Warwickshire face their toughest fixture of the season today when they start a championship match against reigning champions Durham at Chester-le-Street.
Last September, Durham lifted the title for the first time in their short first-class history. Barring a spectacular collapse in form, next month they will retain their crown as they have dominated the top division this year.
Of 11 matches, they have lost none and won six, including a ten-wicket triumph when they outplayed Warwickshire at Edgbaston in mid-June. Graham Onions and Steve Harmison supplied the killer bowing spells but the champions exhibited all-round excellence. They totalled 433, thanks principally to Ian Blackwell’s 158, before dismissing Warwickshire for 276 and 177.
The shrewd captaincy of young captain Will Smith was also significant.
With Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott away on England duty, Warwickshire face a daunting task against opposition further boosted by the return of West Indian batsman Shivnarine Chanderpaul for the first time this season. Furthermore, while Bell and Trott appear certain to play in the Ashes decider at the Oval tomorrow, one of Onions or Harmison might well be omitted by England, in which case he will be flown up north to join the county match.
Over the next four days, the Bears need to prove they can score runs in Division One without their two main men. The likes of captain Ian Westwood, Jim Troughton, Tony Frost and Tim Ambrose, all of whom have struggled in recent weeks, must rediscover their spark, not least to ease the pressure on 17-year-old Ateeq Javed, if he makes the final 11 for his championship debut.
By taking only eight points from a draw with Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge last week, the Bears relinquished a bit of ground to teams below them, notably Yorkshire and Sussex who won their first and second games of the season respectively. Even a draw at high-flying Durham would be a morale-boosting result.
“It is a big game for us,” director of cricket Ashley Giles said. “They beat us quite heavily at home and we will have to play very well and show the sort of resilience with the bat that we showed in the second half of the game at Trent Bridge
“We can expect a bowler-friendly pitch. It could be a scrap but our bowlers are starting to bowl pretty well and it is a great challenge for the guys.”