The word tragedy is overused these days, especially in sport when the consequences of winning and losing are usually fairly trivial. Nevertheless, 2016 started tragically for Nottinghamshire when James Taylor was forced into a desperately early retirement, just as his remarkable county performances were starting to secure him a place in the national side.
With Alex Hales only making two County Championship appearances, Nottinghamshire’s batting lacked leadership throughout the season. Only Steven Mullaney averaged more than 35 and only Jake Ball (whose performances earned him an England call-up) averaged under 31 with the ball.
As well as the lack of key players, disappointing returns from some of their regular squad members left Nottinghamshire a full 32 points short of safety when the season ended. Had Durham not been relegated by the ECB, the figure would have been 42. One can imagine more than a few Nottinghamshire players have been plagued by nightmares involving white clothing and red balls over the winter.
The season started reasonably well, with a Mullaney-inspired victory over Surrey and two draws against Yorkshire and eventual winners Middlesex in their first four matches. Both draws were affected by rain, but Yorkshire were 257-9 chasing 320 when stumps were called on day four – Nottinghamshire so nearly started their season with two wins from three.
6th place in the Royal London One-Day Cup was disappointing, but unsurprising given their previous reliance on James Taylor’s phenomenal 50-over batting (only three players in history have a higher List A average than him). The one consolation was their destructive run to T20 Finals Day after finishing top of the North Group before an 8-run loss to Northants, perhaps the only county side more in need of a break from the cricketing gods.
Given the calibre of their players, Notts fans will expect a swift return to the top flight in legendary gloveman Chris Read’s final year; a great deal will depend on how often England come calling for their key men.
Ins: Ben Kitt
Outs: Will Gidman (Kent), Sam Wood (released)
Key Player – Samit Patel
Samit Patel is a magnet for criticism. His sparse and often ugly international appearances have all but proven a common belief that he is an unfulfilled talent. Added to public criticism about his fitness from the still-influential Andy Flower and a falling out with ex-England spinner Graeme Swann, it is easy to see why Patel is not considered a darling of English cricket. Nevertheless, on his day he is a destructive batsman who can turn games in all three formats and his bowling has a mesmerising quality that makes it aesthetically delightful if not menacing to top-quality batsmen.
The Leicester-born all-rounder has bumped his salary in recent years with franchise T20 appearances in Bangladesh. His returns with the bat were modest but he was impressive with the ball – his patience and nerve made up for a distinct lack of turn or tricks in his repertoire. The highlight of his BPL tournament was his 3/19 in the qualifying final against the Khulna Titans. Could this big-game experience be what Nottinghamshire need to take them over the line in the decisive white-ball games this year?
Player to Watch – Billy Root
If you are happy to eschew minimum innings qualifications, Billy Root sits atop Nottinghamshire’s Championship batting averages for 2016 after an unbeaten half-century in the second innings of the Midlanders’ hefty defeat to Somerset. At 24, you would not describe him as a young cricketer, but he is a stylish left-handed batsman with more than a few flourishes and mannerisms in common with his older brother.
This could well be a make-or-break season for the younger Root: there should be more opportunities for him in first-class cricket and he would be batting in division two away from the most skilful bowlers on the circuit, but if he can’t break into the First XI in 2017 he might struggle to forge a great professional career.
Root’s main challenge will be consistency. He strikes the ball cleanly and attractively and has shown the ability to score big hundreds in the seconds and in MCCU cricket, but he has never made an unanswerable case for a long run in championship cricket with consistent contributions on the lower rungs of the county circuit.
In a second big blow to Notts in 2016, Australian pacer Peter Siddle was sidelined for the whole year. The same has happened in 2017, and the club is yet to confirm his replacement although James Pattinson is said to be a prime target. Whether their replacement will also remain injury-free could have an impact on their success in 2017 across all formats.
In the T20, Dan Christian has been re-signed along with New Zealander Ish Sodhi, who will presumably fill the role that Imran Tahir did so well in 2016. Dan Christian helped the team to Finals Day in the T20s last year and is capable of blistering hundreds while not demanding a sky-high fee for his services.
Ish Sodhi might not scream T20 superstar to most casual fans, but he turned heads and the occasional leg break in Australia during the BBL, ending as Adelaide Strikers’ joint top wicket-taker despite only making three appearances. If he gets anywhere close to the average of 7.77 or the economy rate of 6.08 on his first foray into county cricket, he and his club will be charging into the knockout stages once again.
How they’ll fare
If Ball, Pattinson and Hales play a reasonable amount this season, Nottinghamshire should be well-placed to return to the top flight. Their bowling will have experience, pace and talent while their batting will have strong leaders a long way into the middle order. Of course the contributions of Riki Wessels, Michael Lumb and Chris Read (all experienced batters who all but disappeared in 2016 with twenty-something averages) will be important too, but perhaps the days when any one of those could destroy an attack singlehandedly the way Hales can have come and gone.
The availability of Stuart Broad at the start of the season is another big boost.
Nottinghamshire should go straight back up into the first division, perhaps alongside Sussex, but there are no easy games even in division two these days. Their cause is further helped though by the fact that one of the best sides in the division, Durham, will start with a hefty points deduction.
White ball cricket, usually a big strength of Nottinghamshire’s, might be more challenging this year. The loss of Taylor (and Tahir and Russell from 2016), combined with the fact that more counties cottoning on to the potential of T20 to increase revenues and profile, will almost certainly mean that the Outlaws will need to shoot straight to come away with the loot this time around.
v Leicestershire, Friday 7th April at Grace Road
LV County Championship Division 2: 13/8
Royal London One-Day Cup: 12/1
Natwest Twenty20 Blast: 8/1