In the lead up to the 2016 domestic season, ecb.co.uk will be running a series of features with all 18 first-class counties. Northamptonshire coach David Ripley is refusing to get carried away about the return of former England left-arm spinner Monty Panesar.
There is no doubting who will be the centre of attention at Northamptonshire’s pre-season media day early next month. Monty Panesar remains one of the best-known and most popular figures in English cricket, even though the last of his international appearances was more than two years ago, and it would be a wonderfully romantic story if he were to return this summer with the county where he first emerged way back in 2001.
But David Ripley, the Northants coach who captained a young Panesar in those early days and invited him to join their pre-season trip to Barbados, is battling to keep a lid on expectations.
“It’s been great to have him with us, but Monty hasn’t bowled a ball yet,” Ripley pointed out, with the 33-year-old still recovering from a shoulder operation.
Instead it is the huge promise of the likes of Ben Duckett and Olly Stone, allied to the proven ability and nous of Rory Kleinveldt, that has Ripley convinced his team can defy widespread predictions that they will struggle this summer following the departure of David Willey for Yorkshire. A fairytale Panesar comeback would be the icing on the cake.
“I still feel we’re going to have some difficult conversations with players around selection and batting positions,” said Ripley, addressing the concern about the depth of Northamptonshire’s squad.
“So it isn’t as bad as some people are making out. Certainly in white-ball cricket, I’m optimistic we’ve got a strong team. And in the Championship we want to be as competitive as we can be.
“Last year was a good benchmark. With limited resources we finished mid-table, and if we had won a game at Lancashire where we were denied by the rain, we’d have been up there challenging for third.
“I’m interested to see how it all pans out with the changes around the toss as well. I’m a bit of a fan, I think it’s going to encourage teams to prepare good cricket wickets, and that’s what we want for our home games.”
Northants have an intriguing start at home to Sussex, who will be among the favourites for promotion.
“I’ll have my teamtalk done for me, with what people say ahead of that game,” Ripley added.
It is only three years since Northants took Division Two by storm with their early-season performances, fired by a seam quartet of Willey, Trent Copeland, Steven Crook and Muhammad Azhar Ullah, to lay the foundations for promotion.
— Northants Cricket (@NorthantsCCC) March 22, 2016
Crook and Azhar Ullah are still around, and the current team confirmed their ability to compete with more highly-fancied teams with that performance in Manchester last summer, when Duckett stroked a superb first-innings century, and Stone bowled with real hostility on a fast, bouncy pitch.
Stone has recovered from the back injury that forced him to withdraw from the England Performance Programme before Christmas, and has been working at the National Cricket Performance Centre in Loughborough and also flew out to South Africa for some warm-weather training.
Duckett, a member of England’s squad for the 2014 ICC Under-19 World Cup when he competed with Worcestershire’s Joe Clarke for the wicketkeeping gloves, made four centuries in 11 Championship appearances last summer, and Ripley is hoping for more of the same this year.
“I think Ben could have a really big season. It isn’t going to be easy for him at the start of the season because he hasn’t been opening the batting all that long, and facing the new ball in England in April and May is one of the tougher jobs in cricket. But what he did last year was a pretty phenomenal effort and he’s added a bit of technical stuff over the winter.”
To underline Ripley’s point about competition for places surviving in Northampton despite the undeniable thinness of their squad, Duckett is one of three contenders for the ‘keeper’s gloves in white-ball cricket, with David Murphy and Adam Rossington – the former Middlesex man who is also a handy batsman, and is set to wear the gloves in Championship cricket.
Rob Keogh has shown his ability as an off-spinning all-rounder, Graeme White is available to add a left-arm option, and there is another intriguing name in the Northants squad in Tom Sole, a 19-year-old from Edinburgh whose father David is an all-time Scotland rugby great having captained them to the Grand Slam in 1990.
— Northants Cricket (@NorthantsCCC) March 19, 2016
All three were able to pick Panesar’s brain in Barbados, and Ripley was quietly encouraged by the first step towards a possible Northants return for Monty.
“He looks well, and that’s the most important issue really – he’s got the twinkle in his eyes which I was used to seeing, but which I’m told has gone missing a bit in the last couple of years. He’s been helping our young spinners, and he’s got on well with the lads.
“Obviously from a Northants perspective the hope is that he’ll come back from his shoulder injury, and he’ll get back to bowling, which is what he’s always loved to do – and then when the wickets are a bit drier, we can have a look at him – if he’s bowling somewhere near his best we’d be foolish not to consider him.
“That’s quite a long way away from where we stand now. But wouldn’t it be great to see Monty back and bowling well this summer?”
It is not only in Northampton where that sentiment would be heartily endorsed.