After a 2015 that brought Championship stability and white ball success, Northamptonshire will be looking for more of the same in 2016, and will once again aim to thrive on their underdog status that saw them reach the t20 Blast final.
The winter has seen star man David Willey depart, with the squad trimmed down as fringe players Kyle Coetzer and Maurice Chambers were released, with the only additions seamers Ben Sanderson and Richard Gleeson, both who played on a non-contract basis for the club at the back-end of last season.
With only 16 players, Northants are set to have the smallest staff of the county circuit, as financial issues continue to hang over Wantage Road, with the club recently announcing plans for a group of investors to buy the club in return for a £1m investment.
The limited squad means a Championship promotion push in unlikely, especially with only the Division Two Champions being promoted this campaign, so white-ball cricket will again be the focus as the Steelbacks look to build on an encouraging 2015 in both competitions.
Alex Wakely led his side to a second T20 final in three years, but was unable to repeat the 2013 title victory as Lancashire proved too good in the final, whilst in the Royal London One-Day Cup, a rained-off final game at Yorkshire saw them miss out on the quarter-finals on net run-rate.
The road to the T20 Blast final will be remembered for Willey’s 40-ball hundred at Sussex in the quarter-final, and his three wicket burst to beat Birmingham in the semi-final. Northants, however, have plenty of other match winners to call upon in his absence.
The likes of Josh Cobb, Richard Levi and Steven Crook provide plenty of power in the batting line-up, that also boosts depth thanks to a number of all-rounders, whilst Rory Kleinveldt and Mohammad Azharullah form a highly effective partnership at the death.
In Ben Duckett and Olly Stone, Northants have two of the rising stars of county cricket, the former having a breakthrough year in 2015 with 1,000 runs at the top or the order, whilst Stone showed genuine pace and ability to touch 90mph.
In the Championship Northants were the draw specialists, drawing 10 of their 16 games, whilst the remainder saw three wins and three defeats, results that tended to be crushing victories or equally heavy defeats, with the batting order in particular suffering from inconsistency, something captain Wakely will be looking for his young side to improve on this campaign.
Ins: Ben Sanderson, Richard Gleeson (both unattached)
Outs: David Willey (Yorkshire), Maurice Chambers, Kyle Coezter (both released), Stephen Peters (retired)
Last year was a breakthrough year for Ben Duckett, but it took it’s time to get going having started off missing preseason tours for fitness issues and being left out of the first batch of Championship fixtures.
Northants lack of openers saw him given a chance at the top and the 20-year-old grabbed it with both hands, with scores of 134 and 88 against Lancashire in just his second match in the role, three more hundreds followed as he became the first Northants batsman to reach 1,000 runs since 2010.
Duckett attacking style brought a freshness to Northants top order, whilst in white ball cricket he also flourished, mixing unorthodox shots with surprising power for a man small in stature, and will have a big part to play in both the Blast and the One-Day Cup.
Player to Watch
Olly Stone has been around for two or three years now but showed signs last season of reaching his undoubted potential, and 2016 could be a breakthrough year for the 22-year-old quick bowler.
A first-class tally of 38 wickets in 13 games represented a decent return, but it was his pace that caught the eye last year, particularly in the one-day competitions, touching almost 90mph on the TV speed gun.
Injuries have been an issue in the past, and once again reared their head with a back complaint forcing him to withdraw from the England Performance Programme, for what would have been his first call up to the national setup since captaining the Under-19 side.
Back injuries are obviously a concern for a young fast bowler, and managing his workload will be tricky with Northants’ small squad, but if full fit and firing, Stone could have a big 2016.
Rory Kleinveldt is back for 2016, an old-fashioned overseas player, who will be with the club for the entire campaign and play in all three competitions, something of a rarity in modern county cricket.
He may not be a star man, but proved more than effective last season with 57 Championship wickets and also played a big part in helping the side to the Blast final, where his big hitting also proved handy.
Sri Lankan Seekkuge Prasanna has also signed for the entire T20 campaign, another who may not be a household name but could prove a handy addition, the leg spinning providing a crucial spin option and adding to an already powerful batting line up, whilst the continuity of having two overseas players available for the whole campaign will be a positive.
Richard Levi will once again be playing in all three competitions as a non-overseas player.
How they’ll fare
With only one promotion place up for grabs in the second division of the County Championship, it is hard to see Northants challenging in the longer form, with the small squad and a particular lack of depth in the bowling department likely to hinder their progress.
Inconsistency marred last year and the batsmen will need to step up to avoid the damaging defeats suffered in 2015.
The limited overs competitions will once again be the priority and the Steelbacks may well surprise a few once again. Key men will have to avoid injury, but they have the firepower and bowling to challenge in the t20 Blast, and could make another quarter-final.
The batting line up is more suited to 20 overs rather than 50, but if the top order can find some form, a place in the last eight of the One-Day Cup could also be achieved.
v Sussex, Sunday 10th April at Wantage Road
Specsavers County Championship Division Two: 12/1
Royal London One-Day Cup: N/A
Natwest Twenty20 Blast: N/A