It has been a case of evolution rather than revolution at Wantage Road this winter as Northamptonshire look to stick with a formula that, by and large, has seen them punch above their weight in recent years.
Alex Wakely and David Ripley have formed an effective partnership as captain and coach since the former took on the leadership in 2015, at the county which has one of the smallest, if not the smallest, playing budgets.
Whilst previous success has been focused on white-ball cricket, reaching three T20 Finals in four years and claiming the trophy twice, last year saw a remarkable run that nearly ended – and probably should have ended – with promotion in the County Championship.
Nine wins in 14 games would ordinarily be enough but Wakely’s men fell just short, pushing Nottinghamshire, who had looked champions-elect for much of the campaign, all the way. Northants cruelly missed out by five points, the exact amount they were deducted for a slow over rate in defeat to Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge in August.
The winter has brought some shrew transfer business. Ripley has retained his key men, with Muhammed Azharullah and David Murphy the only ones to depart, the former released whilst the latter takes up a career in law.
Brett Hutton turned down a new deal at Nottinghamshire, frustrated at lack of white ball opportunities at Trent Bridge, to take up the chance of a more senior role at Wantage Road. Luke Procter made his loan move from Lancashire permanent, adding an all-round option in all formats and he proved a more than useful foil for Northants’ attacking middle order.
The bowling line-up powered their late charge last year and looks as strong as any in Division Two, with Hutton joining Ben Sanderson, Richard Gleeson and Nathan Buck, while Doug Bracewell and Rory Kleinveldt will share overseas duties.
There are more questions marks over the batting however. The side only reached 400 once in 2017 and if they are to challenge, the likes of Rob Keogh and captain Wakely will need to have strong seasons. Both players have shown plenty of talent but haven’t backed that up with volume of runs.
They will be especially important with Ben Duckett set to miss the start of the campaign following surgery on a broken finger, though when he does return, he will be keen to make a point following his winter troubles.
With such a small squad, managing their resources throughout the long county season will be Northants’ biggest barrier to success, after injuries badly impacted both their One-Day Cup and T20 Blast campaigns last season, failing to progress from the group stages in both.
Rory Kleinveldt missed almost the entire 50-over competition and a number of key men missed spells of the Blast. Most crucially the spin cupboard was left bare when Seekkuge Prasanna’s injury, which prevented his arrival, was followed by Graeme White’s injury.
That left a bowling line-up that struggled when failing to take early wickets, but still remained in the hunt for the top four, until being ruthlessly exposed by Adam Lyth and Yorkshire in the penultimate game.
Northants are a side that have thrived on the underdogs tag and, having quietly strengthened could well prove a surprise yet again although, by now, we can hardly call it a surprise.
Ins: Brett Hutton (Nottinghamshire), Luke Procter (Lancashire), Ricardo Vasconcelos, Doug Bracewell (for first four Championship games)
Outs: Muhammed Azharullah (REL), David Murphy (RTD)
Richard Gleeson was a latecomer to the county scene, making his first-class debut as a 27-year-old against the touring Australians in 2015. However the fast bowler, plucked from the minor counties while a community coach for Lancashire, first made his impact with the white-ball in the group stages of the T20 blast the following year and transferred that to the red-ball last summer.
Having missed the first block of Championship cricket, he certainly made up for lost time, coming back to take 40 wickets in just seven games at an average of 18 as Northants narrowly missed out on promotion.
Bowling with genuine pace, regularly hitting 90mph when in front of the Sky cameras, he has had an impressive end to the winter, making an impact on his England Lions debut and in the North v South series. He then took eight wickets, including a hat-trick, for the MCC in the Champion County match.
Gleeson may be 30, but doesn’t have the years of county seasons under his belt and offering that pace rarely seen in the domestic game, will be an increasing spearhead for Northants in all competitions.
Player to watch
Brett Hutton was perhaps the underrated part of Nottinghamshire’s Championship promotion winning side. While the likes of Stuart Broad and James Pattinson took the headlines for their cameo roles, it was Hutton who finished as the leading wicket-taker, with 37 @ 26, but didn’t get a chance in either of the title-winning One-Day teams.
It is this lack of opportunities that has fuelled his move to Wantage Road, where with Northants’ limited squad, he is ensured to play a much more senior role. At 25-years-old, Hutton is entering the best parts of his career and the new start could be the springboard to realise his potential, in an environment that has allowed others such as Ben Sanderson and Gleeson, to flourish.
Kleinveldt is returning as Northants’ main overseas player for a third consecutive season, the sort of long-term overseas pro arrangement rarely seen in the county game anymore. However, he will take a break following the end of the South African domestic season and arrive in England in time for the One-Day Cup, with New Zealand seamer Doug Bracewell filling the void for the opening month of Championship action.
After injury prevented him from joining last year, Prasanna returns for the T20 Blast campaign. The leg spinner played a big part in Northants’ run to Finals Day in 2016, despite missing their eventual triumph.
How they will fare
After coming so close at the end of last summer, Northants will be confident of being in the top half of Division Two once more. If they can keep them fit, their bowling attack will be a match for any in the division and with a few extra runs added they could spring a surprise. But with the likes of Middlesex and Warwickshire likely to be pushing for an immediate return, promotion might ultimately prove just beyond them once more.
The limited-overs competitions will likely provide their best route to success and Wakely will be targeting the knock-out stages of both the One-Day Cup and the T20 Blast. His side have perhaps not had the success in the former that they perhaps should’ve done, but Hutton and Procter will add some slight depth to the squad that has hindered them in the past.
Prasanna returning for the Blast provides a big boost after injury prevented his arrival last summer, he played a prominant role in the group stages in 2016 and means that Muhammed Azharullah is the only member of the 2016 winning squad to not be involved. There’s no reason the Steelbacks can’t qualify for the quarter finals, from which point they have the experience of playing, and winning, big knockout games.
SSCC Div Two v Middlesex, Friday 13th April at Lord’s
SS County Championship Division 2: 9/1
Royal London One-Day Cup: 20/1
Vitality T20 Blast: 14/1