Riki Wessels Parentheses To Refresh Role-flip, In Worcestershire > Cricket News, cricinfo, mobilecric, cricbuzz, livescore and more
Cricket news - Riki Wessels braces for refreshing role flip in Worcestershire
As manager of Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson always maintained that giving youth its head was vital to the success of the club. "If you give young people your attention and an opportunity to succeed, it is amazing how much they will surprise you," he told the Harvard Business Review in 2013. Few will forget Alan Hansen's famous line on Match of the Day in 1995 - "You can't win anything with kids" - but Ferguson proved him wrong to the tune of 25 major honours during 26 years in charge.
Over the past four years, Worcestershire have adopted a similar philosophy to that of Ferguson, developing a core of young, homegrown players to take the club forward. It makes financial sense because they cannot afford to shell out big money for big name signings, but it has also created a sense of community and commitment surrounding the clubs that those without a similar core can struggle to recreate.
Understandably, it has taken a huge amount of time and effort, and there have been bumps along the way, but the graft was rewarded last year with the county's first ever T20 Blast title, and their first limited overs trophy of any kind for 11 years. It could be a coming of age moment for this young squad, even if Championship relegation was a reminder they are far from the finished article.
"Now I am getting on a bit, they do feel really young," Worcestershire batsman Riki Wessels jokes. The 33 year-old has arrived from Nottinghamshire, unofficially swapping places with Joe Clarke, one of the brightest talents to come out of Worcestershire's academy, who has moved the other way to Trent Bridge. It is a reminder that for the so-called smaller clubs, hanging on to their best young talent remains a never ending struggle but it won't deter the club from their philosophy. They will simply produce another talented batsman.
Wessels is certainly excited by what he has seen so far. "Most of my career, I have played with a lot of older guys and I've been the young one coming through so it's a bit of a change up now," he says. "The squad is quite promising. There are a lot of young guys but they have been around a long time now, too. They are probably not quite at the level they would want to be at but that's what you expect from young guys. They've got silverware now and hopefully we can push forward and get some more."
The first trophy is often the hardest to achieve and Worcestershire's Finals Day victory last summer at Edgbaston was a brilliant hatchet job on more experienced and more fancied teams. Expertly led by Moeen Ali, and with wicket-keeper Ben Cox and 20 year-old seamer Pat Brown to the fore, it showed just how much talent the county has at its disposal and how good a job they have done at harnessing it. Most impressive was how they held their nerve at crucial moments, an indication that there is plenty of steel amongst their skill.
With that maiden victory, however, comes increased expectation. "Having played for 15 years and won only three trophies myself, to win something early on is great. It can give you a drive to move forward," Wessels says. "But it's also hard to maintain those standards after you have won something because the game is changing quickly. It's never going to be easy."
Aside from their T20 triumph, Worcestershire's relegation from the top flight in the Championship continued a sequence of flitting between the two divisions. Maintaining their Division One status has been notoriously difficult and last season was another stark reminder of the consistency required in the top flight. Ten defeats from 14 games was a poor return but they were rarely outclassed and were not that far adrift of safety despite only winning two matches. As so often, it was so near, yet so far.
They will be expected to be there or thereabouts to go straight back up come the end of this season, however, particularly with three promotion spots available, although they are fully aware that nothing can be taken for granted. Victories for Leicestershire and Derbyshire and a draw for Northants against Middlesex in the first round of games which, on the face of it, were upsets against more fancied teams, suggest Division Two will be a dogfight this term. Wessels believes Worcestershire's yo-yoing between the two divisions may actually help them. The vast majority of the squad has experienced the pressure of a successful promotion campaign, an edge which could be vital over the other counties.
