Michael Powell's career as a professional cricketer with Warwickshire began with an unexpected honour. On his very first day, in the spring of 1994, the 18-year-old found himself dining with the Bears' star overseas player.
“On my first day as a pro I had lunch with Manoj Prabhakar,” Powell recalls. “It was a thrill to sit down with our overseas player and we had a nice chat and he was very pleasant and humble and then we finished and said ‘see you around.’ I never saw him again!”
Ahead of Prabhakar, due to an injury, was an early flight back to India. Ahead of Warwickshire was perhaps the greatest signing coup in the history of sport – Brian Lara. Ahead of Powell, as the Bears romped to a sensational treble, was “the best apprenticeship anyone ever had.”
I was left in no doubt where I was in the pecking order when, on my first day, Abbers walked me round the ground and listed about 14 or 15 players who were ahead of me.Michael Powell
In his first season as a Bear, Rugby-born Powell was a regular in the 2nds XI, scoring 677 runs at 45.13 apiece. That was a decent start and a fine career, including captaincy of his beloved county, was to follow – and he admits he struck lucky when the launch of his career happened to coincide with that incredible year.
“It was the best apprenticeship anyone ever had,” he said. “I had so many great masters to learn from – Bob Woolmer, Dermot Reeve, Andy Moles, Gladstone Small, Tim Munton – you can just go down the scorecard. And then there was the magic that Brian Lara brought.
“The week before the season started we had the press day and photocall. It was my first and there were hundreds of photographers there. They were there for Lara, of course, but for some reason, all the snappers went along the rows taking pictures of us all. I thought it was just normal!
“But that was Lara. What he brought wasn’t just about cricket. He brought world stardom.
“I remember when he made his debut against Glamorgan we were practicing on the Colts Ground. Neal Abberley was always a stickler for proper practice, but when it was clear that Lara would be batting soon we all said to him: ‘Come on coach’ and we all ran over the bridge into the Raglan Stand to watch. Even Abbers was running!
“Rex Wallbank announced: “The new batsman is Brian Lara” and it was just magic. And sure enough he scored a century. Never mind that David Hemp had scored a really good century despite being hit on the head twice or that Roger Twose batted forever for 277, Brian just batted on a different plane to anyone else.”
The mesmeric, momentous road to the treble had begun and Powell, who had started 1994 in Sri Lanka with the England Under 19s team under the captaincy of Michael Vaughan, was just thrilled to get in and around the first-team environment whenever he could.
“I had fielded for the first team the year before,” said Powell, now head of cricket and a deputy housemaster at Rugby School. “I fielded at short leg when Michael Atherton was facing Allan Donald and I was used as a fielder quite a bit. I used to run baths and fetch ice and it was just a thrill to be around that dressing room with those players.
“I worked hard on my fielding and my fitness and just tried to learn all I could. I remember driving over to Edgbaston from Rugby with Darren Altree one Saturday morning and Dermot sat us down with the video-player and put on an old VHS tape. It was Surrey spinner James Boiling bowling to Dominic Ostler and Trevor Penney and they took two or three runs off every ball, sweeping, reverse-sweeping and manipulating the ball into gaps. Every time they moved the fielders, Ossie found the gap that had just been created and then last ball Trevor went down the track and lifted it over the top.
“Dermot said ‘that’s what we want.’ It was all about being positive. My game was all about trying to bat for a long time and score a lot of runs that way and they said ‘well you can do that, but also score a bit quickly without taking risks’. Now almost everybody plays the way Bob and Dermot got Warwickshire playing. They were years ahead of their time.”
Powell clearly benefited from the advice. Having started the season batting at number eight for the 2nds, he steadily rose up the order before closing it in style with 167 in the final game, against Surrey at Stratford-upon-Avon.
That followed an unbeaten 82 against Gloucestershire at Cheltenham, 73 against Essex at Griff & Coton and a polished 50 against Nottinghamshire at Worksop College, as well as a one-day ton; 114 against Somerset at Coppice Lane, Sutton Coldfield.
Powell was on his way – though, in that momentous season, not yet knocking on the first-team door.
“I was never in with a shout that year, of course,” he said. “I was left in no doubt where I was in the pecking order when, on my first day, Abbers walked me round the ground and listed about 14 or 15 players who were ahead of me.
By the time we have got halfway round I was thinking ‘why have you signed me?’ But that was Abbers’ way of saying I had been top of the ladder the previous year and now I was on a different ladder.
“That worked for me because I suited Abbers’ style. He was an excellent coach and a lot of what he taught me I now pass on to the lads at Rugby.
“I kept plugging away and my chances came along. Andy Moles got injured and Wasim Khan moved on for first-team cricket and Piran Holloway and Michael Burns left. Gradually a way opened up and I was lucky enough to have a long career and play with some fantastic players and meet some fantastic people.”
None better than those with whom Powell mingled right at the start as the Class of ’94 set about inspiring those who were to follow – just as they themselves were inspired by the great names who had preceded them at Edgbaston.
“They took inspiration from those that went before and then left a legacy of their own and that’s how it works at Warwickshire,” he said. “It is an ongoing process. Trotty has just retired and Belly is in the twilight of his career now and they have both inspired a generation as Woakesy is doing and then it will be someone else.
“With such a great history and a fantastic stadium, Warwickshire has always attracted the best and continues to do so, as we have seen again with the appointment of Paul Farbrace as sport director. I feel very lucky and privileged to have spent my career with the Bears, starting with that brilliant apprenticeship!”