No title, but much to admire

Posted in Domestic Cricket

Varun Chopra & Tim Ambrose

Varun Chopra and Tim Ambrose see the title slip away at the Rose Bowl

The 2011 LV= County Championship season will, quite rightly, be remembered as the campaign in which Lancashire finally ended their 77-year wait to be crowned champions.

Yet while the celebrations across the Red Rose county will surely go on for days, weeks, months and maybe even another 77 years if the immediate reaction of a couple of my Lancastrian friends is anything to go by, we should spare a thought for the team they pipped to top spot.

I cannot have been alone in turning up at the Rose Bowl yesterday morning expecting Warwickshire to secure the title.

In taking 13 wickets on day three, the Bears, needing to match Lancashire’s result against Somerset, had seemingly broken the resolve of Hampshire, whose relegation was confirmed following their failure to claim maximum batting bonus points.

The hosts began the final day of the season still trailing by 126 on 43 for three and with nothing more than pride to play for.

Pride, however, can often be underestimated.

Rather than cantering to victory as many anticipated, Warwickshire were forced to endure a day of immense frustration.

By lunch, Michael Carberry and Neil McKenzie had taken Hampshire into the lead, the former playing with freedom and no little panache as he found the boundary with regularity.

Carberry did eventually depart, having compiled 111, midway through the afternoon. Yet with the dogged McKenzie continuing to resist, there was to be no collapse.

As Lancashire, also held up by unexpected defiance at Taunton, began a nerve-jangling pursuit of 211 shortly before 4pm, it appeared Warwickshire had lost control of their own destiny, and so it proved.

Chris Woakes, Rikki Clarke & Michael Carberry

Chris Woakes, left, and Rikki Clarke, centre, come together this week. Both all-rounders have enjoyed fine seasons with bat and ball

However, rather than being criticised for falling at the final hurdle, Jim Troughton’s side deserve great credit for their efforts throughout the summer.

Like Lancashire, they were tipped to endure a season of struggle, only to defy expectations with a string of impressive performances.

Warwickshire may have finished second due to events at Taunton in the last week of the season, yet it should not be forgotten that they kicked off their campaign with an astonishing innings-and-382-run victory over Somerset at the same venue.

In all, they recorded nine wins, four more than the last Warwickshire team to win the title in 2004 but, crucially, one less than Lancashire.

With a run-a-ball century and nine wickets, Chris Woakes did much to inspire his side to their opening triumph and the young England all-rounder was arguably the star performer on the county circuit before injury forced him onto the sidelines for around a month in mid-May.

Opening batsman Varun Chopra, a former England Under-19 captain who struggled to make the grade at Essex, also made a flying start to the season and, after returning to form with 109 this week, finished as the fifth highest run-scorer in Division One with 1,178 at an average of 45.

For contrasting reasons, it can be argued Woakes, a man aiming to establish himself in the England set-up, and Chopra, given a second chance in county cricket after struggling at Chelmsford, began this season with something of a point to prove, and a glance through Warwickshire’s squad shows this to be a common theme.

The skipper, Troughton, is one of three players, along with former Surrey and Derbyshire all-rounder Rikki Clarke and wicketkeeper-batsman Tim Ambrose, to have achieved international honours at a young age, only to be discarded by England.


Jim Troughton gathers his Warwickshire side together after drawing with Hampshire yesterday. He can look forward to brighter times ahead

Ian Westwood, a left-handed opener who showed admirable levels of courage in remaining on the field having been hit on the thigh and helmet yesterday at short-leg, gave up the captaincy in a bid to rediscover his batting form, while Chris Wright arrived from Essex for the closing weeks of the campaign having been unable to secure regular first-team cricket in Division Two (22 wickets in four appearances should ensure the tall seamer remains at Edbgaston next year).

With Ireland internationals Will Porterfield and Boyd Rankin, two players familiar with the underdog tag, also on board, Warwickshire boast a fiercely motivated squad and their battling spirit came to the fore on Wednesday as they repeatedly found wickets whenever the match appeared to be slipping from their grasp.

Ultimately, they were unable to repeat the feat when it mattered most and, for now, the prevailing feeling in Birmingham will be one of disappointment.

However, in their post-match interviews, both Troughton and director of cricket Ashley Giles were keen to take the positives, both believing there is much more to come from their side.

The likes of Woakes, Chopra and left-arm spinner Chris Metters, who took eight wickets in Southampton, can certainly be expected to improve as they gain more experience and the entire squad will be driven by a desire to make up for this missed opportunity.

This may not have been Warwickshire’s year, but don’t bet against them going one better in 2012.

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