In the lead up to the 2016 domestic season, ecb.co.uk is running a series of features with all 18 first-class counties. Worcestershire will have Tom Fell in their thoughts this term as he battles with testicular cancer.
Worcestershire’s priorities for the 2016 season would seem fairly obvious – aim to bounce straight back to the top tier of the Specsavers County Championship, to repeat last season’s impressive form in the NatWest T20 Blast, and to make a significant improvement in the Royal London One-Day Cup. But there is a more human concern that will never be far from the thoughts of anyone at New Road as they prepare for their Championship opener at home to Kent next weekend.
The players, and all at the club, were rocked by the news during the winter first that Tom Fell, such a talented young batsman, had been diagnosed with testicular cancer – and then, in March, that he would need chemotherapy.
Fell, who was comfortably the county’s leading scorer last season as he adjusted impressively to the challenges of batting in Division One, had been cleared to play club cricket in Perth after surgery in October. But now the 22-year-old has been ruled out until at least June.
“We just want to be positive for him,” said Steve Rhodes, Worcestershire’s director of cricket. “Our lads are very close, partly because we’ve got a lot of them who are pretty young and around the same age, and Tom’s a really likeable character around the dressing room.
“You can’t get away from the fact that losing him for the start of the season is a big blow to us on the pitch. He got more than 1,000 runs in Division One last season, which was a terrific achievement. Now he’s going through the chemo, and we’re all thinking of him and obviously wish him well. We want him to be playing for Worcestershire again before the end of the season.”
Glib as it sounds given the battle facing Fell, his absence is likely to thrust more responsibility on Joe Clarke, the 19-year-old wicketkeeper batsman who joined Rhodes and his county team-mate Ross Whiteley on the England Lions programme during the winter.
Clarke batted at three in this week’s first-class fixture against Oxford MCCU at The Parks and held the first innings together with 119 from 176 balls before he was eighth out with the score on 261.
His dismissal was followed by a boundary-laden ninth-wicket stand of 84 between Jack Shantry and Ed Barnard, who was an England team-mate of Clarke’s at the 2014 ICC Under-19 World Cup, and was joined in Worcestershire’s seam attack at The Parks by Josh Tongue – a highly-rated 18-year-old, who dismissed both the Oxford openers with the new ball.
Tongue was one of three members of Worcestershire’s increasingly productive academy who were included in the England Development Programme this winter, along with batsman Josh Dell and Ben Twohig, a left-arm spinner born in Yorkshire who was also put on standby for the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh.
“We’re growing a team that will hopefully be pretty useful in the next two or three years, if they stick together,” added Rhodes.
But the pragmatist in him knows that Worcestershire will need their senior players to lead if they are to prosper in a potentially tricky season.
Matt Mason delighted with progress made this winter by paceman Josh Tongue who yesterday marked his first class debut with two wickets.
— Worcestershire CCC (@WorcsCCC) April 1, 2016
“It’s quite a blow for teams in the Second Division to suddenly have it thrust on them that there’s only one promotion place, not two as it’s been for quite a few years now,” he said.
“It makes the challenge even more difficult, and frustrating in that sense. It is a blow but we all know the rules.
“You look at Sussex, who came down with us last year, and you could argue they’ve got two overseas players because Steve Magoffin has got himself classified as a local player, meaning they’ve also been able to sign Ross Taylor.”
Worcestershire have also been busy in the overseas market, and New Zealand pace bowler Matt Henry is set to make his debut against Kent. Henry is due to stay until the end of June before passing the baton to South Africa’s Kyle Abbott, and Rhodes has strengthened his T20 options by signing Mitchell Santner, the left-arm spinner who has been so impressive for New Zealand in recent weeks and months – and whose middle-order combination with the big-hitting Whiteley could be devastating.
Throw in the occasional appearance for Moeen Ali, despite his likely requirement by England in all three forms of the game, and Worcestershire have every reason to approach the season with optimism. But as Rhodes says, the top priority for everyone at the club would be to see Tom Fell back on the field at New Road before September.