Saturday, 30 September 2006

Wessels‘ departure lifts Northants‘ gloom

Philip Ellis reflects on a tumultous season at Wantage Road, and what the future holds.

It really was a season of two halves at Wantage Road as the boys yet again dropped anchor early on; a rickety boat called ‘No Hope’ tied up and moored near the bottom of the Championship quay by late June. But the tide did turn once the players had mutinied over coach Kepler Wessels; just three wins in all competitions, the infamous player vote just before the Twenty20 quarter-finals the final nail in his coffin. Keps was condemned to walk the plank and swim to Robben Island, the ‘Caped Crusader’ (David Capel) grabbing the wheel, throwing up a spinnaker of hope, tacking around the bouy, flat home four day wickets from then on in steeling easy draws for welcome buoyancy in more sedate waters.

By all accounts Wessels was a nasty piece of work and radical improvement on the pitch did follow, especially in the one-day Pro40. The only one of the core first team players to support Wessels was, of course, his son in young Rikki. The three abstentions from the 15 surprisingly came from the Asian players, considering previous and historic racist complaints about the Afrikaner. The hopeless Ganguly, the excellent Uzman Azfaal and the hapless and troubled Bilal Shafayat, his lengthening religious beard reflecting his angst over the summer of woe, were the trio of players that strategically didn’t vote. Even Lance Klusener-the three stone lighter version Keps encouraged over to Northants-voted against him, although this clash of loyalties was apparently down to an unfortunate ruck between the two in the dressing room just two days before the stealth vote.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the players that voted against Keps threw the Twenty20 quarter-final and the opening Pro40 game against Essex to hasten his departure. That is the general consensus amongst supporters too. The departing Ben Phillips, as PCA union rep, was asked to take the vote, the mild mannered Jason Brown the instigator of the show of hands, by all accounts. Captain Sales (Homer Simpson) also voted against his boss, the second time he’s done this after the last coach, Bob Carter, was similarly ousted.

Away from the year’s big story at the County Ground it was the Pro40 runners-up spot that saved the season, the competition ideal for our squad. Ironically, if we hadn’t had chucked the opening game against Essex then we would have won the thing. I think they call that karma. Nevertheless the twenty-two grand cheque was very welcome, especially as the sacked Wessels had to be paid off for next year to the tune of £70 000.

Monty’s central contract (he also signed a two year retainer at NNC last week), although bad for availability reasons, was inevitable and frees up some cash for the now sparse seam attack replacements (and the move away from those infamous turning NCG wickets), now the indifferent Nicholson is likely to go to Surrey as their overseas option. With the reliable Ben Phillips also off to get smashed about at Taunton then the thought of going into 2007 with just David Wigley with the new cherry scares me more than global warming and terrorism put together!

The useless Charl Pietersen was first out the door—the kind of Kolpak signing that brings the game into disrepute. He is Kevin’s third cousin but obviously picked the wrong sport. He did bowl a beautiful straight ball that hit the middle of the bat every time, though. I hear customs and immigration are coming after him for lying on his passport under the bit marked ‘profession’. The unused Wessels signing Rob White and the reserve wicket keeper in young Pythian followed; the later bizarre when you consider our first choice keeper was injured for half the year, Billy Shaf taking up the backstop duties.

There’s talk that Uzman Azfaal wanted to go to Surrey and there is a deal on the table from Warwickshire, but I see Uzi as the type of guy that likes to be a big fish in a small pond and really enjoys the banter with the crowd. His Bollywood lifestyle and likewise girlfriend in the winter takes care of the rest of it. But if he still wants to play for England then he needs to move up to division one. Only three of the England seventeen tourists off to Australia were from this year’s league two, all of those last minute replacements due to injuries when they were capped.

On paper we are a good one day side and if we can find a couple of tidy seamers - maybe James Averis from Gloucestershire - then the glimpse of silverware could well become a glare. If young Crook is fit and plays from the off next season then his late slogging and excellent pace for going through the tail may be the decisive factor and I fancy a pot.

But again it depends on finding a tidy one day seamer to compliment the bits and pieces attack. Northants don’t have a history of this: Blain, Anderson, Cawldron, Weeks and Ricky Anderson are a painful reminder of that. Many a time the ball was whacked back high over their heads with a vapour trail on it when they tried to bowl. It was like an exploding munitions dump in Baghdad when they were the opening attack in 2002 in the middle. We need to unearth a trier like Darren Cousins and not a poser like David Wigley. The batting is strong, although Rogers, who hit 1000 runs after his mid-season break at one hundred, looks cool on a return and the twin losses of himself and Azfaal would be huge.

The positives have been Klusener’s world-class season with the bat and useful wickets. Steven Peters flourished after Wessels’ ousting, hitting the ball sweetly with Rogers as opening partner, a particular liking for the ‘perfume ball’. Azfaal will get you 1000 runs whereever he goes and Sales, although a useless leader, is still the best eye in division two, able to deliver that explosive innings.

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