From rock-bottom to champions
Perhaps the darkest hour really is just before the dawn. After a year described as "embarrassing" by their captain, Alex Wakely, the Northamptonshire team came together at the end of 2012 and decided things must change.
No team won fewer games in all competitions last year. With just one win in 10 T20 matches, one win (against the Unicorns) in 12 CB40 matches and two wins in the second division of the County Championship, Northamptonshire were, in Wakely's words "at rock bottom." The departure of senior players such as Jack Brooks and Niall O'Brien in the off-season hardly helped.
Now they are Friends Life t20 champions. After a change of coach - David Ripley replaced David Capel in July 2012 - a change of captain - Andrew Hall was replaced by Wakely in the white-ball formats and Stephen Peters in the red ball - and with the influence of David Smith, who became chief executive at the start of 2012, becoming more apparent - the culture of the club has changed markedly over the last few months. The club, for so long carrying an air of weary sadness, is now vibrant and positive.
"We were at rock-bottom last year," Wakely said. "We were embarrassing and no-one wanted to come and watch us. Even our own supporters were laughing at us.
"We almost started from scratch. We had a heart-to-heart at the end of last year; a lot of people were disappointed with the way we were playing our cricket. We sat down; we worked hard and we're reaping the rewards.
"One of the things that we picked out at the end of last year was our organisation was very bad. The way we went to training wasn't very good, so David Ripley sorted that out. He's got us back on track. Everything we're doing is structured now; he's got the best guys around him, a very good team around him and the club's in a very good state.
"There's no secret to what we've done. We went back to working on basic skills as batsmen and bowlers and all the hard work has paid off. Everyone is playing with a smile on their face and really enjoying their cricket."
That 'smile on the face' was one of the most notable characteristics of their FLt20 success. In a format where handling pressure can play a vital role, Northamptonshire's ability to enjoy the moment rather than allow it to daunt them was vital.
"People kept walking past each other saying 'enjoy it'," Wakely said as he reflected on the final moments of the victory over Surrey. "We were really at rock-bottom last year; there were times where we didn't know where to go. So to turn it around so quickly…It said a lot about the side that everyone was together at the end there. Everyone has been right down at the bottom and now everyone is right at the top. It's just a great feeling.
"We wanted to try and enjoy that atmosphere for as long as we could. It's the best hour I've ever had playing cricket. It was a great atmosphere. It was something that will live with me for a long time no matter whatever happens in the future now.
"For me, it's just about belief. It's about believing we can do it. Last year we were so tentative with everything; we had a go at it without really believing we could do it, whereas this year every time we've gone out there we've believed."
One of the pleasing aspects of Northamptonshire's success is the key contributions of 'home grown' players. Wakely and David Willey, Man of the Match in the FLt20 final, are among those who progressed through the club's youth teams, while the presence of younger players such as Olly Stone and Ben Duckett - both of whom have been England U19 captains in the past year - suggest the future should be bright, too. The contribution of Ripley, once the Academy coach, is obvious.
"A lot of us have grown up with Dave through the academy years and we know him very well," Wakely said. "Because we get on so well there's that relationship there. Everyone can relate to him and he doesn't say anything that he doesn't really mean. He's guided us basically. We have some very talented players in the team - senior players and young players - and he's just pushed us in the right direction."
"It's very rewarding," Ripley agreed. "We also have David Murphy and Rob Newton, who is injured. We have a nice balance of young lads who know the club well and have come through and care for the club.
"I'd like to think this is the start of something. We would love to keep these young guys together and hopefully winning cricket matches and being part of a team is special. We love these lads and we'd love to keep them. It's not all about cash."
Northamptonshire's success has not just been about local development, though. They have also recruited wisely, with Azharullah, plucked from the Yorkshire leagues and Steven Crook, lured from a bit-part role with Middlesex, among the most impressive additions. The overseas players, Cameron White and Richard Levi, have also been shrewd investments and showed their value on Finals Day.
While it was Crook - dubbed "the Northants Botham" by Wakely - who impressed in the semi-final and was tipped for an England call-up by Essex captain, James Foster - it was Willey who dominated the final. Having struck a 19-ball half-century - the fastest of the season - he then claimed four wickets including a hat-trick to wrap-up the game.
While the man himself confessed that he lacked the consistency for an immediate England call, Wakely was more optimisitic.
"It will surprise me if that guy's not playing for England, especially in white-ball cricket, within too long," Wakely said. "To score the fastest fifty in the tournament shows the calibre he has. He has been fantastic for us all season. He got his Lions call-up next week. He has thoroughly deserved that so if he keeps performing like that who knows where he can get."
For Ripley, who was part of the Northamptonshire team who won their previous trophy way back in 1992, this success was particularly special. But it does not mark a fulfilment of his ambitions, with the club still hoping to qualify for the semi-finals of the YB40 and win promotion in the Championship.
"It's fantastic," Ripley said. "We talk about the 21 years. I got a bit self indulgent last night talking about the 21 years. It's pretty special when you wait that long. Hopefully we won't have to wait that long for the next special day.
"We wanted promotion but equally we wanted to win more one-day games. We didn't talk about winning the T20 or even qualifying for the semi-finals. If we win here a week on Monday then we might get into the YB40 semi-finals. And Championship promotion would be massive. We want to test ourselves in the top division. That's the place to be playing."
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo