Derbyshire revival set to bear fruit
Derbyshire cannot escape their past. In the history of the County Championship, no county has finished bottom of the heap more times than they have. They are the champions of the wooden spoon, the occupiers of last place at the end of the season 15 times. Since the competition was split into two divisions, they have played in the lower tier every season bar the first, when by virtue of finishing ninth in the last year of the old format, they qualified as founder members of Division One.
A former England captain, a proponent of a slimmed down Championship, argued not long ago that Derbyshire, along with Northamptonshire and Leicestershire, dominated as they were at the time by Kolpaks and cast-offs, did not produce enough players of their own and therefore did not deserve to have their own first-class teams. He compounded the fury he had already provoked by describing Leicester and Derby as "essentially satellite towns of Nottingham".
This year, it is different. Unless fate comes up with an unprecedented twist to the story, the author of that unfortunate phrase can expect some fairly robust responses when Derbyshire will be looking forward to spending the 2013 season in Division One, having probably been promoted as champions.
They could yet be overtaken by any of their three closest pursuers, but Derbyshire meet two of them -- Kent and Hampshire -- in their last two matches, which puts them firmly in control. Indeed, if they win at Canterbury this week, promotion will be guaranteed.
Head coach Karl Krikken, who was their wicketkeeper when Derbyshire last played Division One cricket, some 12 years ago, is anxious not to celebrate too soon but is confident the champagne order will not need to be cancelled.
"We're not counting any chickens," he said. "There is still plenty of cricket to be played yet. But we would be disappointed if we did not get over the line now. We have a group of players who fight for each other and they will take that into the last two games."
Derbyshire's success represents an extraordinary change in fortunes. The season before last, they finished bottom of Division Two for the fourth time and, in typical Derbyshire fashion, a civil war broke out. Rows in the Racecourse committee room have become so common as to be almost normal and when one chairman, Don Amott, resigned to be replaced by another, Chris Grant, the world beyond Derby scarcely even noticed, let alone expected much to change.
Yet things did change. Derbyshire-born Grant, only in his early 40s but already retired after a successful career as a City of London stockbroker, canvassed opinion in the dressing room and within six weeks had sacked head of cricket John Morris, the former England batsman, replacing him with Krikken, who had been in charge of the academy. Since then, former coach Dave Houghton has returned to work with the batsmen and AJ Harris, the former Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire seamer, has been helping the bowlers.
Grant also drew up a nine-point plan to drive the county forward, at the heart of which was shedding Derbyshire's image as a League of Nations XI and building a team of England-qualified players, including a core group that were home produced.
"Things had to change," Grant said. "The academy was producing good young players, many of them good enough to play for England at Under-19 level, but they were not going on to become first-team players with Derbyshire. We had become a team packed with Kolpaks and imports from other counties. We were seen as the place to go for a final big pay check and some people were questioning whether we should exist at all as a first-class county.
"When I took over as chairman we had lost £188,000 and finished bottom of the Championship. We would have withered and died on the vine, there is no doubt. But we will be back in surplus this year. We have lost a number of high earners but it was important that we created an environment in which players wanted to stay and through a combination of increased revenue and general good housekeeping we have managed to increase salary levels in general.
"We set out to to field a team in the 2013 season that contained nine England-qualified players and we will meet that target. In fact, we could have 10. If anyone still questions whether Derbyshire should exist I'd like them to take a look at us now."
England-qualified does not, of course, mean only home grown. Krikken, while enthusiastic about the contribution made by some of his former academy pupils, is quick to underline the importance of experienced hands such as Tim Groenewald, South-African born but with long established domestic status, and Tony Palladino, who arrived from Essex in 2010, and of last winter's key signing, the discarded Yorkshire spinner, David Wainwright.
"David has been a big plus for us," Krikken said. "He has won matches for us on turning wickets and been excellent holding up an end when the seamers have bowled. And those seamers - Groenewald, Palladino and Jon Clare - have been immense.
"But we set out to put more faith in the younger players coming through from the academy and we are delighted with the way they have come on. Lads such as Dan Redfern, Ross Whitely, Paul Borrington and Tom Poynton have given us a core of good local players and there are more who can follow them, the likes of Alex Hughes and Peter Burgoyne and Tom Knight."
Redfern has scored more than 800 first-class runs batting at five or six, Borrington has shown promise at the top of the order, left-arm seamer Whiteley has looked a capable allrounder and wicketkeeper Poynton, while making good progress with his skills behind the stumps, scored his maiden century against Northamptonshire last month during an extraordinary ninth-wicket stand of 261 with Wayne Madsen.
"I was involved in the academy from the start, after I finished playing in 2004," Krikken said. "I talked to a lot of people then about the best way to go forward and it is great to see the hard work that was done bearing fruit.
"I think this is the best Derbyshire team we have had since the 1990s, when we won the Sunday League and the Benson and Hedges Cup, got to a NatWest final and finished second in the Championship. It is an exciting time for the county."