Ashley Giles has revealed his satisfaction that Warwickshire’s players will spend this winter concentrating hard on their cricket skills in preparation for next season.
You might expect that to be the case from a professional cricket team. But it was far from so this time last year when Giles, having just taken over as director of cricket at Edgbaston, discovered he had inherited a squad which had let go all sorts of off-field disciplines.
Giles was shocked to find how far standards in areas including fitness and punctuality had slipped among a morale-drained, recently-relegated squad. He knew those issues had to be addressed before anything else – and that is what happened.
When the players resume training at Edgbaston, three days per week from the start of next month, they will get straight back down to work on their cricket with Giles confident that all the other requirements will be in place.
“This time last year, it was very much about me finding out about what we had here,” he said. “About finding out how good people were, but also how fit they were and how they trained.
“Most of those things, I discovered, were pretty negative. We had let our fitness slip. Guys were drifting. Our punctuality was poor. The way we practised was soft. That gave us a lot of work to do but, full credit to the players, they really knuckled down.
“In quite a short time, we have come a long way in all those areas. So much so that the guys are now pretty much self-sufficient when it comes to maintaining their fitness levels. With a nudge here and there, they look after themselves.
“That is great because now we are at a level where we can concentrate on cricket skills rather than thinking about what time someone will turn up for a net.”
If fitness levels can appear over-emphasised, if not an obsession, at times in cricket these days, there is no doubt that Warwickshire benefited from staying strong, both mentally and physically, late last season.
In physical terms, that probably has a bit to do with the fact that they spent so much of the season waiting for the rain to stop. But a lot of that “dead” time was constructively spent in practice or fitness work and, come September, the Bears were well-equipped to put in the convincing finish they needed to clinch promotion in the championship.
In their last two championship matches, they swept Essex and Glamorgan to defeat with stunning final-day performances. Essex, theoretically still in the promotion equation, were outplayed on the last day at Chelmsford before Glamorgan surrended pathetically in the face of fine seam-bowling by Neil Carter and Chris Woakes.
Giles believes that powerful finish owes much to the fitness and conditioning work that began ten months earlier.
“I reckon we are the fittest side in the country,” Giles said. “The guys work hard and push themselves hard and that is why we finished the season so strongly.
“It was the difference at the end. We had a lot of guys available and fresh and pushed hard over the line when other teams were thinking ‘ah well, nearly there’. That is why we beat Essex and embarrassed Glamorgan.
“And it can only help when you end the season like we did, by winning a trophy. That means that players see the rewards and then they start doing extra work themselves. And it means, for us as a group, the big focus before Christmas will be on skills.”
Before the New Year, the focus will be on the batsmen in particular. All the Bears’ seam bowlers, including Rikki Clarke whom Warwickshire intend to work hard in pursuit of unearthing the significant all-round talent he threatens to squander, will travel to South Africa in February to spend three weeks with Allan Donald in Bloemfontein. Until Christmas, they will have a lighter workload to conserve their energies.
The batsmen, though, will spend many hours in the indoor nets under the watchful eyes of Giles, Keith Piper and Neal Abberley. Other than Jonathan Trott and Tony Frost, no Warwickshire batsman played enough long innings in the championship last season, while much improvement is also required in the one-day game. Improvements last season in the Bears’ one-day cricket, Twenty20 apart, were negligible.
“The bowlers won’t bowl for a while,” Giles said. “They will step it up in the New Year but between now and Christmas, the batters will hit a lot of balls.”