June 5, 2013

Tail wagging, heads nodding

Northamptonshire could do with a few more runs from their top-order but everything else is going swimmingly well

Don't you just love a British summer? On Bank Holiday Monday I was sitting at Northamptonshire's Wantage Road ground bathed in glorious sunshine. Fast forward 48 hours and, on the same ground, I was crouching under a battered umbrella with a pac-a-mac on as ducks swam on the outfield.

I should really have seen it coming after Monday's miracle. The Bank Holiday saw Northants win their first home 40-over match for two years so it was no wonder the rain came in floods. Warwickshire were seen off on family fun day at Wantage Road and I'm pretty sure one child even fell off the bouncy castle in disbelief as Andrew Hall took the final Bears wicket.

After the shocking YB40 success, I felt a wave of optimism ahead of our County Championship clash with Hampshire, as we welcomed one of the 'pre-season favourites' to Northampton. As it turned out, wave was a very apt word to use as day one was completely washed out and part of day two was lost due to the soaked outfield.

As the sun fought back on the second day, though, Trent Copeland shone through as only a 6ft 5in Australian can by taking four wickets and helping to skittle Hampshire out. Copeland has been an absolute godsend this season and he has transformed us from 'little old Northants' into a side with fight, passion and spirit.

Copeland is a master of his art, a natural leader and the orchestrator of the superb four-pronged seam attack that has led us to the summit of Division Two. When he returns to Australia on June 8, he will sorely missed at Wantage Road and will leave massive shoes to fill for one of Lee Daggett, Mohammad Azharullah or Olly Stone.

Copeland has also been leading the Northants tail with his batting prowess, recording his second fifty of the season against Hampshire whilst batting at No. 10. The combination of accurate bowling and strong hitting by the lower order has dug us out of many holes in the County Championship this season and it was required again in order to take six bonus points this week.

It wouldn't be Northants though if everything was faultless. It would be far too much to ask for perfect performances in the four-day and 40-over games in the same week. For my liking, the top-order just aren't making enough runs in either form of the game and there will come a time when, probably as Copeland departs, we can't continue to rely on the tail to keep wagging strongly.

In our total of 425 for 9 against Hampshire, the top five made just 105 runs between them and 59 of those were from the bat of Kyle Coetzer, who made his first half-century of the season. By anyone's standards, that is a poor effort from the recognised batsmen and it is a problem that must be addressed as we enter a busy time in the schedule. Yes the bowlers and the tail have papered over the cracks in the first part of the campaign but if those cracks aren't filled in, the whole foundation of our season may come crashing down.

Don't mistake my concerns for negativity, though, as there are so many positives to take from recent matches, including the performances of Steven Crook and Andrew Hall. The consistency of Crook's outings with both bat and ball continues to astound me as he has the ability to smash 60 or 70 runs in any form of the game before returning to take four or five wickets and lead us to victory. "Crookie Monster" will certainly have a big role to play when Copeland heads back down under.

Meanwhile, Hall's back-to-back centuries in the County Championship against Leicestershire and Hampshire (130 not out) show why he is still the most valued experienced head in the team. Almost like an enforcer, Hall seems to turn up at any given point in the game when we are struggling and hand the momentum back to us with the minimum of fuss. His knock against Hampshire was pure class and it was unfortunate that any chance of a result had long since sailed away with the poor weather.

Having said that, there is still clear blue water between Northants and the chasing pack in Division Two and, despite losing our skipper Stephen Peters to a broken finger, stand-in captain Alex Wakely is steering us calmly through the choppy seas. An outstanding win at Kent on Sunday, our third on the bounce in the YB40, is proof of just how far this side is progressing in a competition where we cannot usually buy victories.

If Wakely can help to sort out the lack of runs at the top of the order in the four-day game and find a suitable replacement for Copeland, we might just be sailing into the harbour of Division One next season. Now that really would be a miracle.

Ashley Lambell is a passionate supporter of Northampton sides in football, rugby and cricket. He tweets here