A damp changing-room strewn with men in white romper suits is an odd place to seek the secret of sporting and human alchemy.

The scene is the dressing-room of Warwickshire County Cricket Club during their latest cup final at Lord's at the weekend. Turbulent behind the scenes, and struggling on the field for decades, the team have suddenly this season carried almost all before them, in a transformation that compares with Michael Edwardes turning around British Leyland in the 1980s. As well as currently topping the Sunday League, they have won the Benson and Hedges Cup, and the County Championship. Yesterday's defeat by Worcestershire in the NatWest Trophy final robbed them of a unique grand slam, but they are still poised to achieve more this season than any other county in history.

Warwickshire were always a wealthy club, with a Test match ground at Edgbaston and the proceeds of successful fund-raising and huge corporate wealth in the West Midlands in the Sixties and Seventies. But in recent years they have been big players with dust on their trophy-cupboard shelves.

Stretched out on a dressing-room bench at Lord's during the prolonged rain interval on Saturday was one reason for the transformation - an almost delicate, adolescent-looking West Indian, known to anyone who has read a newspaper or switched on a television this summer. A second reason - a greying, slightly overweight Englishman - was sitting in the opposite corner, taking the occasional telephone call. The third reason was over in the Warwickshire hospitality box on the other side of the ground: the old-boy network, which some experts believe accounts for the club's cohesion this year.

First, the West Indian, Brian Lara. Counties are allowed only one overseas player each, and as a sort of Brian of the Rovers performing miraculous feats with the bat, Lara of Warwickshire, aged 25, has this year made the whole team believe they can play. When he arrived in Warwickshire in April, after his 375-run Test record for the West Indies, he carried on: five centuries in a row, then an unprecedented 501 in a single match. He has scored 2,000 runs this summer, more quickly than anyone else. And his demoralising effect on opposing bowlers leaves them prey for Lara's partners to plunder at the other end.

But one star player doesn't make a winning team. That's where the alchemy comes in. Warwickshire are not the cricket equivalents of Manchester United, which have a squad packed with some of the best players in the world. Their players are better than average, but not much. There have been countless examples of great players disrupting rather than inspiring a team, fostering resentment among the lower paid, and cliques. But at Warwickshire Lara arrived at a set-up that for the first time in recent history had everyone pulling in the same direction. This is where the slightly corpulent Englishman, Bob Woolmer, sitting across the dressing-room, has played his part.

Three seasons ago the club's coach, Bob Cottam, an abrasive Lancastrian, left - after falling out with the captain, Andy Lloyd, it is said. Woolmer, aged 46, was brought in mainly at the instigation of Dennis Amiss, then chairman of the cricket sub-committee which deals with the playing side of the club. Woolmer had never played for Warwickshire, but Amiss knew him well as a former England colleague.

He arrived fresh from four years coaching hockey and cricket in South Africa. Since many players' names meant nothing to him, he gave them all a long questionnaire to fill in, asking them what they wanted to achieve, how they saw their strengths, and so on.

He is on record as saying then that he believed the players were three years away from being a good side. He found that they all had a desire to do well, but needed direction. 'They were a very dynamic group of people, but looking for a release. It was as if I opened a door and let them out,' he said as the downpour confined his players to the dressing-room.

The side were used to more orthodox coaching, but Woolmer gave them the 'six S's' he had learnt from a sports psychology course - 'skill, speed, strength, suppleness, spirit and stamina' - and applied them all to the three disciplines of batting, bowling and wicket-keeping. He used a sports scientist and a nutritionist, and Alan Knott, a former England wicket-keeper, was brought in to coach Warwickshire's promising young keeper, Keith Piper. Before each training session the players were given goals. 'I wanted to teach them what you can achieve,' says Woolmer.

In his first year in charge the team finished second in the County Championship but fell away at the end of the season. Andy Lloyd, who had had a bad year, retired, and an unorthodox all-rounder, Dermot Reeve, was promoted to his place before last season. Captain and coach, answerable not to each other but to the committee, have to see things similarly, and Reeve and Woolmer do.

Both enforce dress codes and various other rules, but by fostering a positive image rather than by criticism. Woolmer recalls a player coming down to breakfast in a hotel wrongly dressed, and the former captain, Lloyd, reacting angrily and wanting to send him straight home. 'I want players to obey the rules because they don't want to let the team down,' says Woolmer. He has worked in industry and schools as well as cricket, and says nowhere do people respond well to an atmosphere where there is constant criticism or backstabbing.

After Lara, team spirit is the crucial factor in Warwickshire performances this year. Most of the side have been together for five years, and are mostly between 25 and 30. The lack of stars perhaps helps (England's tour party for Australia this winter, announced on Friday, contains not one Warwickshire player). The players gee each other up on and off the pitch.

Last season they finished third from bottom in the County Championship, and would have surely been doubting the almost mystic nature of the coaching, but seized an against-the-odds victory in the NatWest Trophy, setting up the players for this season. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a few changes still had to take place to put the winning set-up in place.

Cricket clubs are run on an old-boy system a bit like the hospital board in Middlemarch. At Warwickshire, a committee of 18 lay members - local worthies including former players - appoints the captain, the coaching staff and the administrators.

Soon after the former coach Bob Cottam left, Mike (MJK) Smith, a former Warwickshire and England captain, became chairman of the committee, replacing Bob Evans, a businessman. This summer a new chief executive was needed and the committee, which might have gone for a marketing or financial whiz-kid, decided on Amiss, who is known and respected in commercial circles, but whose main expertise remains cricket. Moving up into his old job as chairman of the cricket committee came John Whitehouse, another former Warwickshire player (although qualified as an accountant).

What may have been the final piece in the jigsaw was the appointment of Steve Rouse, yet another former player, as groundsman last year. Traditionally pitches at Edgbaston were flat and smooth, favouring batsmen. He has prepared wickets with more bounce, which have made draws less likely.

But in the end, nobody should forget that the secret ingredient of any managerial success is luck. Lara's very arrival at the club was not managerial prescience but luck, and actually proved one of the club's basic management rules wrong for once.

A year ago there had been a discussion about which overseas player to sign for 1994. The coach suggested Lara or another West Indian. The chairman and the chief executive favoured David Boon, an Australian batsman. The captain, Reeve, felt the bowling would need bolstering, and wanted Manoj Prabhakar, an Indian all-rounder. It is a basic principle at the club to put enormous trust in the judgement of the captain. Reeve got his way and Prabhakar was signed, only to be injured in the close season. Boon turned them down, and Lara was signed up. Dennis Amiss describes his reaction by putting his hands together in prayer and looking to the sky. God must have been listening.

(Photograph omitted)

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