Many pundits believe that the county championship has never, in its 122-year history, been a stronger competition than it is today.
And plenty of evidence for that view was supplied last week by Warwickshire’s season-opener against Somerset, a wonderful match which fluctuated time after time before finally falling the Bears’ way on a thrilling final afternoon.
In any sport, the best contests are those in which the result remains in doubt. In the Bears v Somerset match, that concept was taken to the most extreme degree. From the first ball to the very last, which Jim Troughton drove through point for the winning runs, both sides were in with a chance of winning.
Had captain Troughton been dismissed, Somerset would have needed just one more wicket to seal the win. It was an enthralling game, played out in front of a highly appreciative crowd.
It was 2.23pm on the final day when the ever-winding plot at last unravelled as Troughton thrashed spinner George Dockrell for four to seal a sensational two-wicket victory. Somerset captain Marcus Trescothick had turned to spinner Dockrell after Jeetan Patel, back for his third stint with the Bears as overseas player, took the attack to the seamers, lifting Peter Trego and Vernon Philander for six.
On came young Dockrell to try to lure his fellow spinner into holing out. Patel’s response? To dispatch the first three balls for 6-4-4 before a single left Troughton to score the winning boundary. Nineteen from five balls hurried Warwickshire home as Troughton finished with a steel-nerved unbeaten 15 (65 balls) and Patel with 43 (36 balls, three sixes) in an unbroken ninth-wicket stand of 55.
Full credit to both sides. Heaven knows, neither deserved to lose. What a fine match it was and Patel, who will be with the Bears all season, was delighted to return to Warwickshire as part of a winning side.
“Winning games of four-day cricket is the best feeling in the world,” he said. “I didn’t take any wickets or catches in the game so I was really pleased that I got some runs at the end, which was helpful to the team. And we got over the line, which is most important.
“On the last day, after we lost quick wickets, someone had to stand up and be counted and Troughts did that by batting a lot of time. That was a big factor in us winning the game.
“Jim just said to me ‘play your natural game’ so if the ball was in my zone I was going to give it some and that’s what I tried to do.
“I probably wouldn’t try to score like that every time because it’s not going to work but it came off and a few sixes at the end certainly helped.
“I was really pleased to play a part in the win because I love being at Warwickshire. It’s a great fun club. The guys are great and the set-up is fantastic. I love it back at home as well but being here is another lease of life. I really enjoy trying to spin teams out and help with the bat when I can.”
There is certainly an impressive sense of togetherness among Warwickshire’s squad. In many cases they are not just colleagues but pals and such a bond within the group is a big asset towards building success on the field – as long as the correct balance is struck.
Patel’s reference to a “great fun club” alludes to the fact that players are encouraged to enjoy their work. But the culture at Edgbaston encompasses that mentality alongside a perpetual demand from coaches and captain for the fullest application and highest standards in practice and on the field.
It is an intriguing balance to strike: To make players fully focused on the game but also relaxed enough not to tense up and play with fear.
“We know what the guys’ strengths are,” said Troughton. “And if they are playing to their strengths and the way they practice there will be no comeback from us. It is if they play a shot out of character or out of context with the game that we ask questions.”