Neale brings his experience to Bears

CRICKET: Warwickshire's new director of coaching talks to Michael Austin about the potential of English cricket
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Talk to Phil Neale and he looks you straight in the eye. No shirking answers or sideways glances. Warwickshire's new director of coaching recognises the head-on challenge: as someone with an impeccable track record to nurture, all he can do to improve last season's triple champions is win all four titles.

Innate realism takes over, however. Neale, the England A team manager on the triumphant tour of India and Bangladesh last winter, said: "I do not think any county will ever match Warwickshire's three trophies. Cricket has a lot of variables and things went right for them last season. We just need to play our best this summer in these exciting times at Edgbaston."

With an opening Britannic Assurance Championship win over Middlesex quickly tucked away, the Bears made an encouraging start to the defence of their first-class title, but two defeats in three Benson and Hedges matches emphasise the challenge that faces them. They still must perform the balancing act between losing Brian Lara, probably the best batsman in the world, and regaining Allan Donald, the South African bowler of parallel status.

"We are looking for someone to stand up and say 'I am going to score Lara's runs and have the bottle to get 300 more than last season'. To say that Nick Knight, from Essex, is Lara's replacement is a burden no one would like to carry.

"It is vital that all our batsmen take responsibility and perform well. Donald gives us an extra cutting edge but we cannot say that just because we have a better bowling side we need less runs. What we want him to do is take a few early wickets, split any stubborn partnership in the middle order and polish off the tail."

Neale, 40, talks with 20 years experience of first-class cricket and 10 years as captain of Worcestershire in which they won five titles - two County Championships, two Sunday Leagues and the Benson and Hedges Cup. Born in Scunthorpe, he made 28 first-class hundreds, including two against the Australians and another against the West Indians

In short, Neale, who has a two-year contract at Warwickshire, set standards of fitness, appearance and attitude as a player that made him tailor-made for managerial duties. No second-day slovenly growth on the chin, just a tightly cropped moustache, bristling for the next episode of a career which has involved two management years with Northamptonshire and could see him as Ray Illingworth's track-suited lieutenant when England go to South Africa during the autumn.

Well used to winning, Neale has tamed such mavericks as Ian Botham and Graham Dilley, two of his charges at Worcester, and Allan Lamb, his captain at Northampton. Neale's years there produced a Benson and Hedges Cup semi- final appearance in 1993 and fourth and fifth places in the Championship. There were no titles, just a promise of achievement, the lack of fulfilment proving a disappointment to him.

"It's sad not to have finished the job there but Northamptonshire appreciated my domestic situation," he said. "I tried to move to Northampton but lived in a rented house with my family still in Worcester. It was good of Northamptonshire to see that side of things, though going to Warwickshire after all those years at Worcester might seem odd to some."

The cognoscenti believe that the Roses battles between Lancashire and Yorkshire have nothing on the daggers-drawn contests involving Warwickshire and Worcestershire. Neale, a former Lincoln City footballer, admitted with a grin; "A two-year gap at Northampton did make it easier."

He certainly had an easier winter than Keith Fletcher. While the senior team floundered Down Under, Neale flourished with England A, who won the Test series 3-0 and the one-day internationals 2-1.

Neale, a Leeds University graduate with a Russian degree, stressed: "On my first management tour of South Africa the previous winter, we won nine of 13 games. Everyone said it was the plum trip but India would not be such an easy ride. 'You will do well to win a game', they said. Our preparations at Lilleshall were thorough. We decided to play to the Indian's rules and interpretation and our players were very adaptable. Spirit was a big factor. There were spells when the Indians were on top but we always managed to fight back. You could see it in the opposition's faces; they thought 'what have we got to do to beat these guys'. It was a triumph for the team."

Drawing Neale about those on the verge of the Test side brought a guarded comment. "I am bound to forget someone," he said, "and it depends exactly what gaps appear.

"Mark Ramprakash is top of the batting queue - I believe his mental approach is now right. Nick Knight and Jason Gallian are contenders at the head of the order with Gallian's seamers an extra benefit, bearing in mind the lack of a top-order Test batsman who can bowl.

"His selection might be a means of getting an extra spinner into the team. Min Patel and Richard Stemp, our own slow bowlers, came through ahead of Ian Salisbury. Stemp flights the ball more, a Phil Tufnell-type. He is more attacking and might get cut but Patel has greater variation. On balance, it is difficult to separate them, which also applies to the wicketkeepers Paul Nixon and Keith Piper.

"The seam bowlers were also achievers. We lost every toss in the Tests and had to bowl first but Glen Chapple and Dominic Cork took 31 wickets, compared with the Indian seamers' total of 16.

"England may well look at Cork for the one-day internationals but in Test terms, he would probably be restricted to batting at No 8 in competition with Phil DeFreitas, Chapple and all the other contenders."

For the next four and a half months, though, Neale's mind will be focused on county matters. "If everyone at Edgbaston can perform to his potential, we should do well," he said. "Even before Warwickshire's spectacular season, the signs of success were showing. Dermot Reeve is a down to earth leader. We shall be competitive, play attacking cricket and take it from there."