With the summer at an end, it’s fair to say the 2021 cricket season was one of change at Northants.
There have been some key departures, with head coach David Ripley standing down after 10 years at the helm, former skipper Alex Wakely retiring at the age of just 32, and Richard Levi’s County Ground career also coming to an end.
Current assistant coach John Sadler is the man who has been tasked with filling the shoes of Ripley as head coach, and he knows he has a big job on his hands.
That’s because on the pitch it was a mixed season at best for the County, who underperformed massively in the white ball tournaments, failing to reach the knockout stages of either the Vitality T20 Blast or the Royal London One Day Cup.
There were some more encouraging signs in the LV= Insurance County Championship as Northants got close to qualifying for division one of the play-offs. But the humiliation at Essex last week - with the County throwing away 20 wickets for just 126 runs to lose the match in record time - has left a bit of a cloud over that campaign as well.
Away from the County Ground there has also been plenty going on, with the focus being on the launch of the controversial Hundred competition.
To wrap up the events of the season, and to also look to the future, Chron sports editor Jeremy Casey sat down with Northants chairman Gavin Warren to discuss all things cricket.
Part one is published today, and focuses on events at Wantage Road and the best way to find a way to sort the crowded schedule for next summer.
Part two will be printed at a later date, when Warren talks club finances, The Hundred, and what the future holds for Northants and county cricket in general.
Jeremy Casey: If we start with Northants, and the realisation that things at the club are not quite going to be the same again following the news that David Ripley has stood down as head coach. How good a job did he do in his 10 years in charge?
Gavin Warren: “Rips for me is the most successful coach we have had at the club. What he has achieved in terms of promotion to division one from division two twice, winning the T20 twice and reaching Finals Day three times overall has been phenomenal.
“All at a time when we had no money, and I had to cut his budget by a third, but him and Alex (Wakely) just got on with it, and that is why I have the ultimate respect for him.
“And it’s also why I didn’t want to let him go, and wanted to see him move into a different role.
“He talked to me about it, we talked through Nigel Felton, and Rips said ‘I want to stay but I want a different role’, and I said ‘no problem at all’.
“But it is probably time for a change across recruitment, and we will see where that will take us.”
JC: Talking of recruitment, it is fair to say the team has struggled in the past couple of seasons. The red ball cricket has been okay in 2021 and they have done pretty well in the first-class game. But I know the focus has been on the T20 Blast, and it has not come off over the past two summers. Have things not worked out as you would have liked them to?
GW: “Red-ball wise I think we have done well, especially this summer where there have been some close games.
“We were one run from beating Yorkshire and a minimal number of points from competing in division one at the end of the season, so the red-ball stuff has gone pretty well.
“But the white-ball performances have been really disappointing.
“We recruited Mohammad Nabi, the top ranked all-rounder in the world, to come in and make a difference, but obviously it didn’t work out with his quarantine so that couldn’t have got things off to a worse start.
“Josh Cobb was on the pitch and playing well and then he was injured, Adam Rossington was also in and out, and it was such a shame because on paper, if our best team was on the park we would have gone a long way.
“But quite frankly it has been disappointing for the past couple of years.
“So it is perhaps time for a fresh look at the white ball strategy and what we do there, and the director of cricket Nigel Felton has already started those conversations.”
JC: David Ripley has been the head coach for a long time, so would it be fair to say that in sport sometimes things need to have a freshen up for the players, to bring a new outlook to things?
GW: “Yeah, I think so. Part of bringing in John Sadler and Chris Liddle was to freshen things up and to bring new ideas, and Graeme White is now involved with the coaching set-up.
“We are playing more youngsters now, so yeah it was probably time for a change.
“We have probably been treading water if the truth be told for the past couple of years, and now it is time for a change and let’s hope it works.”
JC: John Sadler has been appointed as the new head coach in place of David Ripley, what will he bring to the role that will be different?
GW: “I think he will bring some new ideas, and as a person he is probably not as laid back as Rips. I think he sets high standards, which is good.
“He has good awareness of young talent coming through around the circuit, which is good, and we are very lucky and excited to have John on board.
“Since he has been with us, he has fallen into things seamlessly, as has Chris Liddle, and it feels like they have always been here. John is just a really nice guy as well, which always helps.”
JC: You mentioned knowing about talent around the circuit, it was John who brought Tom Taylor to the club wasn’t it?
GW: “Yes. It was John who brought Tom in, and he has been a great acquisition although I don’t think we have seen the best of him yet, and I think Sads has a few more that he has got his eye on as well.”
JC: Staying with recruitment, the squad hasn’t performed as well as the club would have hoped in 2021, so would it be fair to say a lot of players haven’t performed to their potential?
GW: “I don’t think they have, certainly in white ball cricket, so there is a lot of work to be done in the winter.”
JC: Are you planning to bring a lot of new players in? Because a lot of the current squad are under contract for 2022 aren't they?
GW: “Most of the squad is under contract, and probably the big churn will be next winter when I think there about nine players who will be out of contract. But we are looking at two, three or four appointments this year.
