Forever the underdog, Northamptonshire keep on punching above their weight and, while there was plenty of uncertainty off the field in 2016, Alex Wakely’s side had a season to remember on it, claiming a second T20 Blast title in four years.
Northants had the smallest playing staff of any county, starting the season with just 15 players on the staff but Wakely, along with head coach David Ripley, have formed a real bond and team unity within the squad that cannot be underestimated as a factor to their success.
The club has focused on white-ball cricket in the past few years and, although David Willey moved on, some shrewd recruitment meant Northants hardly missed the all-rounder. With a squad full of match winners, they qualified second in the Blast North group before dispatching Middlesex, Nottinghamshire and then Durham to lift the crown.
Whilst Ben Duckett took the plaudits with a run laden summer, it was far from a one-man show, but rather part of a team effort.
Northants didn’t boast any of the top five run scorers or leading wicket takers, but instead had a whole team ethos with various players making crucial contributions throughout.
Richard Levi’s powerful starts ensured the T20 campaign got off to a flyer, and allowed them to ride a slight wobble into the quarter finals, whilst Adam Rossington came good later in the campaign and Josh Cobb was a steady hand throughout.
With the ball as well, injuries to Rory Kleinveldt and Olly Stone threatened to wreck their progress, but Richard Gleeson proved a revelation, whilst Ben Sanderson and Moin Ashraf were both signs of Northants looking outside the recruitment box and finding hidden gems.
At Finals Day, the focus was on the star studded squads of Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire, whilst Durham boasted Ben Stokes and Mark Wood. Northants were missing Gleeson, injured two days before, and overseas player Seekkuge Prasanna.
Nevertheless, Duckett and Cobb produced two innings of individual brilliance that proved the difference as Northants walked away with the trophy, Wakely lifting it for a second time in four years, having also reached the final in 2015.
Captaincy is often an underrated asset in the modern game, but the way Wakely has moulded his young and small squad has been impressive. He also chipped in with the bat and no more so than on Finals Day, when he proved the crucial glue with both Duckett and then Cobb, as the side twice showed their resilience to recover – from 15-3 against Notts and then 9-3 to beat Durham in the Final.
Success wasn’t limited to T20. They also put on a fine showing in the Royal London One-Day Cup, reaching the quarter finals where they were only denied by a Kumar Sangakkarra century that guided Surrey to a one wicket win off the final ball.
It was a cruel end to a campaign that had seen Northants score more runs than any other side in the group stage, which started with the game of the summer, as Nottinghamshire smashed 445 at Trent Bridge, only for Northants to come within 20 of an historic win.
They reached 300 on three further occasions, with an average score of 313, Josh Cobb and Ben Duckett to the fore with the bat, whilst Graeme White, so often the support bowler, took centre stage with 18 wickets, claiming the PCA player of the year award for the competition.
With the focus on the white-ball game, it was perhaps inevitable that Northants Championship campaign wouldn’t reach the same heights, and with only one promotion place, promotion was never an achievable ambition.
Still, 10 winless games was a disappointment. Ripley questioned their desire at the longer format, following a humbling defeat by Worcestershire, but a win belatedly arrived at Glamorgan, and it kick started a late season revival.
It would have been easy, and perhaps understandable, had Northants tailed off following the T20 title, and the celebrations that followed, but instead they were revitalised. Three successive victories saw them finish a credible fifth, Ben Sanderson the star with 31 wickets in the final six games to reach 55 overall.
It capped off a great summer and, with improved stability off the pitch, as well as key men signing new contracts, the future is looking brighter over Wantage Road.
SSCC: 5th Division Two
T20 Blast: Winners (2nd North group)
RLODC: Quarter-final (1st North group)
SSCC: Ben Duckett 1,338; T20 Blast: Ben Duckett 477; RLODC: Ben Duckett 443
SSCC: Ben Sanderson 55; T20 Blast: Rory Kleinveldt 15; RLODC: Graeme White 18
Win %: 43%
Player of the season
Honourable mentions go to Josh Cobb and Ben Sanderson, but 2016 was well and truly Ben Duckett’s year. The 21-year-old started the year with a 282* in the Championship opener and never looked back as the runs flowed almost all summer, in all three formats.
A second Championship century followed, while scores of 98 and 121 in the One-Day Cup preceded his record breaking spell with the England Lions, where 163* and 220* launched him into the national spotlight.
Northants’ leading run scorer in all three competitions, Duckett’s 84 in the T20 semi-final followed a series of cameos early in the competition, and Just when it looked like his Championship form was tailing off, scores of 187 and 208 were pivotal in Northants’ late season wins.
Full England call ups to the test and ODI squads, as well as becoming the first player ever to win both the PCA Players player and Young Player of the Year, put the icing on a phenomenal year, which could yet get ever better.
At 28, Richard Gleeson is no youngster but until this summer had spent his career trawling through the minor counties circuit for Cumberland, whilst working as a community coach for Lancashire Cricket Board.
After making a debut at the tail end of 2015 Gleeson’s opportunity came in the T20, following injuries to Olly Stone and Rory Kleinveldt, and he grabbed it with both hands regularly taking wickets at the start of the innings and touching 90mph.
His 14 wickets came at an economy rate of less than a run a ball, the best of a regular bowler in the competition, but he was cruelly denied the chance to complete his fairy-tale raise at finals Day, sustaining an injury in the One Day Cup quarter final just two days before the Edgbaston showpiece.
Could have done better
The breakout star of their 2013 T20 success, Muhammed Azharullah was unable to hit his past heights in 2016. So often a match winner at the death, Azhar seemed to end up on the wrong side of the line more often than not.
Dropped midway through the T20 campaign, eight wickets in 12 games at an economy of 8.48 represented a disappointing return, and he didn’t fare much better in the Championship, with 25 wickets at 41.
Need to work on
Northants white-ball success cannot be denied, but it undoubtedly came at the cost of their Championship form. David Ripley admitted they went weeks without practising with a red-ball, such was the schedule, and perhaps a balance needs to be found.
Three successive wins at the end of the season after finals Day shows the potential they have without white ball distractions, and the change in schedule for 2017 could be of benefit.
There is plenty to be positive about in looking ahead to 2017. The rumoured player exodus hasn’t materialised, Olly Stone signed for Warwickshire but Josh Cobb, Ben Duckett and Rory Kleinveldt signing new deals are a big boost, whilst Nathan Buck has already been added.
They could do with adding some depth to the squad, budget allowing, but the Steelbacks should remain competitive in both white ball competitions, and could even challenge for Championship promotion.
Season Rating: 9/10