Northamptonshire ensured the Division Two promotion race will go down to the final week of the season as their bowlers completed the job against Nottinghamshire at Wantage Road, winning by 124 runs.
The hosts resumed the final day 107-3 chasing 314 but Rory Kleinveldt took his match haul to 13 wickets before Richard Gleeson finished the visitors off, bowled out for 189 on the verge of lunch.
For the entire season it has appeared Nottinghamshire’s stay in the second division would be a brief one, and they came into this week knowing victory would secure their return to the top flight. Having lost for the first time this season against Worcestershire last time out, however, a second successive defeat leaves them looking over their shoulder.
They still hold the advantage with a 13 point cushion over Northants, meaning 12 points from their final fixture against Sussex at Hove would be enough, but a defeat, or a draw with five or fewer bonus points would leave the door open for Northants to complete a remarkable heist if they can beat Leicestershire at Grace Road.
Worcestershire would also have been promoted had Notts won. They remain top, six clear of Notts and 19 ahead of Northants, so require a maximum of six points from their home match with Durham to seal a top two place.
Remarkably this was an eighth victory of the season for the Wantage Road side, and third in succession as they’ve kept their hopes alive over the last month. It’s a tally of wins that in most seasons would be enough for the title, let alone promotion – for context, Essex won Division Two with just six wins from a 16 game season, whilst Northants’ last promotion in 2013 was achieved with five.
The latest was all down to the South African duo of Rory Kleinveldt and Richard Levi, the former producing the best seam bowling display by a home bowler at Wantage Road since 1907, taking 9-65 to ensure Northants still took a first innings lead despite having been rolled over for 194 on the first morning.
Richard Levi’s second innings 115, scored at better than a run a ball, then proved the difference in the second half of the contest. His partnership of 147 with Rob Newton was one of only two in the entire game to pass 50 (Notts best being 75 between Luke Wood and Jake Libby).
That ensured a victory target of 314 and, although the visitors began the final day 207 adrift with seven wickets in hand, once Kleinveldt removed Chetan Pujara and Jake Libby within two overs the rest was a formality, Gleeson taking three after missing the first innings with back spasms.
Before last season’s T20 semi-final it had been ten years since Northants had beaten Notts in any competition, and in the Championship that run stretches back to 2002. After seeing it ended, skipper Alex Wakely said:
“Very pleased to beat Notts. They’ve been a bit of a bogey team for us in all formats so to put in a good performance when it really counts, we’re really pleased. What a display by the boys,” he said.
“I thought it was very tight [this morning]; it could have gone either way.
“Notts have got a very good batting line up, and guys that can take the game away from you. We knew if we got one wicket we could get two or three quickly and when we did, the game swung in our way.
“We’re playing some brilliant cricket at the moment. Full credit to my bowlers. Everyone keeps saying it was a bowler friendly wicket, but you still have to run in and do it.
“Rory Kleinveldt: that’s as good a performance as you’re ever going to see from anyone. He’s a joy to play with and to captain.
“People give him stick over the way he looks, but throughout the years he’s been here he’s put in the big performances when it really count. He’s put his body on the line and trust me: he’s one of the best players I’ve ever played with.”
Northants have had a thrilling season in the Championship, twice in the early stages beating Derbyshire and then Durham in run chases secured off the penultimate ball of the game, whilst scraping past Leicestershire by only two runs in the day/night round of matches.
Having beaten a side Wakely still believes is the strongest in the division, he knows his side can only travel to Grace Road and win, and hope for favours elsewhere.
“It was a massive, must win, game for us. This game was almost more important than the next game; if we didn’t win this game we had nothing to play for during the last game.
“Now we’ve got a couple of days. We’ve got to get the bowlers rested up, as next week now becomes an even more important game.
“We know it’s still in our hands, all we have to do is turn up and win that game and make sure we leave everything out there.
“Notts, at the start of the year, they had two of the best bowlers in the world playing for them. They were the best team for a long time, and I think probably still are, but we’re showing we can compete with the big boys.
“The last four of five years, if we’d have won eight we’d have been promoted.
“It’s one of those things: everyone’s beating everyone. It shows the competitive nature: division two is very strong at the moment.
“There’s been some brilliant matches, I’ve played in some of the best matches I’ve played in this year, tight finishes.”
Wakely’s men also won their final three games of 2016 and, with a squad that is often labeled as white ball specialists, believes they are now showing they quality in the longest format.
The perennial overachievers, the fighting underdogs, Wakely is proud of the way his side have taken the battle to the final week, whatever the eventually outcome next Thursday. He has added personal motivation to get back up to the top flight, having missed Northants’ last Division One season in 2014 after tearing his Achilles on the pre-season tour to Barbados.
“Whatever happens next week I’m proud of everyone. This squad always puts up with people giving us stick, no-one ever gives us a chance, everyone always writes us off in all formats. We continually keep defying people and we’ll keep doing that.
“People look at us as a one day side, but we’re playing some pretty good four day cricket. We talked as a group about improving our four day cricket.
“We thought we had a good enough squad to be competing and that’s where we are so I can’t ask for any more from our lads.
“I’d love to get promoted, I’d love to have a go. I missed out on that 2014 season injured so I’d love to be back there, but what will be, will be all we can do is turn up and try and win the game.”