As the final round of the County Championship heads towards a close, one of the leading remaining narratives is around which side will be relegated from the top division alongside Gloucestershire.
Last year’s champions Warwickshire are the most likely side to fill that second relegation spot and face an uphill battle to secure safety. Rain is hampering the Bears’ pursuit of victory against second-placed Hampshire, and even if Warwickshire do manage to secure victory, should both Kent and Yorkshire avoid defeat their fate will be sealed. Kent, building a big total having bowled Somerset out cheaply, look sure to secure safety. Yorkshire are embroiled in a low-scoring clash against already-relegated Gloucestershire, and could yet be in trouble.
However, even if Warwickshire do pull off a miracle, it has been a dramatic fall from grace for a side confirmed one year ago as the County Championship and Bob Willis Trophy winners. What is behind their sudden slide?
The strange nature of last year’s Championship
To mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2021 County Championship took on an unusual structure. Three groups of six teams each fed into three divisions of six, with a race to the finish in September.
While Warwickshire finished second in the group stage, their two wins against Notts – also in Division One – meant that they carried plenty of points forward. With only six results for each side actually counting towards who won the County Championship, there was plenty of space for a run of form to prove decisive.
This meant that Warwickshire managed to claim the title despite not being all that dominant: They won six, lost two and drew six across the campaign. Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire both won more games, with their record identical to those of Essex and Lancashire.
Weather had a significant impact early in the season, with 41 out of 90 games in the group stage drawn, and Warwickshire managed to prevail or hold out in several tight games, beating Notts by three wickets, chasing a big total against Essex, edging a low-scorer against Yorkshire, and holding out for a draw against Lancashire in their first match of the Division One stage of the tournament. Warwickshire finished the conference phase of the Championship 16 points ahead of Essex, whose season was more affected by inclement weather than most.
Consistent performances with the ball and fair returns with the bat meant Warwickshire were able to be greater than the sum of their parts. At the end of last season veteran all-rounder Tim Bresnan summarised Warwickshire’s abilities in the Telegraph saying: “I don’t think anyone would argue with me if I said we are not the best team in the competition… We have ground out hard victories and that makes them taste that bit more sweeter.”
This year, the ten-team Division One has allowed little room to hide. The increased competition for the title along with the higher scoring games has exposed gaps in Warwickshire’s squad and driven them down towards the bottom of the table. Without taking anything away from Warwickshire’s 2021 title, a six-team Division One was crucial in their success.
Early season runs masking their struggles
On the face of it, Warwickshire’s late-season slump has cost them, with four defeats in five ahead of the final round. But an early season defined by a less helpful Dukes ball has also worked against them.
Warwickshire’s success last season was based on fairly low-scoring victories and hard-fought draws. On the face of it, their batters have fared better this year. Last year, none of their batters averaged more than 40, and homegrown youngster Rob Yates was the only batter to score multiple centuries for Warwickshire. This year, Sam Hain is averaging well into the sixties and four batters have tonned up at least twice.
However, Yates has not kept up his run of form with his century in the final round his only three-figure score of the season. In general, there have been fewer players to contribute significantly – in 2021, nine players made at least 300 runs, but that figure is just six in 2022. Warwickshire’s numbers have been boosted by big runs in high-scoring draws early in the season – the Edgbaston-based side lost just 92 wickets across eight games up until July, but won just once.
Injuries and loss of form with the ball
Injuries have plagued the Warwickshire bowling attack with the loss of Liam Norwell particularly costly. The England Lions seamer took 59 wickets last season including two ten-wicket hauls, but injuries have seen him miss most of this season. The loss of Chris Woakes has also been damaging, with the England bowler featuring in both of Warwickshire’s Division One wins last year.
Not even loaning Brad Wheal from Hampshire for a match or taking on India seamer Mohammad Siraj for a smattering of games could provide the bowling group with the depth required.
Further losses of form with the ball have also contributed to Warwickshire’s poor season. Captain Will Rhodes’ average of 71.71 across 14 games epitomises the fall in threat offered by the Warwickshire attack this year compared to last. Operating as Warwickshire’s extra bowler, he picked up 26 wickets last season.
In addition to this, Danny Briggs has also seen his numbers drop off , with his average more than 20 runs higher this season than last. Craig Miles has struggled even more significantly, averaging 21.81 in 2021 and 65.81 in 2022. Only Oliver Hannon-Dalby has managed to find the balance between potency and fitness but he has had to operate as a lone force for much of the campaign.