For four years Northants have played up their underdog tag. They are one of the smallest counties, with the smallest player staff, the un-fashionables from Wantage Road.
In 2017, perhaps they will be the underdog no more. David Ripley and Alex Wakely have become a formidable unit, especially in white ball cricket where Northants have been the most successful T20 side in the county since the pair were appointed captain and coach in 2013.
Last summer they once again rose to the top, against three sides packed full of internationals. It was Northants who stunned star studded Nottinghamshire, and saw off Durham, to lift the Blast title. Players, fans, relatives (and reporters) celebrated in the rain at Edgbaston, as the unity that Ripley and Wakely have created, the sense of belonging and togetherness at Wantage Road, was on full display.
It wasn’t just in T20 that they excelled, however. They also finished second in the One-Day Cup North Group, only to be beaten by a Kumar Sangakkara century in the quarter-finals, something that was not helped by an untimely mid-over injury to Richard Gleeson that left fans wondering what might have been.
Whilst other counties have their star names, Northants’ success is borne out of a close-knit dressing room, and a real team effort. Ben Duckett might have, deservedly, taken the plaudits last summer, but it was far from a one-man show. Almost every member of the squad stepped up at one point to produce a match winning performance when needed. It was a summer disrupted by injuries and international call-ups, but there was always somebody ready to come in, take their chance and keep the Steelbacks wagon rolling.
It is this unity that could allow them to thrive once more, with a virtually unchanged squad. Nathan Buck, who could prove a useful addition, is the only new signing, replacing Warwickshire bound Olly Stone, who missed most of last summer with a knee injury, whilst overseas duo Rory Kleinveldt and Seekkuge Prasanna are also returning.
Northants have made no secret of their prioritising the white ball game, and T20 cricket in particular. Given their success, who can blame them? Once again they will likely be written off but three finals, and two trophies in four years, can be no fluke. The Steelbacks will be confident of challenging in the knockout stages once again.
The new format might also see an improvement in their Championship performances, with bigger concentrated blocks on four day cricket meaning they will avoid having to manage their squad through a four day game ahead of the upcoming T20.
Four wins in their last six Championship games, including the last three, showed what they can do, and with the promotion picture likely to be wide open, after Notts at least, don’t rule out the perennial underdogs surprising everyone with a promotion push.
Ins: Nathan Buck (Lancashire), Max Holden (on loan from Middlesex until the end of June)
Outs: Olly Stone (Warwickshire), Monty Panesar (released)
Key man – Ben Duckett
Ben Duckett enjoyed a simply stunning 2016, starting with 282* in the opening Championship game, and he didn’t stop scoring runs all summer, be it in four-day, 50 over or 20 over cricket, for Northants and for the England Lions. It lead to an unprecedented double as he scooped, or should we say Duckscooped, both the PCA Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year awards, and topped it all off with an England test call up.
However, the diminutive left-hander’s rapid assent was eventually halted at the hands of India’s spinner, and whilst the test call up may have come slightly too soon for the 22-year-old, the real test will be whether he can back up his 2016 exploits this summer. With him unlikely to be initially involved for England, he will remain Northants go-to man in all three formats.
Player to watch – Richard Gleeson
At 29 Richard Gleeson is no spring chicken, but a late bloomer who burst onto the county scene last summer after years of toil for Cumberland in the minor counties. Given his chance in the T20 Blast, due to injuries, Gleeson showed raw pace, clocking almost 90mph on the Sky Sports speed guns, and proved to be Northants secret weapon, often making early inroads. He was the only regular bowler to go at less than a run a ball in the entire competition, his 14 wickets costing 16 apiece at 5.97, remarkable in modern T20.
A season that starting with him working as a coach for the Lancashire cricket board ended with a full time Northants deal, but he was cruelly denied a place at Finals Day, picking up an injury in the One-Day Cup quarter-final against Surrey less than 48 hours before the Edgbaston showpiece. Further injuries over the winter are a worry, but if he can stay fit, his pace could prove a real asset and trouble batsmen across the country.
Continuity is the key for Northants this year, with Rory Kleinveldt returning for a third season as the county’s main overseas player, and an old fashioned overseas player in that he is available for the entire season.
Seekkuge Prasanna is also returning for the entirety of the T20 Blast campaign, the leg spinner having played his part in Northants’ road to Finals Day last season.
How they’ll fare
With a squad virtually unchanged from the squad that finished second in the North group, in both the T20 Blast and One-Day Cup, Northants should be competitive once again. A place in both quarterfinals would not be a surprise, with every chance of going further, although avoiding injuries to key men will be crucial. The new format should help them focus more on Championship cricket, and bring an improvement in results. Promotion, however, might prove a step too far.
Friday April 7th-10th v Glamorgan at Wantage Road
Specsavers County Championship Division Two: 14/1
Royal London One-Day Cup: 16/1
Natwest T20 Blast: 12/1