Cricket: WAR R EN PEACE; Reprieved Bear aims to take second chance Chief Cricket Writer George Dobell on a young Warwickshire bowler playing for his future.
Much can change in a year. Just ask Nick Warren.
This time last year, Warwickshire's 22-year-old swing bowler appeared to be on the brink of an early exit from the professional game.
'I had just returned from Australia,' he said. 'I had already been told I was free to find another county and I was desperate to prove myself. Then, I was diagnosed with a stress fracture of the lower back and was out for three months.
'I wasn't even in a position to try to change their minds. Things looked grim and it's fair to say I was pretty down.'
Inevitably, his thoughts turned to life after cricket. 'Nothing beats playing and although I was trying to focus on what I was going to do when I was fit again, I was planning to move into sports physiotherapy. It's still something I want to get into sooner rather than later.'
Sitting outside the office of chief executive Dennis Amiss last September, waiting to hear his future, Warren received a call from his agent informing him that a potential deal at another county had fallen through. Not the best moment of his career.
But Warren won a reprieve. Impressing the coaching staff with his attitude ('I told them 'I'll prove that I shouldn't be released', he says) and potential, he was rewarded with another year's contract. He made his Championship debut at the end of last season, taking three wickets in the draw at Northampton and has started this season as part of the first team.
He wintered in Perth at the Peter Bolt scholarship, occasionally meeting up with John Inverarity, Warwickshire's director of cricket, working under Steve Perryman, one of the county's bowling coaches, and Australian Darryl Foster. 'That was a tremendous opportunity,' he says. 'Things went well for me in grade cricket. I took quite a few wickets and felt I had good rhythm.
'I feel blessed with our coaching staff, too' he says, without a trace of sycophancy. 'As a group of young bowlers we really couldn't ask for more than Steve Perryman, Allan Donald and Heath Streak to help us develop. There's such a lot of experience and excellence there. I know I feel very lucky being able to talk to Steve, in particular, about swing bowling.
'But John Inverarity would be the first to say that, in the end, it's down to us as individual players. We have to take responsibility for our own performances.'
Warren was a member of the Under-19 World Cup team of 2000, a squad that included Ian Bell and Alex Loudon. At the time, he appeared to have a bright future but, perhaps hindered by a lack of height, progress was slow. While other members of the squad graduated into first-class cricket, Warren's progress stalled.
He said: 'Their careers moved forwards and mine stood still. Why? If I'm honest, I probably wasn't good enough for first-class cricket. I've had a few injuries, sure, but I wouldn't want to hide behind that. I do feel I'm a much better player now.
'I've definitely got ambitions as a batsman. I played second-grade cricket in Perth over the winter, batting at six or seven, and I take pride in my batting. I've already volunteered my services as nightwatchman.'
During our conversation. Naqaash Tahir appears. Sidelined for a couple of months with back problems of his own, Naqaash has had to stand by and watch as Warren has taken his spot in the side. It can't be easy and he wouldn't be human if he didn't feel a little piqued at such a twist of fate.
Yet here he is, shaking Warren's hand with real warmth and congratulating him on his fine bowling to date.
'There is a great camaraderie in the squad,' Warren agrees as Naqaash departs. 'Ian Westwood and I have been here for ten years, so has Ian Bell. We all played at Under-10 level together and Naqaash has been here for a few years too. We're all good friends.
'There is competition for places but there's also real support. The young bowlers at the club look at themselves as a unit and we really do help one another. I hope that I can play in the same Warwickshire side as Naqaash when he's fit again.
'It was hard to watch my friends, like Jamie Spires and Huw Jones, be released at the end of last year. But I know they want me to go on and make it and, if anything, it's just helped make me more determined. I know how lucky I am to get this far and coming so close to being released has made me appreciate my current position even more.
'It was odd being part of the Championship celebrations. Ian Westwood and I had played in only one game, so we didn't fully feel a part of the success but it was great of the club to make us feel so included and I think all players perform their best when they feel backed.
'[Captain] Nick Knight and John Inverarity have been very supportive. I've always felt valued and supported and I'm very grateful for that.
'Lots of other clubs would have signed two overseas players and that could well have blocked the development of our young players. But Nick always tells us there's no first or second team; just a first-team squad and he's backed us all the way.
'John often talks about the positive feel of the team and the club and I think everyone gets a lift if they feel they've a genuine chance of playing for the first team.'