Pressure's on Bears to start firing
For some it will be time to reach for the paracetamol; for others the cricket season starts today.
The fourth season of Twenty20 Cup action begins this evening when Warwickshire face Northamptonshire. Love it or loathe it - and there really isn't any reason to loathe it - it's here to stay. Cricket grounds will fill up; bowlers will wish they had become plumbers; fielders will throw themselves around and sixes will rain on to spectators.
Despite other attractions, ticket sales at Edgbaston are up by £15,000 on this time last year. Quite right, too.
Spectators last year were treated to a series of dramatic games (Jimmy Anyon's hat-trick and Heath Streak's final over assault on the hapless Nadeem Malik and the bowl-out at The Brit Oval all stand out) and there's no reason to think things will be any different this season.
Once again Warwickshire have produced a raft of offers to attract new supporters. A 'season ticket' costs £30 in advance (£35 on the gate) while children can attend all four games for just £10.
Season tickets holders also receive free entry to the floodlit Pro-40 game against Middlesex. 19,000 tickets have been pre-sold and although thousands of free tickets were given away last year, the club hopes that just as many spectators will attend this year without the need to give away any.
The competition is clearly vital to the sustainability of county clubs. The money injected into the game is welcome, while the recruitment of new supporters is just as necessary.
From a local perspective, it is essential that Warwickshire impress. With no Test Match at Edgbaston next year, the club requires a winning team to attract members. Yet it is hard to be optimistic about Warwickshire's chances. Even if they had a settled side - that they used 23 players during the C&G debacle suggests not - the team is lacking confidence.
It's a batsman's game and, with the likes of Jonathan Trott, Nick Knight, Jim Troughton (also the team's main spinner now), Mark Wagh and Navdeep Poonia, Warwickshire have the artillery to damage any side.
Yet a series of collapses and a lack of belief in the bowlers has chipped away at the side's belief. It will take a steep rise in performance to reach the knock-out stages.
Injuries are also a problem. Lee Daggett is out of tomorrow's game with a side strain, Nick Warren has a broken finger, Nick James has a broken hand and Naqaash Tahir a lower back problem.
As a result Dougie Brown is recalled and will not be available for Scotland's international against Pakistan. Knight will undergo a fitness test on his groin before a decision is made on his availability.
There is not much experience from some of the bowl-ers, while the best teams have usually had their 'keeper standing up to the stumps. That has never been Tony Frost's forte.
Supporters are growing restless. Angry, even. They want to know why the young team that won the Championship in 2004 and contested the C&G final in 2005 is suddenly struggling. Especially after the pre-season talk of multiple trophies.
In many ways the new management regime led by Mark Greatbatch is paying the price for mistakes made long ago.
He inherited the team and its support staff and will take time to stamp his imprint on the club. He is certainly working hard and there is no lack of desire from him or his team. Indeed, he may care too much. His predecessor, John Inverarity, came into the job later in life with reputation secure and a certain detachment.
His relaxed attitude rubbed off on the players, whereas Greatbatch's desire to succeed, admirable though it is, has created a level of brooding anxiety at Warwickshire.
To be successful, however, Greatbatch must face some unpalatable truths and have the courage to act upon his convictions.
His first problem has been the loss of form of the teams pillars. The superb performances of Knight, Dougie Brown and Heath Streak have papered over cracks for a few years. Now they are all reaching the end of their careers at a similar time and are proving hard to replace.
Secondly, it has been painfully obvious for several years that the club is struggling to produce penetrative bowlers. Some attempts have been made to lure players from other counties (Jon Lewis, Ryan Sidebottom, Darren Gough, Andy Caddick, Graeme Swann and Min Patel are among those who have resisted) and the club must reflect on why it has failed to capture them. Money has not been the problem.
The long-term solution must come from within, however. The best of the current bowlers - Streak, Daggett, Brown, Anyon, Giles, Loudon and Carter - are all imports. If Warwickshire can't produce bowlers from a city as large as Birmingham - and the vast area around it - there is something wrong with the coaching or the scouting. For the record the last home-grown specialist bowler to win his cap at Edgbaston was Steve Perryman in 1977 - a damning indictment of the policies of recent years.
There has also been an ongoing failure to utilise the enthusiasm and talent of the large Asian communities in the Midlands. That situation is improving, but the club has enormous strides to take.
If Moeen Ali, again over-looked today, and Naqaash Tahir are allowed to leave Edgbaston without fulfilling their obvious potential, it would be a disaster for the club.
Greatbatch should also makes contact with some of the players who have left Edgbaston - the likes of Mo Sheikh, Graeme Welch, Alan Richardson, David Hemp, Kabir Ali and Graham Wagg - and ask them about their experiences.
The pitches must also improve. For years they have lacked pace and bounce and at least one senior batsman has said he will move to another county unless an improvement is made.
But the most important thing any coach can do is ensure the dressing room is happy and relaxed. The Warwickshire dressing room is not currently such a place.
A successful Twenty20 campaign will revive spirits. It will boost the confidence of supporters and players and could lead to improved performances in other forms of the game.
Greatbatch has just started his job. It's too early to judge him. But he does need to act now. His reputation, and the immediate future of Warwick-shire, depends upon it.
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