On Sunday September 18, 1994, Warwickshire's supporters travelled down to Bristol in force in the hope of seeing history made.
The Bears had banked the Benson & Hedges Cup and County Championship trophies. Victory over Gloucestershire in their final AXA Equity & Law League fixture would secure that title too and complete an unprecedented treble.
In front of a crowd of 4,500 (nearly all Bears fans) the home side won the toss and chose to bowl. And those Bears supporters were in for some early jolts. After Dominic Ostler, Neil Smith and Roger Twose fell for ducks, Warwickshire were three for three.
Then came a moment pivotal to not only that match but also the Bears’ tilt at making history.
We fed off the fans who were magnificent all season. They travelled in force and turned the last game into a home game. There was just an amazing spirit about the whole club because I think everyone knew that something special was happening.Dominic Ostler
“We were three for three,” recalls Ostler, “and it should have been three for four but Trevor Penney lifted his second ball into the covers and Courtney Walsh dropped it. Trevor went on to get 50 and Dermot Reeve got 50 and they lifted us to a decent total. Then we bowled them out and won quite comfortably to complete the treble.
“To be honest, I don’t remember too much about the individual games in the AXA League that season. It was an amazing year and a lot of the games are a bit of a blur. But I remember that game at Bristol – and I certainly remember the celebrations!”
The third strand of the treble had fallen into place with the Bears’ 13th win from 17 games to at last fend off the dogged challenge of arch-rivals Worcestershire who had to settle for second place. After winning their first six games, the Bears had gone top in early June and remained there.
It was a true team effort, powered by a mindset instilled by captain Reeve and director of coaching Bob Woolmer which was rooted in positivity and innovation. With batsmen encouraged to take risks, play new shots and show no fear, Warwickshire’s approach, was years ahead of its time. Such an aggressive strategy was music to the ears of Ostler.
“We were encouraged to be positive and that suited me because I always liked to get on with it,” he said. “Andy Lloyd had started it when he was captain. He hated negative cricket and was often prepared to risk losing to try to win. He would look at the fixtures and assess which games you could maybe afford to lose. He always tried to force games forward and that made them entertaining to watch and enjoyable to play in.
“Then Dermot took over and added his own ideas. We really targeted spinners. That season in the AXA League we scored at over six an over against spinners whereas the opponents scored at four an over against ours. It helped that one of ours, Neil Smith had such a great season and was the joint top wicket-taker in the Sunday League that year but our batters did everything they could to unsettle spinners, whether that was by reverse-sweeping or orthodox sweeping or lifting over the top.
“That was Dermot’s challenge to the batters. His challenge to the bowlers was simple; to concede fewer extras than the opposition, which we consistently did. That was vital in some of the tighter games.”
This is how the Bears AXA League triumph unfolded
Home to Leicestershire. Won by 22 runs
A winning start courtesy of unlikely hero. After Asif Din (54no) and Dermot Reeve (65no) lifted the Bears to 173 for four, the Foxes were hit by a dazzling spell from left-arm seamer Mickey Bell who took five for six in 18 balls on his way to 8-0-19-5.
Away to Somerset. Won by 5 wickets
Rain delayed the start long enough for Dermot Reeve to drive up from Lord’s where England’s ODI v New Zealand was washed out. The captain promptly opened the bowling in a match reduced to 20-overs-per-side and delivered 4-0-16-1. Gladstone Small conceded just eight from his four overs and Paul smith took three for 18 as Somerset made 105. Smith’s 41 underpinned the chase and Reeve’s two sixes in three balls off Mushtaq Ahmed saw the Bearss home with four balls to spare.
Away to Middlesex. Won by 3 wickets
Paul Smith dominated at Lord’s, taking 8-1-18-2 in Middlesex’s 155 for seven then, after Brian Lara was out first ball, scoring 44 to set the Bears up for a third successive win.
