For a professional cricketer, a benefit year can be a mixed blessing.
You make a few quid, all being well, of course, but many a player’s on-field performances have deteriorated under the weight of distraction from organising and attending events.
Tim Ambrose, Warwickshire’s beneficiary in 2016, was determined that wasn’t going to happen.
And it didn’t happen.
During a season when the team performed consistently inconsistently, Ambrose’s standards, behind the stumps and with the bat, were enduringly high.
In the Specsavers County Championship he averaged 39.93 with the bat, hitting a century and six half-centuries, and snared 57 victims with the gloves. He did not figure in the NatWest T20 Blast (that might change next season) but was a huge factor in the Royal London One-Day Cup triumph with a batting average of 59.50.
Mission accomplished then. In the last two years Ambrose, who will be 34 next week, has played arguably as well as at any time in a career which brought him 11 Test and six limited-overs caps for England. And, signed up until 2018, he is still looking very much forward rather than back.
“This year I have been very lucky to have some really good people looking after my benefit,” Ambrose said. “The idea was that the benefit should firstly not affect my cricket too much, hopefully not at all, and secondly not be too much of a worry because they can be quite stressful.
“I think we accomplished both. All season I felt I was completely dedicated and focused on the field.
“I was pleased with my form. I could have turned a few more scores into match-turning innings but felt I was always 100 per cent focused which is what I ask of myself every time I play for Warwickshire.
“Like everybody I was disappointed with the season as a team, but personally I felt I was making strides in the right direction which is pleasing. I feel great. In 2015 I felt physically the best I have in my career which surprised me more than anyone to be honest. But the body still feels good and we’re already in at Edgbaston working hard for the winter. The more time I put in now the better chance of playing as many games as possible next year.
“Mentally and skill-wise, last season I felt in a great place to influence games which is what, as a senior player, I should be doing. If ever a time comes when I feel I can’t do that, that’s when I’ll have a look at things, but at the moment it feels great.”
Over the last decade, Ambrose’s quiet, under-stated presence has become integral to Warwickshire’s first-team picture. Never mind his batting and wicketkeeping skills, his cricket nous and knowledge is of immense value – and not just to the young players. In the run-up to this year’s Royal London Cup final, Jonathan Trott pinpointed Ambrose’s ability to read a pitch and ensure the batsmen pace an innings correctly as vital to their progress to the final.
With all that knowledge, allied to an likeable, articulate personality, Ambrose surely has the makings of an excellent coach. Over the years it is not an direction he has thought much about taking in his post-playing days – but that’s starting to change.
“Last week at Edgbaston we worked a lot on different skills and I found it really helpful to work with the younger lads,” Ambrose said. “They are keen as mustard to hit as many balls as they can and I spent a bit of time trying to help them develop. And I didn’t realise how rewarding it is.
“I would be a bit of a fool if, after 17 years in the game, I hadn’t picked anything up, but I was surprised that some of the things I take for granted these lads haven’t had the chance to learn yet. It’s nice to try to offer these things to lads who are as keen as anything and would train 48 hours a day if they could. And it also help us senior guys because sometimes you can forget the basics with all that goes on in a long season.
“I never really saw myself going into coaching but I guess, in a way, it would be foolish to spend as long in the game as I have and then, when I am done, not think about it. But it would have to be for the right reasons. I have certainly found it genuinely rewarding so maybe I have got something to offer.
“I’m not thinking too much about that though yet. Hopefully there are a few tales still to write for me as a player!”
In the immediate term, that means helping the Bears improve in 2017 on a 2016 season bedevilled by that inconsistency.
“We stayed in the First Division, narrowly missed out on a quarter-final and won a trophy which, on paper, is not too bad a season,” he said. “But you could see the difference between our cricket in the trophy we won and the other two formats. The way we went about that the 50-over comp was very clear and specific and we executed it brilliantly. That was the difference.
“In four-day cricket we were really inconsistent and even in our best games we felt there was more to come from us. In the last game, where it was all laid out in front of us and we had to win, we showed what we are capable of. Our ability kept us up but we need to translate the quality of our 50-over cricket back into the other formats as the standard where we need to be.”