Clarke's departure for Nottinghamshire cannot be dismissed even if the club have made all the right noises about moving on and giving opportunities to others. It is a huge blow to Worcestershire given he scored three Championship hundreds last season and has started this year with 112 and 97 not out for Notts in the opening Championship round. Wessels' arrival is designed to plug at least some of that gap and his experience and undoubted class, alongside that of club stalwart Daryl Mitchell, will be expected to yield the sort of consistency that some of the club's other batsmen still lack. South African quick Wayne Parnell has also joined full time as a Kolpak signing after playing last year as an overseas.
The decision to leave Trent Bridge after seven years was a difficult one for Wessels but he felt it necessary to give his career a reboot at a time when it would have been easy for it to fizzle out. A host of batting arrivals at Notts including Clarke, Ben Duckett and Ben Slater meant opportunities in first-class cricket would probably have been limited this season and the dynamic of the dressing room had changed over the last two years.
It just wasn't the same as it had been before when the likes of Chris Read and Michael Lumb had still been around. It wasn't necessarily a bad change. It was just different. And it presented Wessels, Australian born but South African raised, with a reason to think about moving on. "I just wanted a fresh start and to find my enjoyment of cricket again," he says. "I wanted to keep the spark going. There was a massive change in personnel over the last couple of years at Trent Bridge and I understand clubs need to do that to stay relevant and fresh themselves. That was fine.
"I had two years left at Notts which I could have seen out if I had wanted to but I really wanted to find that love the game again. I felt a little bit stale. I felt like I hadn't changed a great deal and to stay relevant you need those little pushes from time to time. Hopefully that's what this change will bring about for me."
As part of getting back that enjoyment is a determination to return to the free flowing style he has become renowned for. When Nottinghamshire won both the T20 Blast and 50-over tournament in 2017, Wessels played a key part, particularly in the shortest format. He was involved in four century partnerships in the Blast and was the tournament's second highest run scorer, all at a strike rate of 151. He has previously said T20 is "when I get to be me" but he has found the balancing act of attack and defence in red-ball cricket harder to master.
However, with age, and 573 professional matches, comes perspective and understanding. "It has developed over time, being able to play with more freedom," he says. "At times during my career, I've gone into my shell especially in red ball cricket. That doesn't help me or the team I am playing for. Hopefully now I can express myself and play the way that I play. Hopefully in red ball that comes out but in T20 and 50-over cricket, that's no different for me. That's when I get to showcase the different shots I've got. Sometimes at the wrong times but having that ability and confidence to feel like I can take on anybody is massive for me.
"When you're a bit younger, you always feel like you have got something to prove and that you're always playing for a place. You always feel like you're under threat. The older I have got, the more I have realised that if I am only going to get one chance, I may as well play it my way. As you get older, that probably gets easier. You understand that with success comes failure. When you're younger, you probably highlight the failure more than the success. It's human nature."
Wessels spent the winter playing in the Afghanistan Premier League and Pakistan Super League as well as the T10 tournament in the UAE although his opportunities to get onto the park were limited. "My wife gets more frustrated than me when I haven't been playing," he jokes. "But she probably cops the brunt of how I am feeling. I always want to go and play. I always say it's a short career, cricket is going to be around a long time after I am gone so I might as well try and get the most out of it while I can by playing as much as I can, whenever I can.
"But it's very difficult when you are not playing. The franchises generally have big squads and if you're not in the playing 12 or 13, your opportunities for training are not always there. The older you get, you take what you can out of those experiences and realise you are probably not going to get your 25 minute bat against the best bowlers."
Despite all the talk of age and experience, Wessels is nowhere near winding down. He has a three-year deal at Worcestershire and is keen for more franchise opportunities, too. Having qualified in 2016, an England call-up is also still on his radar. "That would be lovely," he says. "T20 would probably be my only chance at an international cap and I've always maintained that if you lose that ambition to play international cricket, what are you playing for? If I don't have it in the back of my mind that I want to play against the best in the world, there really is no point in playing the game. It would be nice but it's not something at the forefront of my mind right now. I've just got to belt a load of runs and try and win more trophies for Worcester."
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