Smith misses rarity value

Stephen Brenkley finds that the new Warwickshire are no soft touches
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The Independent Online

It must have been charming to turn up to face Warwickshire on the morning of a match in the mid-Nineties. There you were, expecting another day at the office in the cosy surroundings that were county cricket, a day spent with your pals, having a hit with some chaps on the opposition and perhaps shooting the breeze.

It must have been charming to turn up to face Warwickshire on the morning of a match in the mid-Nineties. There you were, expecting another day at the office in the cosy surroundings that were county cricket, a day spent with your pals, having a hit with some chaps on the opposition and perhaps shooting the breeze.

"We had Dermot Reeve and Roger Twose in our side," said Neil Smith. "Before play started they would be under the opposition's skin, in their face and letting them know precisely what was going on. They had a hard edge and it rubbed off."

It also worked. For a few years, Warwickshire stood atop the English game. They won two successive Championships, five one-day trophies in as many years and a treble in one of them. In addition, they had Brian Lara in his pomp. If they were not invincible they were in the house next door.

Then the hard cases quit, no doubt taking their violin cases with them, as did Bob Woolmer, their innovative coach. It was never quite the same, and it still isn't. Warwickshire became just another team to the extent that this summer, albeit in controversial circumstances, they were in the Second Division of both the Championship and the National League.

They will begin as favourites in the NatWest Trophy semi-final against Hampshire next Saturday but Smith, their estimable captain who is in effect charged with bringing back those days, conveys the distinct impression that it can never be as it was.

"We're still a team where every member gives 110 per cent and we've also got experienced players who were in the side of the Nineties," said Smith at Trent Bridge on Thursday as he watched the ground become a sea of white (it was only a small mercy in this summer that it was hail, not snow). "The senior professionals then played magnificently. Men like Gladstone Small, Tim Munton and Reeve were great county cricketers.

"It's a case of personnel and I don't think you can coach the sort of attitudes that Reeve and Twose had. It's a rarity in English cricket, and I couldn't be the sort of captain that Dermot was. I'm much too laid- back. Now we can come out fighting well when our backs are to the wall; then we seized the initiative and nailed down the coffin lid."

However, anybody supposing that Smith, in talking about nails, is not as hard as them had better think again. He might have been seeking to be objective about the 2000 Warwickshire team but he also pointed out that Small, one of the members of the vintage XI, thinks the present bunch are more talented. Nor did the way in which they rammed home their advantage against Glamorgan in the last roundbespeak a side wary of putting coffin lids in their place.

Hampshire have had a lean time of it and will be without their key signing, Shane Warne, who has returned temporarily to Australia for a series of indoor matches. "When the draw was made, all the other three sides left would have chosen to have a home draw, probably against Hampshire. To that extent, we've got what we wanted, but one-day games are always hard to win."

Warwickshire are not only unsure of their team but of the exact importance of the Trophy to their season. As Smith said, it may be the most glamorous piece of silverware in domestic cricket, but Warwickshire are seeking promotion in two divisions. That may be more important for the immediatefuture than another bauble.

"Well, it's certainly perceived that Warwickshire are a club who should be in Division One," Smith said. "I'm not sure there's any difference in the two at present. There might be in 10, 15 or 20 years, when and if the better players sign short- term contracts and move on. I think Division Two is probably tougher overall, and sides are definitely more afraid of losing. For instance, they might bat on till 555 rather than stop at 475."

Smith will probably have 13 names to pick from on Saturday. Graeme Welch, one of their flotilla of all-rounders, who has lately been consigned to the second team, will be considered. They will endeavour to find a place for the exciting 24-year-old Anurag Singh -"He is capable of destroying any county attack, any," said Smith.

Pitch conditions, usually good at Edgbaston, will dictate this, but an opening partnership of Singh and Nick Knight taking on Alan Mullally, the second-ranked one-day bowler in the world, is an alluring prospect. Otherwise, David Hemp will play in the middle order and pinch-hitting bowlers like Smith himself and Ashley Giles may bat early.

Smith and Woolmer are not likely to let the grass grow under their feet in dictating the terms of the game. They are not the Warwickshire of the Nine-ties but they are no soft touches either. They have progressed quietly and should see off Hampshire, politely, of course, minus their peroxide blond.

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