ANDREW RADD - Competition for places looks good as the season draws closer
In the third-and-final instalment of his conversation with Andrew Radd, Northamptonshire's head coach David Ripley looks at his own team's prospects in 2018
County cricket enthusiasts of my vintage (and older) relished one sound above any other – although admittedly the first cuckoo of spring might have run it close.
When the envelope containing membership card, annual report and a sheaf of miscellaneous leaflets – ‘Join the Paramilitary Wing of the Association of Cricket Statisticians’ – dropped on the doormat around this time of year, spirits rose sky-high.
It wouldn’t be long before my Uncle Percy on the gate at Wantage Road would hail members of the visiting team with the time-honoured greeting: “Are you a player?”
Even – as on one memorable occasion – if the vehicle he was reluctant to allow in bore the legend ‘Alvin Kallicharran – Warwickshire and West Indies Cricketer’ in large newly-painted letters on the side.
Anyhow, the first ball will be bowled in a couple of months’ time – and the County’s head coach David Ripley has already had plenty of opportunity to run the rule over his squad, including new signings Brett Hutton and Luke Procter.
“Training has been really good so far,” he says.
“You try to pencil in your teams at this time of year – which I’m sure a lot of our supporters will also be doing now – and it’s not easy to get that final eleven.
“We’ve brought in two experienced players who’ve each done well for their counties in recent years, and who are coming here with points to prove
“So the idea (mooted by former England wicketkeeper Matt Prior and mentioned in this column last week) of people sitting in county cricket with no ambition clearly doesn’t apply in their case.
“These are two guys who’ve chosen to move – Brett wants to find red-ball opportunities with us while Luke wants to really pin down a spot and crack on with his game.
“They’re hungry players and I’ve been really pleased with how they’ve fitted in here.”
Most of Northamptonshire’s squad members reported back in November (although actual cricket training doesn’t kick in for the majority until the new year), and one notable absentee was seamer Mohammad Azharullah, released at the end of last season after five years on the books.
“Losing Azhar does leave us with a niche to fill,” Ripley admits.
“His bowling at the death will be missed, and someone else in the group will have to step up and take on that role.”
Expectation plays a huge part in every sport.
Not many supporters would have risked their hard-earned dosh on Northamptonshire gaining Championship promotion last season. Another run to the T20 knockout stages looked altogether more plausible.
In the event, of course, the County notched their same number of Championship victories as when Mushtaq’s side finished as runners-up in 1976 – only to miss out on a return to Division One by a handful of points.
But the white-ball showing was less impressive.
“We were just inconsistent in the T20. We played some good cricket but at other times we were off the pace.
“Yes, we did have injuries. I know you can hide behind it, but missing people like Cobb, White, Levi and Prasanna – these were major players and difficult to replace in a smallish squad.
“I think the 50-over cup was our biggest disappointment of the summer.
“We’ve got a good team in that format – as we showed the previous year – but we just didn’t get out of the blocks.
“How we got on in our last ten overs compared to what the opposition did in their last ten – a lot of the time that was instrumental in the outcome of the game.
“You can put in the effort and training and have your plans in place, but the execution has to be right too.
“As far as the Championship goes, I’m
still trying to come to terms with us having a season like that and yet not be sitting here looking forward to another crack at the first division.
“It was disappointing to play that well and not go up. But we’ll dust ourselves off and be ready to have another go.”
If nothing else, I suspect we won’t see another issue with the over-rate…
Losing any player to injury is frustrating for a coach, but the absence for a good chunk of last summer of left-arm spinner Graeme White deprived Northamptonshire of a key figure in all competitions.
He underwent shoulder surgery at the end of the campaign – and Ripley hopes to see him on active service again in May, if not April.
“The first couple of weeks of training suggested that Ben Sanderson and Richard Gleeson were both perhaps slightly ahead of schedule, while Graeme was maybe a little bit behind.
“The operation he’s had lends itself to a touch more care and attention.
“He and some of the other lads will be heading off – with (Ripley’s right-hand man) Phil Rowe – to Spain for just over a week to get outdoors, get some overs into their legs and build themselves up ready for the workloads we’ll need at the start of the season.
“I would point out that they’re self-funding it too, including Phil!
“So again – this idea of people ‘floating around’ in county cricket and not doing enough really isn’t the case.
“Hopefully Graeme will make some improvements there. At the end of 2016 he was chosen for the North against the South after having a brilliant season in the 50-over Cup, and he was also maturing as a person.
“You see that when he’s coaching the young kids, you see it when he’s around our group.
“I know he’s not a young cricketer any more but it’s apparent to me that those performances helped him grow as an individual.
“He’s an important member of our white-ball team. We might not need him right at the start, but certainly by the time the 50-over matches come along we need him to be at his best.”
Oxford in nine-and-a-bit weeks’ time? Can’t wait.