On the 20th August, 2016, the Northants Steelbacks won their second domestic T20 title in four years, writes Alex Stockton. After a superb campaign, the men from Wantage Road ran out deserved winners in a tense final. Throughout the tournament, Alex Wakely’s men once again proved that their “underdog” tag was not only misguided, but irrelevant. While their T20 triumph undoubtedly topped the bill, the Steelbacks also experienced some success in 50-over cricket, reaching the quarter-finals of the Royal London Cup. It took the brilliance of Kumar Sangakkara to halt their charge in that competition. Northants also enjoyed a reasonable season in red ball cricket, despite promotion never looking likely. All things considered, 2016 was a successful year for Northants, and if nothing else the county’s claim for a little more TV coverage has been staked.
Fast forward to now, and the county are preparing for another season. It should go without saying that there will be expectation on them to perform in the game’s shortest form, but the club will hope to make some progress in four day cricket, too. The last time Northants were promoted ended in disaster, after they were relegated back to Division Two without winning a single game. This time, if the county can secure another promotion, they will be hoping to make it count.
They could well do that, too. Northants have not one, but two players in the England Lions squad in Ben Duckett and Graeme White. If those two can stay fit, and provided they don’t play too many games for the national side, then Northants can expect to reap the rewards, with both playing all three formats. With Wakely back in form last season, and with Rory Kleienveldt as consistent as ever, the nucleus of the squad is very solid. A welcome addition would be a top-class overseas player. Whether or not the county can afford a very top-end player is a matter for another debate, but should they be able to secure the services of an international star, that would certainly help the cause. For example, Kent’s acquisition of Kagiso Rabada last summer was a fine piece of business.
That said, whether or not the club’s finances are capable of maintaining a Division One spot is uncertain. It could be argued that, given the recent financial instability of the club, Division Two is a better place for Northants. The upkeep of a Division One side is generally higher than that of one in the second tier. While higher attendances might generate some revenue, they can’t be relied upon, and players often require higher wages. Thankfully, however, the club was stabilised last season, and all seems to be in order for now. Perhaps moreso than last season, therefore, the club can commit to trying to finish in the county championship’s top two. It won’t be easy, with Durham and Nottinghamshire hot favourites to bounce straight back to the top flight, but the underdog tag has suited Ripley’s men before.
Moving away from the professional game, the 2017 Northants Cricket League looks set to be an interesting one. Old Northamptonians won their first title for some time last season, breaking up the dominance of Peterborough and Finedon. Bearing in mind that Rushden won the title in 2015, there are now five or six teams who should be able to compete for the ultimate prize ach year. That can only be healthy. For a number of years, the two aforementioned powerhouses entered what many felt was a two-horse race at the start of every season. A bit of increased competition from the likes of ONs, Rushden and Rushton can only be a positive thing.
Throughout the leagues, though, there will be a sense of optimism for many. I played a lot of cricket in Division Five last year and I can honestly say that the competitive nature of the game is still there. I’ve played in the prem, Division One, and Division Five and everyone always wants to win, which is hardly surprising. Throughout the leagues there are a large number of sides who, on their day, are probably capable of beating a team three tiers above them. Availability and what’s on offer at tea perhaps become more pertinent the further down the leagues one gets, but the game is generally played in the same spirit across the county.
Some of the most interesting cricket to be involved in is also on offer at the bottom end of the league system. Many clubs who field fourth or fifth teams give their youth an excellent chance to experience adult cricket, and that can make for some really exciting contests. Twelve year old opening bowlers coming up against 6’4 opening batsmen is a fascinating spectacle, and one that is readily available in the lower leagues.
All in all, cricket in the county seems to be in good shape following last season. Winter nets across the county will have started up by now and, before too long, the ritualistic first cutting of outfields will be upon us. My nose is twitching just thinking about it.