After a roller coaster two years, Northants will be looking to regain some stability in 2015.
A glorious 2013 was followed by misery last year, relegated from Division One of the County Championship winless and with a record low points total, while never seriously challenging in either one-day competition.
David Ripley’s men were clearly out of their depth in the top flight, but a return to Division Two will allow the club to rebuild after a winter of change with stalwarts such as David Sales, Andrew Hall and James Middlebrook all leaving Wantage Road during the close season.
The Steelbacks welcome a new captain as well with Alex Wakely returning after missing the entire 2014 season with an Achilles injury, to lead the side in all competitions after skippering the T20 winning side in 2013. He will be joined by vice-captain David Willey and it will be interesting to see how the young leadership duo can shape and move the club forward.
White ball cricket is clearly the priority in the immediate future, as seen with the signings of Josh Cobb, Adam Rossington and securing Richard Levi on a Kolpak deal, with the likes of Hall and Middlebrook, who were mainstays of the four day team, released.
The T20 line-up has plenty of potential and power, and with the addition of Shahid Afridi for the first half of the competition, Northants will be confident of being genuinely competitive in both the Natwest Blast and the Royal London One-Day Cup, while Rory Kleinveldt could prove a hand addition as overseas player.
Injuries were a major factor last year, as Northants started the season struggling to even field a fully fit side, and with a squad that is once again one of the smallest on the county circuit, numbering just 18 players once Levi and Kleinveldt arrive, keeping those players fit will be crucial to their hopes.
However if they can do so there is reason to be optimistic for Northants fans, especially in the limited overs competitions where they have a real chance to surprise a few again. But whatever happens in 2015, at the very least it can’t be as bad as last summer.
Ins: Josh Cobb (Leicestershire), Adam Rossington (Middlesex, was on loan in 2014), Saif Zaib, Richard Levi (signed for all formats on Kolpak deal)
Outs: David Sales, Matt Spriegel (both retired), Andrew Hall, James Middlebrook (both released), James Kettleborough (Glamorgan).
David Willey was tipped for big things at the end of 2013, but an injury ravished 2014, in which he was never really at full fitness following a winter back operation, held back his progress. However the 25-year-old is back and will be key to Northants’ hopes, while he is also vice captain alongside Alex Wakely.
In Championship cricket Willey is likely to open the attack with Kleinveldt, which has the makings of a handy partnership, while he will also add some runs in the lower middle order, an area Northants have been strong in recent years.
However, it’s the with the white ball where Willey can make the most impact, opening both the batting and the bowling. He’s already shown what he can do with some powerful knocks in the T20 competition in Barbados and with a batting lineup stacked with talent he will be given free reign to smash it from the go.
Fitness will always be a worry considering his last couple of years, but if he can remain fit, don’t be surprised is Willey is challenging for a place in England’s T20 or ODI side come the end of the year.
Player to watch
Olly Stone is another who struggled with fitness last year but the 21 year old fast bowler showed glimpses of what he could be capable of. The youngster only played five games in Northants’ disastrous Championship campaign after various injuries throughout the season but in those appearances he took 19 wickets at 26.47, excellent given the struggles of the side.
That included a couple of exciting spells of genuine fast bowling, and if Stone can stay fit for the majority of the summer and with plenty of time to develop his game further he could be a real prospect and could have a breakthrough year in Division Two.
After last season’s nightmare when three overseas bowlers were signed but then pulled out of contracts, Northants will simply be glad to see Rory Kleinveldt arrive in the country next week.
The 31-year old South African might not be a household name but has a decent first-class record, and could prove a handy addition, his new ball partnership with David Willey likely to be key to Northants’ Championship hopes, while his availability for the entire season is a rarity in modern county cricket.
Northants also pulled off something of a surprise with the announcement that Shahid Afridi will be joining the County for the first six matches in the Natwest T20 Blast. The Pakistani legend will certainly boost crowds at Wantage Road and will add yet more firepower to a powerful batting line-up, although his bowling will also be crucial in a side lacking spin options.
Meanwhile, Richard Levi, who has had spells as an overseas player in the past two seasons, will return in 2015 but as a non-overseas after signing a Kolpak deal to play the entire season in all competitions.
How they’ll fare
This season is likely to be one of consolidation in Championship cricket, with Northants unlikely to push for promotion with the focus clearly on white ball cricket, however they should have enough for a solid mid-table campaign and stay clear of the battle for the wooden spoon.
Limited overs cricket could be a different matter, and with a T20 line-up that on paper looks strong, with plenty of firepower and depth to the bating, as well as some handy bowlers, if they can keep injury free the Steelbacks could shock a few once again and a quarter final place is a realistic ambition.
v Gloucestershire, Sunday April 12 at Wantage Road
LV County Championship Division Two: 7/1
Royal London One Day Cup: 20/1
Natwest T20 Blast: 25/1