Neale banks on resolve

Northamptonshire seek rare honours in Saturday's NatWest Trophy final as Warwickshire prepare to resist; Simon O'Hagan finds Warwickshire's new director of cricket in a determined mood
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The Independent Online
PHIL NEALE knows all about the perils of losing the toss in the NatWest final. In 1988 he was a member of the Worcestershire team inserted by Middlesex and found himself going out to bat at 9 for three.

"It seamed about all morning and flattened out in the afternoon," Neale remembered.Worcestershire recovered to make 161, Neale making their top score of 64, and Middlesex only got home by three wickets.

"From the position we were in I don't think any side could have put in a better effort," Neale said. But the fact remains that 23 of the 32 Gillette and NatWest finals have been won by the side batting second, including all the last nine. When Neale returns to Lord's on Saturday with the Warwickshire team, of which he is now director of cricket, the toss will be as crucial as ever.

But Neale is not prepared to concede defeat if it is Warwickshire's openers who have to walk across the dewy grass. "If you bat first you just make sure you do the job well," Neale said. "It doesn't follow that you're going to lose. Our strength this season has been in defending a total. We've got guys who'll come back and bowl well in the later stages."

This is the third year running that Warwickshire have reached the NatWest final. In 1993 they overhauled Sussex's 321 off the last ball in surely the greatest one-day match ever played; in 1994, when they were going for all four domestic titles, they were thwarted by Worcestershire.

Neale played no part in either of those matches, arriving at Edgbaston at the start of the season. Now 41, he retired as a Worcestershire player in 1992, had two years as director of cricket at Northamptonshire, whom Warwickshire play in the NatWest final, and then was invited to follow Bob Woolmer's impossible act last summer. In Dermot Reeve, he inherited a captain whose influence was so strong it took a while for them to work out how best to operate.

"To begin with Dermot and I were tending to duplicate each other a bit," Neale said. "We were coming at things from a captain's point of view because that was my background and we'd end up making the same points in team talks. Now I'll talk to Dermot when they come off the field, and then he'll talk to the players."

Improving the quality of a team that had swept all before them the previous season also presented a challenge. "They're all very confident as individuals," he said. "What I've tried to do is harden them up a bit."

After an indifferent start to the season when they were knocked out of the Benson and Hedges Cup - "We were guilty of expecting things to happen," Neale said - Warwickshire have largely recovered their 1994 form, even without Brian Lara, and another treble is still possible.

And as with Woolmer, Neale has shown a relish for unorthodox methods - such as coaching the reverse sweep. This year he has brought in the optometrist Ken West, who has also worked with England and Lancashire, to get the Warwickshire players to exercise their eye muscles. Some of them have given up caffeine, which, according to West, impairs sight. "If there's a new approach we'll try it," Neale said. A study of the aerodynamics of a spinning coin cannot be far off.