Warwickshire’s players have reported back to full time training with memories of last year’s pre-season tour to the Caribbean long consigned to history.
Players face an altogether more demanding schedule this spring, with the new director of cricket, Ashley Giles, turning to the army to help instil the discipline and fitness that he desires from his squad. There has been much talk at Warwickshire about rediscovering the sense of fun that has been so obviously absent over the last couple of years. Quite right, too.
But Giles is also keen to add some steel to his squad. He was underwhelmed by both the time-keeping and the standards of fitness in the squad he inherited and has enlisted the help of the army to ensure an improvement.
Not only will the army assist Giles in pre-season training, but they have also agreed a single-season sponsorship deal with the club. The army is now the ‘official partner of the Edgbaston Cricket Centre’ and their logo will appear on the shirts of academy players.
The sum of money involved is not enormous. But both parties are hopeful this is the start of a long-term relationship that could grow into a major deal.
The mutual attraction is obvious. Both professions require team work and fitness, with the army hoping the association will aid recruitment of the 16-24 year olds they require. Birmingham is currently the most successful recruiting area in the country, but the poor general levels of fitness are a continuing concern. Women’s upper bodies are occupying most attention; a state of affairs with which many men could identify.
"When I took over as director if cricket, the target I gave the guys was to be the fittest squad in the country," Giles said. "We were way off that a few months ago. I didn’t think there was enough emphasis on fitness, but we’ve made great progress and that’s all you can ask.
"Fitness in cricket is crucial to success and, just as the army aim to ‘be the best’ that is what I want us to be. I want my side to have the same discipline and respect that you would see in army life.
"County cricket lends itself towards losing fitness over the course of the season. Whether it’s the travel, living in hotels or eating on the run, it all requires an enormous amount of discipline to keep yourself in the best state possible.
"Fitness should be a given at this level. I do want the players to have fun, but a lot of that comes with winning. Losing is no fun at all, but working and winning together is where the fun comes in."
The majority of the squad appeared supremely fit. Michael Powell, belying the greying hair and veteran status, performed better than anyone in the ‘bleep test’, while Lee Daggett, Ian Westwood, Darren Maddy, Richard Johnson and, perhaps surprisingly, Neil Carter also stood out.
Training is set to be tougher still next week. The squad will travel to Bramcote Barracks near Nuneaton for exercises organised by the army.
"They’re in for a bit of a shock," Lieutenant Colonel John Moody, who is in charge of regional recruiting, said, "but hopefully a fun shock." Without divulging too many military secrets, any rabbits in the Bramcote area might want to keep a very low profile next week.
"Being a soldier demands high levels of fitness and total commitment," Moody continued. "Our involvement with Warwickshire gives us the opportunity to remind the public of this. The partnership will include work with schools and colleges and is an ideal vehicle to communicate that essentially soldiers are ordinary people doing extraordinary things on a daily basis."
The sponsorship deal is also timely for Warwickshire’s marketing department. They were stung by public criticism from Steven Mills, the club’s treasurer, last week but feel they are performing admirably in testing circumstances.
They are quietly confident that two more deals could be announced before the start of the season and say that hospitality and membership sales are more than respectable. Former prime minister John Major is the latest new member.