Northants Steelbacks have been one of the great success stories of county cricket in recent years.
After a hugely disappointing 2012 and with the club and its members wondering what the future might hold, they have been trasformed into a revelation in domestic Twenty20 competition.
Since 2012, they have won the NatWest T20 Blast twice – in 2013 and 2016 – while also making the final in 2015. In that time, they also gained promotion to Division One in the Championship. The man who has led their white ball revolution, Alex Wakely, looks back with fondness, not least because of where the side were when he took the reins.
“It’s taken a lot of hard work,” he says. “We realised we were behind the game in 2012. From then, we’ve just tried to work hard and identify where we were going wrong.”
“A lot of people have joked about the way Northants look. We obviously have some big lads! There’s no hiding away from that. But what you don’t see is the amount of work they put into their skillsets. In cricket, you’ve got to be fit for purpose. We’ve got a lot of guys there that practice death bowling, some who practice hitting the ball out of the park. So it’s no surprise they can go out there and perform as they have done.”
As well as hard work, Northants have embraced the numbers. Adopting a “Moneyball” approach in seeking value and optimum performance through data, they have identified talent and their strengths, while looking to exploit the weaknesses of others.
“We looked into statistics and underlining where we could pick the right players from. We became more selective of who we picked. David Ripley, our coach, was very vocal about the kind of players he could recruit. He wanted players that could win games of cricket with the bat and ball.”
Ripley was aided by Northants analyst Richard Barker, who has been at the club since 2010. Before each match, Barker hands Ripley and Wakley an information pack that is dissected before the captain and the coach decide which elements to relay to the players. Generally, information such as average scores and opposition’s weaknesses is always passed on.
“We don’t leave anything to chance,” says Wakely. “From there, confidence grows. And once you learn how to win, you start stringing performances together. The belief in our dressing room is second-to-none. It’s a great place to be.”
Another aspect Wakely can take a lot of credit for is creating a dressing room environment that not only implores success, but also allows individuals to celebrate the achievement of others.
“We’re all friends and we win and we lose together," he explained. "Also, everyone wants other people to be successful – there’s no jealousy. That’s a very rare environment in professional sport.”
The Steelbacks have won one (away at Durham) and lost one (at home to Derbyshire) going into a big clash against Yorkshire on Tuesday night, with Ben Duckett smashing 141 runs across those two matches. The big question is whether they can maintain their consistency and make 2017 another successful year.
“We’ll have the same blueprint," Wakely said. "But I’m very conscious that in professional sport you can’t stand still. We’ve tried to change a few things, particularly things we didn’t do so well. It’ll be tough for us to try and retain it. We’re in a great position and the squad is as talented as it ever has been at the moment.”
Ominous words for those looking to rob the Steelbacks of their crown.