Warwickshire will launch their 2017 Specsavers County Championship campaign against Surrey at The Oval tomorrow - and first-team coach Jim Troughton admits the Bears' tough opening fixtures present them with "a real challenge."
The first three championship games pit the Bears against two teams fancied as title-contenders as they face Surrey away and at home either side of Yorkshire's visit to Edgbaston.
It will be a testing start for Troughton's team - and an indication of what lies ahead in what is expected to be a fiercely competitive Division One, trimmed to eight teams for the first time, this season.
"Now it's a question of getting down to The Oval, having a look at the conditions down there and the wicket and of course we will have the option of what to do with the toss as the away team."
"We know we have got a real challenge to start with in those early games," Troughton said. "But if you look at the fixtures and where we have got to go during the season, there will be no games where you think 'they look a bit under par.' All the teams look strong and all will think they have a chance of getting to the top of the table.
"It is going to be really tough this year with 25 per cent of the teams in Division One going to be relegated. That's a high percentage and everyone is aware of that, but if we focus on what we do well, we are in good fettle.
"We have tried to prepare as well as we can for these first 12 days of cricket because they are really important. I feel that we are in a good space. Now it's a question of getting down to The Oval, having a look at the conditions down there and the wicket and of course we will have the option of what to do with the toss as the away team."
Warwickshire will line up under captain Ian Bell with spinner Jeetan Patel freshly arrived from New Zealand. Patel, the reigning Specsavers MVP, landed in Birmingham on Tuesday, was in the nets on Wednesday and is ready to embark upon his mission to harvest a sixth successive season's haul of 50-plus championship wickets.
That is a superb record considering how difficult wickets are to take in Division One. And they are unlikely to come easily for Patel and his team-mates at The Oval over the next four days against a Surrey batting line-up renowned for its strength and further strengthened by winter signings.
"In terms of recruitment Surrey are never going to struggle to get guys to the club and that's been no different this winter with Scott Borthwick and Mark Stoneman coming in," Troughton said. "That adds to their formidable batting line-up with the likes of Kumar Sangakkara.
"Surrey are strong and then we face Yorkshire who will be chomping at the bit to take back the title that they missed out on last year. There are a lot of challenges ahead for us, as there are for all the counties, and I think it's going to be a really tight and fascinating season."
Warwickshire have announced a squad of 15 for the game with Surrey at the Kia Oval.
- Ian Bell (Captain)
- Tim Ambrose (Wicket-Keeper)
- Liam Banks
- Keith Barker
- Rikki Clarke
- Sam Hain
- Oliver Hannon-Dalby
- Alex Mellor (Wicket-Keeper)
- George Panayi
- Jeetan Patel
- William Porterfield
- Sunny Singh
- Grant Thornton
- Jonathan Trott
- Chris Wright
Ian Westwood is unavailable due to a fractured navicular in his left foot, and is expected to return to action in two weeks.
Boyd Rankin continues his rehabilitation from a back problem, suffered during Ireland’s series in India against Afghanistan, and his situation will continue to be monitored weekly as he builds up to full fitness.
The Bears are targeting a July return for Olly Stone, following his anterior cruciate ligament injury suffered last year.
Aaron Thomason and George Panayi have both recovered from stress-related back injuries. Mark Adair has recently started bowling again in training, following a back injury sustained last year, and hopes to be match fit in early May.
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