Home to Durham. Won by 84 runs
Oblivious to the history that would unfold the following day, the Bears made short work of Durham. Ostler’s 94-ball 83 lifted the Bears to 236 before Tim Munton took out Wayne Larkins and John Morris in the first over and Neil Smith’s three for 27 left the visitors miles adrift.
Home to Kent. Won by 6 wickets
Three more wickets for Neil Smith restricted Kent to 210 which the Bears passed with 11 balls to spare thanks to Lara’s 63 and Din’s 86 not out.
Away to Northamptonshire. Won by 114 runs
Six wins from six after Northamptonshire were hammered courtesy of Ostler’s 78 and Neil Smith’s four for 19 (taking his figures from three successive games to 24-5-80-10).
Home to Lancashire. Lost by 93 runs
The first blip, despite a remarkable spell from Reeve who conceded just nine runs from his eight overs. Lancashire 204, the Bears 111.
Home to Glamorgan. Won by 4 wickets
Back to winning ways thanks to Paul Smith. Three days after collecting the man-of-the-match award in the Benson & Hedges Cup final, Smith took five for 38 as Glamorgan were all out for 155. The Bears dipped to 45 for four but Smith (27), Reeve (52no) and Twose (28) saw the Bears home with nine balls to spare.
Away to Surrey. Won by 13 runs
On a fast-scoring deck at Guildford, the Bears were lifted to 249 by Twose’s 96. The New Zealander hit 23 from the last over (from Adam Hollioake) – vital runs, it transpired, as Surrey fell 13 short.
Home to Essex. Won by 3 wickets
Neil Smith’s three for 28 and Paul Smith’s two for 34 restricted Essex to 147. Paul Smith’s 45 then set up a win more comfortable than the margin suggests, two wickets having fallen with just three runs required.
Away to Derbyshire. No result
The Bears appeared well-placed after scoring 239 before rain arrived at Queen’s Park.
Home to Worcestershire. Lost by 3 runs
More than 10,000 saw a game which really tightened up the title-race. Chasing the visitors’ 182, Ostler and Andy Moles took the Bears to 114 without loss before a collapse sent them into the last over needing eight runs. They managed only four and Worcestershire closed to within four points with a game in hand.
Home to Nottinghamshire. Won by 72 runs
Lara sent a six on to the pavilion roof on his way to 75 out of 294. Nottinghamshire then lost wickets, including three to Neil Smith, too regularly to mount a challenge.
Away to Yorkshire. Lost by 54 runs
A shock defeat at Scarborough kept the title equation open. Chasing 209, the Bears, without the injured Lara, collapsed to 67 for six and there was no way back. Worcestershire won to move level on points.
Away to Sussex. Won by 5 wickets
After Reeve (8-1-16-2) led a tight bowling display to restrict Sussex to 157, Ostler’s superb unbeaten 84 clouted the Bears to victory with four overs to spare. Then came good news from New Road – seven days after damaging Warwickshire’s title hopes, Yorkshire had done the same to their rivals. The Bears were four points ahead of Worcestershire and two ahead of Kent, who jumped to second.
Home to Hampshire. Won on faster scoring rate
On a rain-affected Tuesday, Hampshire made 197 before Lara’s 56 puts the Bears ahead of the rate and an unbroken stand of 51 in nine overs between Reeve and Penney kept them there.
Away to Gloucestershire. Won by 46 runs.
The equation was simple. Victory – and the title and treble was Warwickshire’s. Let the celebrations begin!
“It was just a fantastic thing to be part of,” recalls Ostler. “We all knew our roles and we all contributed. We were just told to go out there and play without fear and that snowballed. There was a real buzz about the team and the club.
“We fed off the fans who were magnificent all season. They travelled in force and turned the last game into a home game. There was just an amazing spirit about the whole club because I think everyone knew that something special was happening.
“The only disappointing thing came later on when we didn’t win the BBC TV Sports Personality of the Year. We were short-listed for the award so went down to London and they had invited the whole team so we were thinking we must be in with a chance.
“And then the award went to…Wigan rugby club. We applauded them, of course, but through gritted teeth!”