Most likely down but far from out
Derbyshire's players have restored a little damaged pride in the past few weeks, with successive County Championship wins against title contenders Sussex and Middlesex a tribute to a new-found attitude.
"We're not being bullied anymore," Karl Krikken said. Most supporters felt that many of the team were overawed for the early part of the summer, treating opponents with too much respect. We seemed destined to go down in history as one of the worst performing sides since the competition split into two tiers.
Krikken decided to go with youth and their energy, enthusiasm, novelty value and skill saw the side to remarkable victories that rekindled hopes of avoiding relegation. Even defeat to Surrey meant that we go into the final three games with all to play for, but the feeling remains that the recent successes are papering over a few too many cracks for comfort.
The side has done well on the efforts of one batsman - captain Wayne Madsen, who has enjoyed the most prolific of summers, currently the leading runscorer in Division One - and two bowlers, with Tim Groenewald and Mark Footitt proving a fine new ball attack. Groenewald, together with Chesney Hughes, missed the trip to The Oval through paternity leave and although the side battled hard they was ultimately defeated by four wickets.
Madsen was the first batsman in the country to reach a thousand Championship runs, the first time a Derbyshire player has achieved that feat and testament to a summer in which he alone of the batsmen has looked of genuine Division One standard. Much was expected of Shivnarine Chanderpaul, but supporters have been disappointed by his middling return, 685 runs at 38.05 with three matches to go. It is good enough for an average overseas player, but not for a world No. 2 with a Test average of over fifty. Granted the result pitches at Derby haven't helped, but the club spent a lot of money on what appeared a guaranteed return of runs and it hasn't happened. Perhaps age is catching up and the long grind has taken him by surprise, but Shiv has only one Championship century and we needed more than that.
The young players have shown potential, with opener Ben Slater playing a couple of good knocks, Peter Burgoyne hinting at all-round ability and Matt Higginbottom bowling steadily at a time when bowling resources were slim. Yet the need for winter recruitment is palpably clear, even if realistically we are set to play in Division Two again next season.
One thing that will have to be improved is the conversion of starts into worthwhile scores. Too many batsmen have got into the habit of useful twenties or thirties before getting out. This is perhaps best illustrated by Chesney Hughes, a player of unquestionable talent whose innings of 270 at Headingley was the early season highlight. Yet a further nineteen championship innings have yielded only 342 more runs for a batsman who impresses and frustrates in equal measure.
I wrote at the start of the season that we could compete if we got our share of luck and battled as we did last summer. It took the introduction of youth to restore the competitive edge to the side and it is in the club's Academy that optimism lies. Our second XI are top of the Championship after a string of impressive displays under former opening batsman Steve Stubbings. I expect to see some of the talented young seamers from this side push for a senior place next summer and the club's development will continue apace with the redevelopment of the ground at Derby.
Supporters are largely patient and understand that we are only in the second year of a five-year plan. Last summer's success was welcome, but appears to have come too soon for some players. For others it has served to highlight that they are not quite of the requisite standard and they will doubtless be eased out at the end of their current deals.
It's not yet over. The fat lady has yet to sing, but they're bringing her microphone onto the stage. A win over Somerset is now essential, but someone other than Madsen has to take the responsibility of playing a major innings, while taking twenty wickets at Taunton is never easy. With title-chasing Durham and reigning champions Warwickshire to close the summer at Derby, even the optimists will struggle to see the required points racking up.
But we've learned a lot. There is sufficient talent in the squad to be confident of a return with a handful of new players. The club has approached Matt Coles of Kent, though my guess is that he will want to stay down south. There will be plenty of other irons in the fire though and we now know where we need to strengthen, finances permitting.
Down, in all likelihood. But not out. Not by a long chalk.
Steve Dolman has been a Derbyshire fan since 1967 and writes the award-winning Peakfan blog