“It was fitting that my final innings for Warwickshire was a dogged, disgusting-to-watch 60-odd against Leicestershire at Grace Road,” recalls Michael Powell.
Powell is sitting in the sports centre at Rugby School, where he is now director of cricket and an assistant house-master, reflecting on his Bears career as player (1994-2008) and captain (2001-03).
His recollection of his last knock, offered with the humility and humour which define him, references the fact that his batting was always rooted more in graft than grace. More defiant than delightful. Fair enough.
What he omits to mention was that the innings in question – 68 not out from 213 balls – saved his side from defeat. And that is fitting. For while over the years Warwickshire have had more gifted cricketers, they have known none more committed or willing to sacrifice self for team than Michael James Powell.
And his sacrifice was, in cricketing terms, pretty spectacular.
As a schoolboy at Lawrence Sherriff School, Rugby, and in Warwickshire’s youth system, Powell was highly-rated. He captained England at several age-groups and early in 2001, on the back of an excellent 2000 which brought more than 1,000 runs in his first full season, was called up to England A’s tour of West Indies.
He scored runs there too. Trouble was, he was already Warwickshire captain.
At a difficult time for the club, still in transition after the success of the mid-90s, straight after the 2000 season Neil Smith was sacked as skipper. And Powell was appointed – to the surprise, not least, of himself.
It was an offer he could hardly refuse. And he duly led the Bears to promotion in the championship in 2001 and, the following year, second place in the First Division and Benson & Hedges Cup glory at Lord’s.
The team did fine – which was what mattered most. But taking the captaincy aged just 25, after only 44 first-class matches, was to cost Powell his batting form – and emphatically derail his England prospects.
“The plan had been for me to be vice-captain to Neil for a year or two,” he said. “That would have been a perfect learning curve for me under a senior player and real Warwickshire man.
“But on the night of the committee meeting I was at home in Rugby and got a call from chairman of cricket Andy Lloyd. He said: ‘Are you sitting down?’ I don’t think he even asked me, he just told I was captain with immediate effect! With hindsight it would have been nice to have a few days to think about it.
“I think in my first game as captain only Anurag Singh was younger than me, though the senior guys like Neil and Ashley Giles and Nick Knight were superb and backed me totally.
“I look back with a lot of pride at having captained Warwickshire. We won promotion the first year and then finished second behind an almost all-England Surrey team and won the Benson & Hedges Cup. It was a privilege to captain a side with so many great players in it – Ash, Knighty, Shaun Pollock.
“But though I tried to fool myself many times that the captaincy didn’t affected my batting, the reality is of course it did.
“I was never going to be a lovely player to watch, but if you needed someone to bat time I could do a job. The only way I was ever going to get in the team was to score bags and bags of runs and Andy Moles, a great influence on me, said just keep banging the door down. That was my philosophy and the only time in my career I took my eye off the ball in that way was as captain.
“As captain I was far too bothered about how everybody else was, rather than making sure I was one of the best five batters at the club. In that respect, I let myself down. My career average – 31.6 – is at least seven or eight shy of what it should be and probably ten to 15 shy of where I’d like it to be.
“I had aspirations to play for my country and scored a few runs for England A in the Caribbean after a very good first season for the Bears. Then came the captaincy. Would I have taken it knowing what I know now? Good question!”
Powell reflects upon his 15 years as a player at Edgbaston with total honesty but no trace of recrimination. He has, he is quick to point out, much to be thankful for – not least a post-playing career which has proved even more fulfilling than cricket.
After leaving Warwickshire in 2008, he became director of cricket and later a house master at Loretto School, just outside Edinburgh. He spent six happy years there before coming “home” to Rugby, his childhood home and where his family remains, to join Rugby School.
“I loved playing cricket but being a house master is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “There are between 68 and 72 kids in a boarding house with its team of house-tutors and residential staff, so it’s really managing a team to which people have handed over their flesh and blood and said: ‘We trust you to look after them.’ That is a real privilege.
“The lifeblood of the school is within the boarding community so I felt it was important to be integral to that. I love the nurturing side of working with kids who arrive not having a clue how the system works and, three or five years later, leave well-prepared for life.
“I was very happy at Loretto and never contemplated coming back to Rugby but then played cricket for the MCC against Rugby School one Easter and a conversation that day that started the ball rolling. It’s an incredible set-up at Rugby with great people, and my parents and brother still live in the town, so it’s nice to be back close to them. And it’s lovely to be involved with the Bears again after I was asked to join the cricket committee last year.”
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