George Dobell, Chief Cricket Writer, outlines the concerns facing Vikram Solanki’s team and an endearing club despite the many pleasing landmarks achieved during the 2008 season.
Division One status: Promotion in the LV County Championship and survival in the NatWest Pro40 surely constitutes an impressive season by any standards. Worcestershire were, at full strength, the best side in Division Two of the championship and thoroughly deserved to bounce back. Bearing in mind the vast differences in financial turnover, for Worcestershire to start next season in the division above Surrey is a triumph.
Retention: Success attracts attention and several of Worcestershire’s players have been courted by other counties. Stephen Moore, for example, was of interest to 12 other teams. Some offered more money, some offered more glamour, some offered more consistent prospects of success. Yet Worcestershire retained him. In recent seasons they have also won battles for the services of Simon Jones and Moeen Ali as well as retaining Kabir Ali and Graeme Hick. It can only be testament to an excellent spirit engendered by Steve Rhodes, the director of cricket, and fine management by Mark Newton, the chief executive.
Simon Jones: There were some raised eyebrows when Worcestershire signed the injury-prone Jones last year. He had taken only two first-class wickets in the previous two seasons, after all. Yes, injury curtailed his campaign once again but before that he produced the best season of his career (in terms of first-class and List A wickets; 42 at 18 apiece and nine at 15 apiece respectively) and gave the attack real bite. His spells at Grace Road and The Rose Bowl, in particular, were thrilling and even if there were times when he looked horribly stiff most would have accepted the final tally before the season started. Talk of an England recall remains premature, however.
Kabir Ali: Confirmed his position as the leading exponent of the new ball in county cricket. He credits time spent weightlifting for the extra few miles an hour that made him even more dangerous this summer. His 59 wickets at 18.74 and a strikerate of a wicket every five overs is exceptional but, bearing in mind that many of his wickets were top-order batsmen, his value rises still further. An excessive workload curtailed his season but there should be no long-term problems. What more does he have to do to win an England recall?
Imran Arif: Few had heard of him when he was signed as an overseas player but he responded with 22 wickets at 26 apiece and should return next season as an England-qualified player. He looks a fine acquisition and is the reward for effective scouting and talent identification.
Stephen Moore: The top run-scorer in English cricket. Produced the season of his life and, at times, looked a class apart. A repeat season will surely lead to England recognition.
Vikram Solanki: Bounced back after a disappointing 2007. He was impressive in both forms of the game, culminating in a career-best score at Cheltenham - not bad for a fellow who “would always struggle against the highest quality bowling” according to Duncan Fletcher.
Colchester: Set 347 to win, Worcestershire responded by securing a rousing six-wicket success that took them to the brink of promotion.
Cheltenham: A series of batting records fell as Worcestershire scored 672 for seven and won by an innings and 142-runs. Gloucestershire were shocking but Kabir’s bowling and Solanki’s batting were tremendous entertainment.
Redevelopment: If Worcestershire were to have any hope of remaining at New Road they had to redevelop the ground. It was costing £50,000 a year simply to clean the pavilion and ensure it met health and safety standards. The new one, which should be in place in the early part of next season, will be above the level of most floods and will include improved dressing-rooms. It is only the first step in a much larger development that will at least minimise the disruption caused by future floods.
Support bowling: Worcestershire remain over-reliant on Kabir Ali and Gareth Batty. Though Gareth Andrew (bowling average of 38) improved over the course of the season and Chris Whelan (bowling average of 40) showed glimpses of form they will need to improve their bowling considerably next year.
Chesterfield: An aberration. A team at almost full strength lost by an innings and 95-runs in three days to Derbyshire. Awful.
Middlesex at Kidderminster: The second innings lasted only 39.1 overs as Worcestershire were brushed aside for 122. It illustrated a worryingly brittle trait that they must eradicate if they are to flourish next season.
Moeen Ali: A very disappointing year. Next season may prove pivotal.
Overseas support: Though Steve Magoffin performed admirably without much reward, his departure left Worcestershire exposed. Fidel Edwards pulled out of his deal before a succession of other overseas players flirted with the club (Ashish Nehra, disgracefully, agreed a deal only to then ask for more money) before Dilhara Fernando’s late, and almost irrelevant, stint. Securing a high-quality overseas player is clearly vital for next season’s prospects; Magoffin appears the obvious choice.
Flooding: “As long as this [flooding] doesn’t become a regular event, we will be OK. If it starts to happen every five years then we may have to rethink things but we wouldn’t entertain any thought of a venue change because of one awful summer.”
Those words were spoken by Mark Newton in July 2007. The return of flooding, then, does not bode well for the club. The arrangement with Kidderminster Victoria CC, and the fact that it occurred late in the season, meant it was not as serious as it might have been. But concerns remain about the long-term viability of cricket at New Road; truly the Venice of cricket grounds.
Cardiff: It hardly rained yet the championship match was abandoned without a ball being bowled. Had Worcestershire won with full points they might have lifted the Division Two trophy. And the ground is meant to be hosting an Ashes Test match as soon as next July…
Rain: All teams were affected by poor weather but did any suffer as much as Worcestershire? Remember Horsham; when the umpires abandoned play with only three balls required to constitute a result and a Worcestershire win? Or Edgbaston in April when Warwickshire were on the ropes? Promising positions against Leicestershire and Derbyshire were also lost to rain.
Replacing Hick: It’s an almost impossible task. It’s not just the mountain of runs or his superb slip catching, either. It’s the impetus he gave to Worcestershire’s Twenty20 cricket, the calm head and power he brought to limited-overs batting and the reassuring presence he provided to everyone else at the club. He is simply irreplaceable.
Redevelopment: Reasoning that their ground is worth little, Worcestershire know they must redevelop to survive at New Road. Though they did win planning permission for an 80-bed hotel they are reapplying with a view to building a 120-bed facility. A business partner has been secured and the money from the deal should enable the remainder of the ground to be developed in a manner that will prevent serious damage from future floods. The scheme, costing about £10million, is a calculated risk and will do nothing to stop the pitch flooding. The new television deal, which looks likely to earn each club an extra £250,000-400,000 per year, surely comes at an ideal time.
Given good fortune with injury and the weather, there is no reason why Worcestershire should not prosper in 2009. At full strength they will be a match for anyone. The concern, as ever, remains over their strength in depth. Kabir and Gareth Batty, in particular, seem irreplaceable.
Off the pitch, they need a drier summer. Concerns remain about the long-term viability of cricket at New Road and the ground redevelopment – sensible though it is – raises the stakes.
One of the great delights of watching Worcestershire, however, is that they keep proving the doubters wrong. Long may it continue.