Northamptonshire’s decision to part company with star all-rounder Lance Klusener has been greeted with disbelief and derision in certain quarters. The standard view appears to be that the County has made a serious error in electing not to extend the contract of the 37-year old former South African international.However, considering the level of financial investment it would have taken to retain Klusener’s services, a new contract would have been a serious risk for a County that is at a huge financial disadvantage to the likes of Lancashire, Surrey and Hampshire.
In his study of Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics – the number one bestseller Moneyball – Michael Lewis highlighted the merits of the system employed by the visionary general manager, Billy Beane. Beane essentially refused to pay the going rate for big names and transformed a team with one of the smallest payrolls in the sport into a perennial World Series contender. Beane ignored reputations and concentrated on recruiting players who had been discarded by other teams and building a competitive team without superstars on a shoestring. Beane concentrated on players who delivered in the clutch – coming to their side’s rescue in crucial moments and coming through when it mattered most.Although baseball is a more statistically-driven sport than cricket, there are similarities to the situation that Northamptonshire find themselves in comparison to Oakland. Neither are big players in the player-movement market.
The golden days when Northamptonshire could trump all bidders for the likes of Greg Thomas, Kevin Curran and even Devon Malcolm are long gone. Fiscal realities mean that they find themselves in a position where they are required to maximise every pound they spend on player salaries.
At first glance, the decision to release Klusener looks a mistake. After all, he has scored 1,000 first class runs in each of his three seasons at Wantage Road. He has registered 10 centuries, including a maiden double-hundred against Glamorgan at the end of last month, a performance that hardly suggests his powers are on the wane despite the fact he has recently turned 37. Additionally he retains the reputation as one of the most lethal hitters in world cricket.
However, it is pertinent to ask whether or not Northamptonshire have received a suitable reward on their investment. Without access to the official payroll, it is necessary to apply a certain amount of speculative guesswork to where Klusener’s total financial package sits in comparison with others. However, as an international player of great renown and a player who can hardly have found himself short of suitors, it seems reasonable to suggest that he is on better terms than all but David Sales. He is certainly being paid top dollar for his performances – top dollar for an all-rounder’s performances.
Klusener was signed as an all-rounder, not as a batsman. If a Kolpak batsman had been the priority, Northamptonshire would have presumably targeted such a player, specifically one who would have been able to bolster a relatively weak top order. His batting powers may remain intact but age and injury have restricted his bowling and while he may remain a fine batsman, he is singularly not the bowler he once was. His fielding has never been his finest attribute and at times his running between the wickets has been little short of lamentable.
So has he earned that money by turning in a series of match-defining performances, transforming the County’s fortunes in the blink of an eye with a match-winning spell with the ball or a crucial innings with the game on the line?The answer, brutally, is no.During Klusener’s three-year tenure with Northamptonshire, the County has won 37 games in all formats of the game, securing 11 victories in the Championship, 13 in the Twenty/20 and 13 List A triumphs.
Let us first consider the Championship where Klusener has been arguably Northamptonshire’s most reliable performer aside from Sales. In 2006 – they year when he scored six centuries and was apparently at his peak – Northamptonshire won three games. Klusener scored centuries in two of those games. However, the platform for the victory over Somerset was initially provided by Bilal Shafayat (101) and Sales (88) and clinched by Jason Brown and Monty Panesar who both claimed five wickets in an innings. Klusener’s 131 did hurry Glamorgan towards defeat but Panesar’s nine wickets in the match were arguably more important.
In 2007 the County won five Championship matches, essentially by relying on strong team performances. Stephen Peters, Steven Crook, Nicky Boje, Niall O’Brien, Johan Van der Wath, Panesar and Sales all produced individual performances that were superior to anything that Klusener managed. He did take five wickets in the win over Glamorgan but that triumph had been set up by excellent batting from Peters, Sales and Rob White.In 2008 Northamptonshire have won three matches (to date).
Klusener was absent for the first, scored 0 and 10* in the second and despite scoring 65 in the third was overshadowed by a stunning century from Sales that thwarted Leicestershire’s bowlers in distinctly unfriendly conditions for batting.Klusener may have scored consistently in the Championship but he has not proved to be a difference-maker in leading Northamptonshire to wins against the odds. He may have been the difference between defeat and a draw on occasion, but ultimately he has not been able to swing games in the County’s favours.Surely the statistics will be weighted more favourably in Klusener’s favour when we consider the shorter formats of the game.
Unfortunately that is not the case. Although Klusener has produced some brilliant performances in limited overs cricket for the county they have not counted for much – for example consider his unbeaten 111 in a losing cause against Worcestershire in the Twenty/20 in 2007. Astonishingly, Klusener has not played a central part in any of Northamptonshire’s 13 Twenty/20 victories, a fact that is perhaps emphasised by his bit-part role in this year’s competition, where he was increasingly marginalised almost as an “In case of Emergency Break Glass” type of player.
The names that come up most frequently when studying Northamptonshire’s success in the Twenty/20 format are Sales (by a mile), followed by White and this year O’Brien and Andrew Hall. In Northamptonshire’s six victories in 2008, Klusener batted just four times and reached double figures once.Despite finishing second in the Pro 40 in 2006, few could argue that Northamptonshire have come anywhere close to fulfilling their potential in one day games during Klusener’s time at Wantage Road. They have won just 13 times (three of those victories have been against Scotland and Ireland) and Klusener has produced a solitary defining moment, scoring 45 and claiming 5-33 to secure victory over Middlesex on the final day of the season in 2006, a performance that admittedly helped the County claim the runners-up spot.
However, the seven wins that the County have achieved in the past two seasons have all been secured primarily through the efforts of other players. Klusener has played little more than a bit-part role in any of those successes – he has certainly not commanded centre stage and shattered opponents single-handed.Consequently the decision not to extend Klusener’s contract was emphatically the right one. There is no disputing the fact that he has been a fine player for the county or that he could produce another 1,000-run season in 2009. The point is that he is not the player he was and for one reason or another he has failed to consistently deliver a series of match-winning performances.
Ultimately, despite providing a certain amount of box office appeal and producing some prodigious displays with the bat, Klusener has not done enough to help Northamptonshire defy the odds and win games; consequently has not given them full return on their investment. That may be a harsh assessment on a fine career at Wantage Road but ultimately it proves the wisdom of not retaining the services of a once-great player when the numbers no longer stack up.