in the T20 format in which the club play as Birmingham. And the success they have enjoyed in that format offers hope for the future and might go some way to assuaging the disappointment of the Championship campaign.
At the start of this year's NatWest Blast competition, Birmingham's top-four batsmen - William Porterfield, Ian Bell, Sam Hain and Grant Elliott - were aged 32, 35, 22 and 38. Not only that, but they tended to play a style of cricket that might best be described as cagey and old-fashioned. They were dangerous, certainly, but as a team they had only once passed 200 since 2010 and they looked over reliant upon their bowlers to keep them in games. They finished sixth in the North Group in 2016 and failed to qualify for the quarter-finals.
People will be disappointed with our Championship position but, when we look back on this season, we might think we were a year or so ahead of schedule in rebuilding
Ashley Giles, Warwickshire director of sport
Now? A top four of Ed Pollock, Dominic Sibley, Adam Hose and Hain are aged 22, 21, 24 and 22, respectively. Two of those weren't even on the staff at the start of the competition. Another was on an academy contract.
But the difference is more than the age. It's the attitude. The top-four of the Birmingham team that will contest Saturday's semi-final was brought up in the age of T20 cricket. They have grown-up with a different priority to the generation that preceded them. They do not think, first and foremost, about preserving their wicket; they think, first and foremost, about ways to hit boundaries. They are bold, they are uninhibited and, as Giles puts it, "they can really throw some punches".
It is not just the top-order batting, either. The return to fitness of Olly Stone, 23, has given Birmingham (and Warwickshire) the sort of fast bowler that can force any batsman to think twice about coming down the pitch, while allrounder Aaron Thomason, 20, has played 13 of this year's NatWest Blast games. That means that six of the team are aged 24 or under.
Add to that the trio of New Zealand imports - the long-serving spinner Jeetan Patel, the Kolpak signing Grant Elliott and the second overseas, the hard-hitting Colin de Grandhomme - and you have the basis of a handy team. Chris Woakes also returns for Finals Day despite having not played a T20 match since his IPL experience in May.
Already, the new-look top-order has achieved the highest run-chase in the club's T20 history and the highest run-chase in an English domestic T20 knockout match, taking them to Finals Day amid an otherwise wretched season.
Crucial to the resurgence has been the recruitment of Hose and Sibley, who fulfil two of the top three places in the T20 side. Both were somewhat contentious signings - Somerset and Surrey respectively were bitterly disappointed to lose them - but both have settled nicely at Edgbaston and both could represent the club for a decade or more.
But recruitment can only be a part of the answer. A club the size of Warwickshire in a city the size of Birmingham really had no excuse not to be identifying and developing local players. Yet the last specialist batsman to have come through the system and win his county cap at the club was Ian Westwood and the last bowler Chris Woakes.
Giles knows this is not good enough. He knows that a key part of his role is to revitalise a development system that has rarely worked as it should have done. And he knows this cannot be done overnight.
Westwood is one of those long-serving, familiar names to have left the club in recent weeks. Rikki Clarke, too, has gone and, in the coming weeks, it seems likely that Porterfield will join them. Intriguingly, around £1.2m worth of talent is out of contract at the club at the end of the 2018 season including such high-profile names as Jonathan Trott, Tim Ambrose and Boyd Rankin. There is likely to be a great deal more change at the club over the next 18 months or so.
But perhaps the most contentious change so far involved the dropping of Ian Bell from the T20 side. Bell was, naturally, hugely disappointed by the move but insists that the decision - and it was his decision - to stand down from captaincy in all formats was not connected. He has simply not scored the runs his talent demands and, in T20 at least, the few runs he had scored had eaten up too many deliveries. He has the lowest strike rate in the Birmingham top 10 batting averages this season (117.28) and, in his eight most recent T20 innings, failed to pass 16 and averaged just 9.87. As he was also opening the batting, he was failing to optimise the Powerplay overs. The hope is that, relieved of the responsibility of captaincy, he will rediscover his form.
Bell and Porterfield will almost certainly be included in the Birmingham squad on Saturday. While they may no longer be considered first-choice options in this format, the Birmingham squad is not so large they can be overlooked. Either could play if any of the first-choice batsmen suffers an injury and both have, despite their personal disappointment, embraced the need for the team to be refreshed with new blood.
Indeed, Giles talks of one of the most satisfying moments of the season the reaction of senior players to the progress of the youngsters.
"After one of the T20 wins, Porterfield stood up in front of the team," Giles says. "Of course, he must have been disappointed not to be in the side, but he spoke really well about how pleased and proud he was to see the way we were playing. It was, I think, testament to the sort of man he is and the sort of spirit we're developing here.
"I know people will be disappointed with our Championship position but, when we look back on this season, we might think we're a year or so ahead of schedule in the rebuilding job. There's a long way to go, but the last few weeks do show signs of progress."

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo