Andrew Radd continues his conversation with Northamptonshire’s head coach David Ripley as the dust settles from the recent Ashes series and thoughts start to turn to the 2018 domestic season.
When you read about former England cricketers – in this case Matt Prior – calling on counties to instil more ambition in their players it begs at least one killer question.Ambitious for what? An England cap? An IPL or BBL contract? An audience with Kevin Pietersen?
In a magazine article, Prior has questioned the motivation of county pros, insisting there are too many of them ‘floating around county cricket (and) having a nice little life with actually very little ambition to push on’.
This in turn prompted a brisk rejoinder from Freddie Flintoff – president of the Professional Cricketers’ Association – who called the comments ‘highly disrespectful’ and claimed his own recollections of the county game were of a ‘tough and competitive’ environment.
And he suggested Prior might care to name the players supposedly ‘floating around.’
Northamptonshire’s head coach David Ripley has spent his entire adult life in county cricket, after joining the staff at Wantage Road as a teenager in the early-1980s.
So who’s right?
“There are different personalities in any walk of life,” he says.
“That’s just how people are – some have got more drive and ‘oomph’ than others.
“When it comes to cricket, some guys just want to hit thousands of balls while others prepare themselves differently. It’s all down to the individual’s mindset.
“You’ll have some who think ‘yes, I’m OK here’ with an eye on their next contract and the mortgage. But it might just be realism.
“You could say that was David Ripley 30 years ago, because I didn’t think I was good enough to play for England. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to do my best in county cricket and be competitive for my team.
“So it’s a bit of a blanket statement. In my opinion there are plenty of guys in the county game who would bust a gut to try to play for England.”
Anyone who’s ever spoken to David Steele – for example – will grasp instantly how highly-motivated so-called ‘journeyman’ cricketers can be.
His famous comment about ‘wanting to try until it hurt’ says it all.
But it’s worth considering whether the current system in England would allow a Steele or a Neil Mallender (remember the Ghost’s eight wickets on Test debut against Pakistan at Headingley in 1992?) to scale the international heights.
As Ripley points out: “I think the central contract system makes it slightly more difficult, because you tend to be ‘groomed’ for it.
“You look at Richard Gleeson who’s come a bit out of left field. He’s been selected for the North against the South, and I really thought he would have been a great pick for the England Lions this winter.
“But then you have the lads who’ve been through all the ECB programmes – and so if you’re pushing 30 I think it’s harder to see yourself playing for England.
“Not that long ago you could have a good month in county cricket and get a Test cap. Perhaps that was a drawback of the system then, that there wasn’t enough continuity. So it’s not easy to get it right.”
Whether young gun or old sweat, any top-order batsman in Test cricket must (or at least should) have the ability to ‘bat long’.
England’s management were honest in pointing out that breezy knocks of 60 and 70 don’t usually win Ashes series.
And some observers
have been swift to blame
the current obsession with T20 – hard to deny when ECB have been pushing yet another short-format competition as their big idea – for a dearth of ‘stickers’ in the English game.
When the big-money contracts demand high-tariff, high-risk shots from the start…
“I think there is a little bit of truth in that,” says Ripley.
“But if you look at the best players – like when Steve Smith and David Warner saved the Melbourne Test for Australia – they’re adaptable.
“The desire to bat all day might well be there. I look at my own players regularly and think we may be short of the really big scores, but no-one goes out there to just give it away.
“We read the averages at the end of the season, we talk about getting the ‘big not-outs’ – but it’s a skill like any other.
“Once you’ve experienced it two or three times it becomes a lot easier, navigating your way through the 40s and the 70s and beyond.
“One of Ben Duckett’s big strengths in recent times is that he’s been willing and able to go on and get 150-plus.”
It’s worth noting that Rob Newton – the only Northamptonshire batsman to top 1,000 first-class runs last season – reached 50 on eleven occasions in the Championship, but converted only one of them into a century.
Another nasty case of Nonconvertitis Rootius?
“Learning to leave the ball is perhaps the biggest thing, when you reckon you can just lean on one through the covers – or you get a bit of width and you’re used to throwing your hands through it,” Ripley adds.
“We talk about it a lot as players and coaches – as a generation we are lacking guys who can drop anchor.
“But those who can do that wouldn’t play T20 cricket necessarily – it’s not easy to switch from one to the other. Although, as I say, the very best players are adaptable.
“There’s nothing worse as a coach than to hear someone say after getting out ‘it’s the way I play.’ It’s not something we like to hear.
“If the team needs you to play a certain way then you need to try your best to do that.”
I suspect a loud ‘amen’ will emanate from every coach and skipper at every level of cricket in the country. On second thoughts, make that the world…
Next week David Ripley discusses Northamptonshire’s priorities for the new season – and reveals which of his bowlers have been ‘ahead of schedule’ in winter training.