“We are looking for a big overseas player to come in for the red-ball cricket.
“Ideally if they play all forms then great, but there will also be a big overseas signing for the T20 as well, because we need that solidity in the red and white ball cricket.
“We can have two overseas in white ball cricket, and one in the red ball, and for the first-class stuff we are looking for a top order batsman.
“Somebody who bats at three or four - so I would love another Mike Hussey or Matt Hayden!!
“That is exactly the type of person we want, somebody who is aspiring to get into a national team.
“We have identified our number one target, and those talks are already ongoing.”
JC: The world cricket schedule is so crowded and intense now, it can’t be easy to get the players you want, and to get them for the length of time you want them.
GW: “That is the problem. We have a chairmen’s meeting and we don’t know what the schedule looks like at the minute, although the Blast Finals Day has been announced (Saturday, July 16).
“We want to start with red-ball cricket, we want to start and finish the Blast, and then we want to go into The Hundred.
“When The Hundred is on we want to play 50-over cricket, and then finish things off with Championship cricket as we do now, that would be my schedule.”
JC: Okay, while we are on the subject of the schedule for 2022, what are your hopes for the County Championship structure? Would you like it to continue in the Conference format played this summer, or back to the two-division structure, with promotion and relegation?
GW: “Our preference if we are honest, is to go back to div one and div two. We are in division one, and we worked hard to get there. It is my vote, but the people I ask are Rips, John Sadler, Chris Liddle, Nigel Felton and the captain.
“I ask them, ‘what do you want to play in?’ Overwhelmingly, they want to play in div one, so as far as I’m concerned we will vote for div one and two.
JC: I would say the Conference system worked pretty well for the first 10 games, when everybody was competing to get into the top division for the play-offs, but then there has to have been a lack of motivation for the teams in divisions two and three?
GW: “I have been a bit disappointed with the media, because they covered the top division, but not two and three.
“They were almost forgotten about, so we are in the camp of going back to division one and two.
“We worked so hard to get there, so we want to have a go at it. Hopefully it will come back next year.
“That said, they are still talking about Covid restrictions for next year, and if that is the case then I would guess we would stay as we are, as we have seen what happened with Durham and Surrey a few weeks ago, but who knows?
“The advantage of the Conference system is that it is more flexible, but we will see what happens.”
JC: So as far as the schedule for next summer goes, it sounds as though you would like to keep it more or less as it has been in 2021?
GW: “Yes, but I would like to start and finish the Blast in one go, rather than there be a gap and we play two Championship games, and then a gap to the quarter-finals and then another one before Finals Day.
“What I would like is for the lads who play in the Blast to have an opportunity to play in The Hundred, almost through an MVP (most valuable player) ranking within the Blast.
“So at the start of the Blast, all the players have a genuine chance of playing in The Hundred, and the lads want to play in The Hundred.
“The lads at our club who have come back enjoyed the experience, they loved it, because it is as close to international cricket as you can get.
“It is best versus best, and next year it will be even better because the best players in the world will be available to play in it.
“If you think of all the Australians, New Zealanders and West Indians who weren’t with us, then next year will be phenomenal.
“County players want to play in it, and I want to give them an opportunity to do so, hence holding the Blast from a start to a finish before The Hundred begins.”
JC: I suppose an issue when you condense the T20, is that as a club there may be a situation where you have three or four home games in the space of seven or eight days. It happened this summer where the Steelbacks started the campaign with three home games in six days. That is not ideal is it?
GW: “We might do, but we have to work with that.
"We didn’t have the opportunity to sell full houses this year because of the Covid restrictions, and we already know we will have a different crowd on a Friday to one will have on a Sunday.
“I think if we get the scheduling right then we can appeal to different audiences on different days.
“We can have more a family-feel day on a Sunday, and then a more lively night on a Thursday or Friday.
“Hospitality we sold out, people were queuing up to buy that as soon as the fixtures were out, so that won’t be any issue.”
JC: Are you happy for the Royal London One Day Cup to run alongside The Hundred as a development competition?
GW: “Yes, I think it’s like the Anglo-Welsh Cup in rugby, where the idea is you blood youngsters because you want to give them a taste of professional cricket, but not too much, too early.
“I think it is a great chance for the youngsters to showcase their skills.”
JC: How about a return to the old days of a one day KO Cup, rather than the groups system we have now?
GW: “I am a big fan of that. What I would do, and I have put a paper to the ECB saying this, I would bring in the National Counties, I would bring in Scotland and Ireland, and have a knockout competition.
“The initial rounds would see the first-class counties taking on national counties, like we had the showcase game against Bedfordshire here earlier in the summer.
“That could be the opening round of the competition.
“Or we could play Scotland, as we did a few years ago here, so I am a big fan of 50-over knockout cricket, involve the National Counties, and bring all the teams closer together.
“I think knockout cricket has a lot to offer, it would be entertaining and exciting because people like to see giant-killings.
"There would really be something on every game.”
NEXT TIME: We talk Northants finances, The Hundred and what the future holds for county cricket...