Neale maintains the collective spirit

Stephen Brenkley looks at the refreshed challenge of last season's champions
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SOME observers still squander time wondering how Warwickshire do it. Warwickshire, meanwhile, are merely getting on with the business of winning. After an indifferent start which persuaded the sceptics to dismiss their extraordinary achievements of last season as a bizarre aberration they have eased authoritatively into second place in the Championship table, they are progressing threateningly in the Sunday League, and they won their NatWest Trophy tie last week with solid assurance.

Two key components from the summer of 1994 are missing - Brian Lara's departure, albeit temporary, was barely more lamented than that of the coach Bob Woolmer - but the side continues to give a convincing impression of being better than the sum of its parts. They seem to be the epitome of cricket as a true team game.

The role of overseas player in Lara's stead is being filled again by Allan Donald. The job of coach in place of Woolmer, a man widely hailed as a cricketing guru, went to Phil Neale. If it was not for the fact that Donald is a fast bowler and Neale is appreciably thinner than his portly predecessor you could hardly see the join.

"I have always believed throughout my career that the team comes first," Neale said. "That ethos was firmly in place when I came. Players support each other, learn from each other and are inspired by each other. They perform for the benefit of the team in the context of every game. Sometimes it can be that good players think as individuals on the lines that if they do well the team will anyway, which doesn't always work."

This seems an admirable method but it has failed to win friends in all quarters, especially among the selectors. Last season's trio of titles was rewarded with just one place on the England tours: the wicketkeeper Keith Piper was picked for the England A party. That his colleagues were ignored surprised few, including Neale.

"Having seen these lads at close quarters, I would say that there are two or three who deserve further recognition," he said. "But I'll admit that when they were just opponents I never gave them much thought. Their qualities weren't immediately obvious."

Neale and his players appear to be phlegmatic about their chances of repeating their success, although he points out that it was only one bad day which cost them the chance to defend the Benson and Hedges Cup and that they could yet win three titles this summer. He is not averse to reiterating the part that luck plays, even in winning the Championship. This is the sort of good fortune that has you winning the toss on pitches designed for bowlers and therefore getting the better deal, the sort which, it has not escaped Neale's notice, is at present being enjoyed by the Championship leaders, Northamptonshire.

For all the importance of the unsung players, their ability to eke out a significant 30 runs or take a wicket at a crucial time, the fitness and form of Donald is not to be underestimated. In three of the four Championship games he has played this season he has taken five wickets in an innings and in the fourth he got four. He is menacing with the new ball, and is clinically efficient in dealing with the tail. Part of Warwickshire's success has been built on scoring runs so quickly (Lara's speciality) that they have a luxurious amount of time to bowl out the opposition, but the converse of that may be that Donald bowls out the opposition twice as fast.

When Donald was absent against Durham in May, Warwickshire reverted to the initial strategy - the rapid scoring of runs - and it worked admirably on a moderate pitch. But it was not difficult to tell that they might have won without taking such a risk had Donald been there. This is the South African's last season with the county as a player. They have taken the Lara option from 1996 on, which is perhaps understandable. But they want Donald, too, as a bowling coach.

"We have offered him a package and are waiting for a decision," Neale said. "No doubt there's a lot of other counties interested in him as a player but by not playing county cricket it may extend his Test career as a fast bowler. And he's a Brummie at heart." All that is doubtless true, but it sounded like Neale rehearsing his sales pitch. There may also be the thinking at Edgbaston that if Warwickshire cannot have Donald then nobody else can either.

The bad news for the other counties is that he is keen to emulate Lara and win the Championship. That, combined with the team ethos, would be a potent combination. Not that the selectors will take much notice.