Crook steals lead after Peters ton
Kent 271 and 6 for 0 trail Northamptonshire 303 (Peters 106, Crook 62, Shreck 4-80) by 26 runs
Northamptonshire may not be Division Two leaders straight out of left-field, to slip into baseball parlance, but their hot streak has caught plenty by surprise. A century from their captain, Stephen Peters, and a by-now-familiar flick of the tail helped them to a slim advantage at the halfway point of a keenly contested match against Kent, as they pursue a third win out of four that would only fuel promotion talk on the bleachers.
Northants have been here before and, having missed out by a single point in 2009 and 2011, they might be forgiven for fearing what Yogi Berra, the marvellously muddled former Major League catcher, once called "déjà vu all over again". David Ripley, who succeeded David Capel as coach last year, was involved with the club on those previous occasions but said "choking" was not a problem he is worried about this time around.
"Promotion is a target we think is achievable, especially with the start we've made," he said. "The belief is there that we can do it. I'm confident we can. It's partly a relief to come out and play well, when you've put the work in. Having got those wins in the bank, got ourselves at the top of the table, that's great - we didn't envisage being where we are but we'll take it because we've played well."
Ironically, Northamptonshire's preparations for the season focused on improving a disappointing recent record in one-day cricket - an area in which Ripley felt they "had the most to gain" - and one of the signings who has done so much to help them top the table, Steven Crook, was brought in with that aim in mind. Here, Crook hit 63, his third half-century in four innings since returning from Middlesex, to go with three wickets on the first day, as Northamptonshire recovered from 150 for 6 to post 303.
"It ain't over, til it's over," is another Berra aphorism and one the Northamptonshire lower order appear to have taken to heart. In four first innings, their last four wickets have added 648 runs - more than doubling the score on two occasions - although the picture at Canterbury was distorted slightly by Rob Newton batting at No. 11 after suffering a groin strain while fielding on Wednesday. That meant they fielded a last man with an average of 38.95, rather than the usual 21.07 of Trent Copeland.
Crook's contribution was second only to Peters, who recorded his 30th first-class century and the first by any Northamptonshire player this season. While their bowling attack has regularly treated the opposition like skittles, top-order runs have been a little less forthcoming. In April in England, that is not altogether unsurprising but this was the third time Peters has passed fifty and his batting, as well as his leadership, is likely to be crucial if Northants are to stay the course.
"He's been outstanding, he really has," Ripley said of Peters, who is in his first season as captain. "His example batting, you've only got to see how dearly he sells himself in games like we've seen today. He's steely, competitive, loves it when it's tough. He's spoken very well with the team, tactically he's been very good and a lot of the impetus we've built, he's helped us get it going."
The engine required a little turning over at the start of the day and it would be inaccurate to say that the morning session took place under a blanket of cloud only in that a blanket suggests a degree of warmth. That didn't stop Peters from batting in shirt sleeves and, if the goose pimples helped focus the mind, it certainly wasn't a bad idea.
Peters was involved in the two most substantial stands of the innings - putting on 63 with both David Sales and Crook - but it was his temperament and focus in the face of testing spells from Kent's raggedy old stagers, Charlie Shreck and Mark Davies, that really set the tone.
Ripley said Northants had expected a tough encounter and an important test of their credentials in this fixture and, by the time the sun finally came out in the late afternoon, they had stolen a few more bases. "We've always had good four-day skills," he said. "We've been there and gone close before and there's a feeling that we can be there again."
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo