Alec Swann - Short-term goal is in focus

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An email received at the end of February set out Northamptonshire’s five-year objectives.

Split into short, medium and long-term sections, the mission statement, to all intents and purposes, was simply the putting into black and white of a few basic, fundamentally sound targets.

And with the domestic season, well the competitive part if you discount the already played University curtain-raisers, getting under way today, it is the short-term goals that will be at the top of the agenda.

The majority are achievable regardless of how well the side perform on the field – improving the scouting network and links with local clubs for example – but the two at the top of the list have everything to do the club’s primary function.

‘To establish a consistent level of good performance in all three competitions’ and ‘to secure promotion from Division Two in Championship cricket’ are straightforward and for a club like Northants, fairly obvious.

Consistency across the board is an ideal for all clubs in whatever sport they compete but it is the latter that will have the highest priority.

Quite simply, promotion from the second tier is a must.

Northants have come close in two of the past three seasons, missing out on a top two place by a solitary point in both 2009 and 2011, but when all is said and done, if you miss promotion you miss promotion – nothing is awarded for a gallant effort.

So it is the Derbyshires and Leicestershires on the fixture list as opposed to the Lancashires and Warwickshires and that is a state of affairs that needs to be rectified, not only for the profile of a club who don’t occupy the top shelf in that regard, but for the retention of their up and coming players.

Two division cricket was introduced in 2000 and in the 123 seasons since, the County have only appeared in the top flight for two of those, the last of which was in 2004.

At first, the gap in standards between the two divisions was non-existent and it hardly made any difference to the mentality of the protagonists whether they were first or second division cricketers.

But as the system has bedded in and become well established, the gap has steadily grown to the point where, at this moment in time, it is fairly substantial between the very top and the bottom.

That means a stigma is attached to the clubs in the second tier, deserved or not, as a lower standard competition will inevitably attract.

Whereas in years gone by relegation wasn’t deemed to be a disaster and promotion wasn’t considered to be all-important, it is no longer the case, hence the objective of securing a promotion slot.

With the first division producing a standard that is consistently higher, the knock-on effect of any prolonged stay lower down is that the better players will want to ascend rather than stay put.

James Taylor’s move from Leicestershire to Nottinghamshire in the off-season was a shining example of the migration that will become more pronounced in years to come.

Taylor stated that he wanted to test himself against the best bowlers more often and that to do that he had to be playing in Division One and that argument, however parochial a view you may hold, is difficult to disagree with.

A conversation with an England selector last season confirmed that their thoughts on selection are, have to be, weighted in favour of the top flight as performances against higher level opponents on a regular basis show a more transferable readiness to the international game.

Were my job to select the national side, I know where my gaze would be fixed and as a player, that should influence any thoughts on future career moves as the likes of Jack Brooks, Alex Wakely – both of whom have had recognition from above – and possibly Rob Newton, will be well aware.

David Smith, the chief executive at Wantage Road, has stated that a club like Northants can’t expect to hold on to their players if they’re not competing at the highest level possible and, like it or not, that is not defeatist but based firmly in realism.

It isn’t easy to come to terms with the fact that second tier equals second rate but any study of competition tells you otherwise so if the County are to accomplish any of their key objectives, this is the one.

So how are Andrew Hall’s side going to achieve their number one target – and are they capable of doing it?

With regard to the latter the answer should be yes.

To fall short by a solitary point suggests they aren’t too far away and repetition should be well within the realms of possibility.

For that to be accomplished, the areas that produced last time out need to do exactly the same.

That means the new-ball bowlers making early and regular inroads, the spinner holding his end for the majority and the middle to lower order punching well above their weight consistently.

But any improvement, for that is what will be required in what will be an extremely competitive division, will need the top order to contribute far more regularly.

On too many occasions last year, the opposition were into the middle order far too rapidly and this will have to change as there are only so many times numbers six to nine can bail you out.

A settled opening partnership would help matters, as was shown with the new ball.

Another factor that shouldn’t be overlooked is that of the make-up of the squad.

It is, again, very thin and unsuitable numbers-wise for the crammed schedule, but that has been the case for a while now and it isn’t going to change – financial issues will see to that.

But there is a heavy dependency on seam which is all well and good when fitness and conditions suit and imbalanced when they don’t.

The addition of Con de Lange in the spin department should help out in that regard.

The switch from the Tiflex ball – often blamed for batting troubles and new ball penetration – to the Dukes could level things out somewhat but it won’t make as big a difference as will be made out.

The sides playing the right brand of cricket – big totals, pressure with the ball etc – will prosper as they always do and it is the County’s job to be one of those.

If that’s dealt with the four-day game, then the limited-overs variety is a different animal altogether.

For all the talk of injuries, resting players and priorities, the white-ball performances offered up last season were, the first chunk of the CB40 aside, woeful.

Whatever side you’re fielding, two wins from 16 in the Twenty20 and one in seven in the second instalment of the 40-over game wasn’t good enough, even taking into account the mitigating factors.

So an improvement shouldn’t be that tricky a task to accomplish.

There will be increased power in the battling line-up when Australian Cameron White arrives for the t20 which should make the quarter-finals a very real prospect.

But the order still looks a little light on hitting in the 40-over stuff.

So, the Championship offers the best chance of success but plenty of factors will have to fall into line if that goal is to be realised.