Northants bucked their recent trend in 2017, with a season that featured white ball disappointment, but a much-improved Championship campaign that finished in style and was almost topped off by promotion.
Recent years have seen Alex Wakely’s men excel in the shorter formats, particularly in the T20, coming into this season as defending Championships, their second crown in four years.
However, they flattered to deceive in both the One Day Cup and T20 Blast this year, and instead it was the Championship where they took the promotion race down to the final afternoon of the season. Coming off the back of three successive wins to conclude the 2016 campaign, Wakely’s men won their first two and never looked back.
Whilst never being in the top two, they remained poised for a late challenge, and although defeat to Nottinghamshire at the end of August looked to have ended their hopes, victory in all four of their remaining games took them to a tally of nine wins from just 14 matches.
They were only the fifth team, along with Worcestershire, in the last ten years to win that many matches, but remarkably it wasn’t enough for promotion. Notts clung onto a draw at Hove to seal the promotion that had seemed a forgone conclusion for most of the campaign, by the final margin of just five points.
And five points proved critical, as Northants were docked the same number for a slow over rate at Trent Bridge. Without said deduction they would have pipped Notts, having won two more games.
A lack of batting points was also costly. They had the bowling attack, with Rory Kleinveldt’s 50 wickets backed up by Richard Gleeson and Ben Sanderson – who both missed chunks of the season but still took 40 apiece – but a tally of just 29 batting points was 16 fewer than Worcestershire, Notts taking one fewer again. All too frequent batting collapses made the difference in the end.
Still, it was a campaign that they can look back on with pride. The same cannot be said about either white ball competition, where injuries took their toll and the Steelbacks never quite got going.
Their one win in the One-day Cup came in style, chasing 324 to beat Lancashire, but it was the only bright spot in a campaign that included five defeats and was perhaps summed up when the final two matches were rained off less than an hour into play.
The defence of their T20 crown had an early blow, when injury ruled Seekkuge Prasanna out of a return, and they never quite recovered. Tabriz Shamsi filled the void briefly at the start, but his return to South Africa coincided with Graeme White’s injury, leaving the spin cupboard rather bare.
Richard Levi and Josh Cobb both also missed sizeable chunks of the group stage, with the lack of spin options leaving them vulnerable in the middle overs, a period of constant struggle throughout the season.
They still found themselves in the top four, and in position to qualify with three games remaining, but defeats to Leicestershire and Yorkshire – the latter as Adam Lyth crashed 160 – saw it taken out of their hands on the final game. Rain and results elsewhere saw the Champions eliminated before the knock-out stages.
SSCC: 3rd, Division Two
T20 Blast: 6th, North Group
RLODC: 8th, North Group
SSCC: Rob Newton, 894
T20 Blast: Richard Levi, 375
RLODC: Richard Levi, 305
SSCC: Rory Kleinveldt, 50
T20 Blast: Rory Kleinveldt, 14
RLODC: Ben Sanderson, 8
Player of the Season:
After Ben Duckett had been the standout player in 2016, it was more a collective effort this summer as various players stood up at different points of the season.
Rob Newton churned out the 50s all season, whilst Ben Sanderson impressed with the ball in the early stages. Richard Gleeson roared into life in the final few weeks, but Richard Levi was the one man who came up with the goods in all three formats.
Despite missing six weeks with a concussion suffered in late May, he made up for lost time in the T20 Blast, with three half centuries in eight innings finishing the leading runs scorer. He did the same in the One-Day Cup, whilst back to back Championship hundreds in September were key in Northants’ late charge.
He may not have been their own player, but Max Holden shone brightly for Northants in the first half of the season, as once again the county used the loan system to their advantage.
The 19-year-old was nicknamed Mini Chef by the squad, in homage to Alistair Cook, and there certainly were similarities. The young left hander was composed at the crease, hitting two centuries and making 629 runs in nine games, before being recalled in the final weeks of the season.
Middlesex’s relegation could give Holden the perfect platform for regular cricket at Lord’s in 2018, and he is certainly one to watch.
Could have done better:
Rob Keogh hit the headlines for his 9-52 against Glamorgan last year, but whilst he has developed into a useful bowler, run scoring remains his number one role in the side. It proved a challenging summer in that department for Keogh.
He did score a century against Leicestershire with the pink ball, but only passed 50 on one further occasion in 22 Championship innings for a final tally of 408 runs. Further contributions in white ball cricket were more supporting roles than match winning.
Need to work on:
If Northants are to go one better and achieve Championship promotion they cannot afford the batting collapses that blighted an otherwise excellent campaign. An all too regular occurrence, they failed to build on the platforms set by the top order and, whilst often they didn’t affect results, the bonus points left out there proved costly.
As far as the T20 was concerned, Wakely’s men really struggled in the middle overs, due in part to the spin bowling problems. If they took early wickets they often competed, but were unable to drag back poor starts, as highlighted in the penultimate game when Yorkshire racked up 260-3.
The finances at Wantage Road prevent wholesale changes, but a few tweaks are all that’s needed for the side to compete in all three competitions. Brett Hutton bolsters an already impressive, in quality if not depth, bowling line-up, whilst adding a more conservative batsman could sure up the middle order.
A One-Day Cup season that never got going and a T20 campaign that stuttered before falling short were disappointing, but the Championship brought solace with a storming finish, but one that ultimately ended in frustration.