Northamptonshire have been written off by many experts heading into the new season, with a small squad and financial issues continuing to hang over the Wantage Road club.
However, Alex Wakely’s men have upset the odds on plenty of occasions in recent years, including reaching last year’s Natwest T20 Blast final, and are once again relishing playing the role of underdogs this season.
Their Specsavers County Championship campaign starts with a visit from Sussex on Sunday, who are favourites to take the sole promotion place on offer this season, but Wakely is confident he side can compete and is glad to have the favourites first up.
“Sometimes it’s nice having the toughest game of the season straight away,” he said.
“They’ll be coming here thinking they can roll us over and it’s nice going into the season as the underdogs as usual but I reckon we’ll surprise a few people.
“The club’s in a pretty decent state at the moment, I know some of the financial stuff was quite damning but in terms of the players and the setup we’re ready to go.
“I’m pretty confident of the squad we’ve got, obviously we’ve got a small squad so we’ve got to try and keep as many people fit as possible but I’m confident.”
Northants had a solid, if unspectacular, Championship campaign that featured 10 draws from 16 games last year, and Wakely is looking for players to step up with both bat and ball, as he personally targets a maiden 1,000 run season.
“My big thing as a captain, I want to be in with a chance of looking for promotion with the last four games to go, we want improvement in our four-day cricket, we want batsmen scoring 1,000 runs and bowlers taking 60 wickets.
“There’s no denying it, it’s going to be hard for us as a team. We don’t have the opportunity to rotate like some counties do, but we’ll try out best and if we’re there or there abouts at the end I’ll be pretty happy.
“I still haven’t felt like I’ve had that really breakthrough year, I want to score 1,000 runs as captain there’s no better way of leading than scoring runs, I want to be the leading run scorer in all forms and that’s my personal aim.”
White ball cricket is again expected to be the focus at Wantage Road after a season that saw the Steelbacks reach a second T20 final in three years, and only miss out on the quarter-finals of the Royal London One-Day Cup on net run-rate.
David Willey may have left for Yorkshire, but the core of the side who were beaten by Lancashire at Edgbaston remain, a young squad that head coach David Ripley believes are capable of beating anyone on their day as he targets a place in the knock out stages of both competitions.
“We’ve got a good white ball team, we think we can beat anyone on our day and we are aiming for quarter final spots, we think we’re good enough to quality for those rounds and that’ll be our aim.
“Any white-ball team is going to miss David Willey, he bats, bowls and fields and we haven’t been able to replace him like-for-like but we have got lads who can step up at the top of the order and we have lads who will come in and bowl some of those important overs, so we’ll share his workload around the group.
“We’ve got a good crop of young players there that have now started to develop some experience and our next task is to turn those guys into capped cricketers, with a bit of experience and repeatability. If we can manage that then that’s going to be very healthy for us.”
After Surrey and Lancashire ran away with the two promotion spots from Division Two of the County Championship last year, Ripley is expected it be much tighter this season.
Northants’ small squad, in particular in the bowling department, will be their biggest challenge if the longer form, and the coach admitted it will be impossible to expect his first choice attack to play every game throughout the campaign.
“Our main aim in four-day cricket is to be as competitive as we can be and see where that can take us, I think the competition looks quite even to me, last year with Surrey and Lancashire, big squads, Test match grounds, they were hot favourites and that’s how the competition panned out.
“This year Sussex are favourites but I think it’s going to be a lot tighter competition.
“If we were to write our best four-day team down, our four seamers are strong, but they’re the same four seamers we’re playing in t20 cricket and the same four seasons you’d put down for your 50-over cricket, and it’s impossible to ask guys play that amount of cricket, running in day after day.
“We’ve got a slightly unfortunate block where we’ve got six matches in six weeks, the t20s start in the middle of that period as well so that’s going to be our first challenge, but our season will be quite well shaped by then and we hope we’ll be in decent shape.”