Champions owe debt to Reeve

COUNTY CHAMPIONSHIP: Warwickshire succeeded less on specialism than the efforts of an odd-job-man.
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When the 1994 County Championship pennant was hoisted over Edgbaston it was not quite raised as high as the nation's cricketing eyebrows. The widely held view outside Warwickshire was that four-day cricket had not so much resulted in the cream rising to the top as a carton of slightly curdled skimmed milk.

Twelve months on, however, the champions' mission to make the doubters eat their words has been so successful that, nice noise though a champagne cork makes when it leaves the neck of a bottle, the real music to Warwickshire's ears has been a general burping of vowels and consonants.

Not so long ago, you were as likely to spot Lord Lucan doing a bit of shopping in Birmingham's Bull Ring as bump into England's chairman of selectors at Edgbaston, but even Raymond Illingworth has modified his view that a strong Warwickshire equates to a feeble England.

True enough, this has been mirrored through the winter A tour squad rather than the senior one to South Africa, but at least Warwickshire are now beginning to receive some kind of recognition from people in high places.

Warwickshire have long protested that their achievements have been belittled by qualifying clauses, such as the allegation that they load the pitches in their favour at Edgbaston. On Saturday, however, they raised an eloquent two fingers to that notion by completing their seventh Championship victory out of eight away from home.

Furthermore, they have not exactly been made to struggle for those away wins either. Kent were their third victims by an innings, and the other four margins were 10 wickets, 10 wickets, nine wickets, and 111 runs. And not one of those home teams were potty enough to prepare a pitch to suit Allan Donald.

Donald, close to tears after what might well be his final appearance for Warwickshire, clinched the Championship when Min Patel's edge to slip took his haul of victims to 89, three better than his previous best of 86 in 1989. When Warwickshire won the title last year, Donald's place was taken up by Brian Lara, but it still takes more than overseas players of that calibre to win five of the eight available titles in two summers, and come within a hair's breadth of seven out of eight.

In fact, while Warwickshire would claim that the very essence of their success is that it is difficult to single out individuals, it is probably true to say that, even with the likes of Lara and Donald, the biggest single influence on Warwickshire's success has been their captain, Dermot Reeve.

Having taken the new ball for the first time this season in Kent's first innings, and taken 5 for 30, Reeve threw it to the inexperienced left- arm spinner Ashley Giles for the second innings, and Giles promptly ripped out Kent's first three batsmen. It was yet another example of the fact that Reeve, a high-class mimic, is county cricket's great innovator as well as a great imitator.

Reeve has no outstanding individual gift. He is not the kind of specialist you would look up in the Yellow Pages, more the handyman who advertises on a postcard in the newsagent's window. "No job too small."

Reeve would be the sort of bloke you would want to be washed up alongside on a desert island, and although there are those who would say that Dermot's luxury item would be a full length mirror, within 24 hours he would have knocked up a storm-proof residence, complete with patio and hanging baskets, and be asking you whether turtle soup followed by char-grilled swordfish would be OK for dinner.

The biggest single ingredient Reeve has added has been to inoculate his team against fear. Warwickshire do not observe the traditional English convention of negative thinking, and under Reeve, entire net sessions are occasionally devoted to practising the reverse sweep.

Add to that a bit of luck (had their final game been at Leicester or Hove they would barely have got on to the field) together with a collection of players who have an uncanny knack of taking it in turns to produce the key performance, and the combination is nigh on unbeatable. In any normal year, Middlesex would have won the Championship, but Warwickshire's 14 wins in 17 matches represents an even higher success ratio than Surrey's 23 out of 28 in 1955.

No side other than the Australian national team has done more to demonstrate that this is an era in which individual talent is not enough without unity and commitment. In the days when Warwickshire had no fewer than five overseas players, the only difference between Edgbaston and the moon was that the moon had more atmosphere, if not more people. Now, the lone heckler who used to spend his entire day yelling: "roobeesh, Hemmings" has been replaced by large, enthusiastic crowds offering regular toasts to "good old Warweeks."