Continuing our series of county previews, here is an assessment of Northants's chances in 2008.
2007 In a Nutshell:
The season began poorly for Northamptonshire with a second consecutive abysmal Friends Provident Trophy campaign where they recorded a solitary win over Scotland. It failed to pick up in the middle as they never threatened to even flirt with promotion in the Championship while a typically awful performance against Somerset killed off hopes of securing a Twenty20 quarter-final berth. The end to the season was little short of apocalyptic. The Steelbacks looked to have secured their first division status in the Totesport League before a last over meltdown, featuring the team’s two best players – David Sales and Lance Klusener – doomed them to the relegation playoff, where they capitulated against Middlesex, thus ensuring that 2008 will be spent down among the dead men in both forms of the game.
At first glance it doesn’t look good, although their may be some reason for optimism. The ECB’s decision to block the registration of Johannes van der Wath and Andrew Hall is potentially a fatal blow. The seam bowling is too weak to expect a serious challenge for promotion in the Championship and the team lacks proven quality at the top of the batting order. Usman Afzaal left for Surrey and while his attitude may not be missed, his runs will be and it could once again be a case of Sales against the world, as Northamptonshire battle for respectability. Despite the losses of Hall and van der Wath there is sufficient all-round talent to suggest that they could feature in the mix for one of the limited overs trophies, although they will need the cards to fall in their favour.
As Sales go, so go Northamptonshire. He was superb last year and single-handedly kept the county in a number of games. He has stepped down from the captaincy in a bid to boost his international prospects and is comfortably the most gifted player of his generation not to have been offered the chance at the highest level. There are rumours that this will be his last year at Wantage Road, so Northamptonshire fans should enjoy him while they still can.
Stephen Peters is assured of one opening spot and has the ability to score 1,000 runs and provide some impetus early on. Andrew Crook, Alex Wakeley and Rob White look set to contest the other opening spot and the number three position. Wakeley is an exciting prospect and should be given his head while White has the ability to be brilliant or awful. Crook is no more than a body. At this stage of their careers White and Crook have yet to prove they can produce on a consistent basis, while Wakeley is still finding his way. It won’t be a surprise if Sales finds himself walking to the crease with the scoreboard reading 20-2 on a regular basis.
Skipper Nicky Boje and Lance Klusener will likely bat at five and six with the wicketkeeper, Niall O’Brien or Rikki Wessels, at seven. With Johann Louw and Stephen Crook coming in lower down Northamptonshire will not lack depth and if Klusener can maintain the form he has shown in his first two seasons with the county, Northamptonshire could spring a few surprises.
Take your pick between O’Brien and Wessels. Northamptonshire couldn’t make up their mind last season and then muddled the situation further by giving both players two-year contracts. The two keepers played musical chairs last season and although Wessels looks the better prospect, O’Brien appears to have his supporters. It won’t be a shock to see O’Brien take the gloves – not a move guaranteed to have the Wantage road faithful turning cartwheels of delight – although Wessels will have the opportunity to earn a berth as a specialist batsman and both could figure in the limited overs competition where Wessels’ destructive hitting at the end of the innings is a legitimate threat.
At the end of last year Northamptonshire were fielding arguably the worst seam bowling attack in the county’s history. After Stephen Crook was injured and van der Wath returned to South Africa, Northamptonshire were forced to rely on David Wigley, David Lucas and Richard Logan. Their efforts with the new ball fluctuated between iffy and abysmal and it was a major surprise that all three were offered new contracts for 2008. It will be an even bigger surprise – and not a particularly pleasant one – if all three feature on a regular basis this season.
This year Northamptonshire will place their hopes on Klusener defying the advance of time – he turns 37 in September – Crook staying fit and Louw showing the form he displayed in his first stint with the county in 2004. Yet although that trio represents a considerable upgrade over Lucas, Wigley and Logan, it is hardly an attack that will cause opposing batsmen to regard a visit to Wantage Road with any degree of trepidation. The tracks will continue to offer turn at Wantage Road and Northamptonshire could do better than expected if Monty Panesar’s exile from England’s One Day Squad continues. Boje will bowl a lot of overs and showed in a brief spell at the end of last season that he is a more potent threat than Jason Brown. Brown has a benefit to occupy him this year and could potentially find himself reduced to the role of one day specialist. Meanwhile, youngster Graeme White could force his way into the reckoning this summer.
Wakeley / A Crook
O’Brien / Wessels (wk)
Lucas / Wigley
Panesar / Brown
Northamptonshire’s biggest problem will be negotiating the new ball when they bat and then picking up 20 wickets when they bowl. If Rob White and Peters produce runs at the top of the order and provide Sales with a platform, runs should not be a major problem. However, it’s not easy to see the bowlers regularly dismissing a side twice until the pitches begin to take turn. If the selectors continue to ignore Sales and Northamptonshire manage to avoid their customary slow starts and hang around in contention until August, they could spring a surprise.
One Day / Twenty/20
Lucas / Brown
Panesar / Brown
Had Hall and van der Wath been cleared by the ECB, Northamptonshire would have had an excellent chance of winning something in the limited overs format. Even without the two South Africans they should have enough firepower with the bat – plus six bowlers – to cause a few problems for whoever they come up against. If Sales, Klusener and Louw click, Northamptonshire could yet strike gold.
It’s tempting to say Sales or Klusener. However, they’ve both been exceptional for the past two seasons and Northamptonshire don’t exactly have a great deal to show for their efforts. Bowling-wise Stephen Crook needs to stay healthy but the most pressure may be on Rob White. It’s time for White to stand and deliver because if he finally produces the breakout season that he seems capable of, Northamptonshire’s batsmen could run riot. If he doesn’t, he might just find that the club’s hierarchy has lost patience and decides against renewing his contract at the end of the year.
Alex Wakeley captained the England Under-19s during the winter and went to the same school as Alistair Cook. He showed glimpses last year that he has the talent to develop into a force at the top of the order. He will have the opportunity to cement his place in the side this season and if he takes it Northamptonshire could be in much ruder health than anyone suspects.
Captain and Coach:
It’s tempting to suggest that Boje got the job because no one else was assured of his place in the team. By nature South Africans are not the biggest risk takers but Boje has a more open-minded approach than many of his countrymen and may be inclined to roll the dice more often. In all fairness Northamptonshire have little to lose and even though they have been dealt a lousy hand by the ECB they should not be afraid to raise the stakes.
David Capel has done a decent job with limited resources, both in terms of finances and the size of the squad. He should be encouraged to give Wakeley and Graham White an extended run this year if circumstances allow and if he can persuade Sales to commit his future to the county it will be a major boost to morale.
2008 has something of a do or die element to it for the Steelbacks. It promises to be the last hurrah for Klusener and possibly Sales while a number of the lesser lights are playing for their professional future. 2007 was something of a train wreck but if the ball bounces kindly for them this season the Steelbacks could find themselves in the relatively unaccustomed position of challenging for silverware.