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Where would we be now without those penalties?

Alex Stockton reviews the season at Northants County Cricket…

David Ripley, the Northants head coach, has bemoaned their picking up penalty points this season. He’s right to, in many ways, as it could be argued that they’ve cost his side a place among the country’s elite next year. Penalty points aside, the Steelbacks would have finished in second place to Worcestershire, sealing their promotion to county cricket’s first tier.

Northants’ game at Trent Bridge, against the side who would eventually pip them to the post, saw them penalised for a slow over-rate. Those five points aside, the Steelbacks would have equalled Nottinghamshire’s point tally for the season, and been promoted as a result of their superior number of victories. It is difficult, therefore, to look past this frustration when assessing the season as a whole. As is so often the case in sport, the smallest of things made all the difference.

Although it’s easy (and sometimes equally therapeutic) to moan as a sports fan, there are a whole host of reasons for Ripley’s men to be extremely proud of the way they’ve performed this year. Despite not making it to T20 Finals Day, there has been a marked improvement in the red ball side of the game. Consistent displays from a number of seasoned campaigners ensured that the county asserted themselves as one of the division’s best teams, and had it not been for a slow over-rate at Trent Bridge, that would have been reflected in the league position.

Thankfully, Northants aren’t a side who change that much year in, year out. Three years ago, that might have seemed like somewhat of a curse. Now, however, it’s a positive; it means that almost the same group of players will likely take to the field next season, and they’re used to winning. As is the case with the T20 side, the eleven players who take to the field on any given day know how to get results. Ben Duckett won’t come out and block his first 30 balls, and Azarullah won’t ask the captain if he can stand at short extra cover. To put that simply, people understand their roles, and they fulfil them. I’d expect another pre-season of steady progress, and another season next summer of reliable, hard-working performances.

A quick word to the side’s white ball performances is, I feel, also necessary. Although Alex Wakely’s side fell a little short in the 50 over competition this season, Northants’ T20 campaign was hardly a disastrous one. Many felt that the result at Trent Bridge (losing on Duckworth-Lewis after Alex Hales had to go at a mere 10 an over inside the powerplay) was unfair. I agreed. I also believe that the rained-off tie at home to Yorkshire did us no favours, while the reverse fixture against the same side just happened to represent one of our worst days as a team. Those performances are arguably inevitable, and it was a season of fine margins in the game’s shortest form. We’ll be up there competing again when the time comes next season, of that I have no doubt. The smaller the game, the smaller the margins should be, and that is often the case with T20 cricket.

At the start of the season, I wrote about how Northants should look to fight like underdogs. I wrote that they could expect to perform in the T20 competition again, and I was almost right. What I did not expect however, was such a consistent display in the County Championship. Perhaps next year the “underdog” tag might fall to someone else; teams know what they’re getting when they come to Wantage Road these days, and few would be surprised if we were to see another push for promotion. While the TV cameras might stay away for the evenings of T20, I’d expect the side to be given a little more credibility across the board.

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