'I'm ridiculously organised about my captaincy'
In November 2012, after Northamptonshire came off one of their worst ever seasons with four wins in 38 matches across three competitions, Alex Wakely was put in charge of the county's white-ball cricket, as well as being appointed vice-captain to Stephen Peters in the county championship. It was quite a challenge, at 24, for Wakely to reinvigorate one of English cricket's least-heralded counties.
Less than a year later, Northants have lifted the Friends Life t20 trophy at Edgbaston and made a strong showing in the YB40, missing out on the semi-finals on run rate. Promotion to the first division of the LV= County Championship, which is well within range as Northants enter their final match at Worcester, would complete quite a season for a young captain who seems to possess the golden touch.
Captaincy changes people. Certain characters use the responsibility to accentuate their traits, wittingly, as they look to impose their persona onto their team-mates and into their cricket. For others, it's a role they were born to fulfil, and it gives them that extra sense of purpose that spurs them on. All men are created equal; it's just that some prefer setting fields for the rest.
Such a turnaround in fortunes paints the picture of a ruthless revolutionary who rose above mediocrity, driven by a bloody-minded desire to repent for last season's woes. Maybe even an exceptional young talent who was sick of turning up and playing under floodlights with only a gaggle looking on and sought change through a cull of personnel and a return to home-grown players and values.
Walking around the County Ground, you are no longer struggling for people to share their opinions on Wakely's success - quite a change from last season, where some fans, as he puts it, "didn't want to know us". Few talk of revolutionary fervour. What they perceive is a nice guy with a meticulous sense of planning and a sincere desire for improvement.
"He's a good lad" say the faithful. Many preach of how they foretold that Northants had a leader in the making. Others struggle to conceal their surprise at his success. But at no point did they doubt his ability or his sincerity.
At just 15, he made his debut in the Northants 2nd XI and was given the chance to hone his skills against toughened cricketers passing him by on their way out of the game - players who enjoyed nothing more than to crush the dreams of a precocious upstart from Bedford School. It is an institution with great cricketing pedigree: Alastair Cook, four years Wakely's senior, is an Old Bedfordian.
"He just took the piss," recalls Wakely, fondly. "Watching him at school, that's when I realised I wanted to become a professional cricketer. I used to look at him and just wrack my brains about how I could become as good as him.
"Cookie had the record for most career runs for Bedford's 1st XI. When he left, he said to me, 'Go and break them - it's your turn now.' And I just thought, 'Oh yeah, easy as that then!'"
The honour of surpassing Cook's haul was left to a 17-year-old, James Kettleborough, who is also on the books at Northants. While Wakely could not mimic Cook's outrageous run haul, he did tread a similar path. Like Cook in 2004, he captained the England Under-19s to the World Cup in 2008. But that's when the trail went cold.
In 2009, he experienced unthinkable personal tragedy, the death of two close friends, both from the same village and both to leukaemia, as well as losing his cousin and beloved granddad Eric.
"It's only really now that I look back on it that I realise how much it affected me," he said. "For two seasons I wasn't focusing on my cricket and just in a sad place. Eric did everything with me; he took me to games and was as invested in my cricket as I was. When I lost him, I was inconsolable, but then I'd try and dismiss it and just say to myself that I had to be stronger. But I couldn't."
Hearing Wakely, at 24, talk about "making up time" is harrowing. There remains a slight desperation in his voice. "I've played a lot of cricket without having the success that I would have wanted. I feel like there was a stage before it all where people kept telling me I had the talent to go on to the highest level. But I'm aware that I'm nowhere near that."
Before this season, his eight years at Northampton had amounted to a handful of standout moments, a pocketful of compliments and a sackful of "if onlys" that were starting to weigh him down. He openly admits to a mental block that has seen him pass 50 on 23 occasions, yet only reach three figures twice in first-class cricket.
Still, he has flourished with the added pressure of captaincy, scoring 366 runs in the YB40 and 293 in the FLt20, including an unbeaten 59 in the final, which set up a crushing 102-run win over Surrey.
"I can't tell you how much I love captaincy," he gleams. Sure, who doesn't love telling people what to do.
"Nah, it's not really like that," he replies. "I'm not the type to shout and bollock people. I think that's a bit of a cop-out sometimes. Anyone can get angry - it's about thinking about who you have around you and how they respond to your actions.
"I've known these guys for a while and they know the kind of person I am. For example, I'm very OCD about my kit. Everything has to be a certain way with me and I can't do anything without being ridiculously organised. I have the same approach with my captaincy.
"For example, I can't take to the field without knowing that David Willey knows exactly what situation I'm going to bowl him in, to what field, and to which batsmen, before he's even put his kit on. He needs to know the script off by heart."
Witnessing Wakely's passion for captaincy first-hand, you begin to understand why players, both young and old, have bought into his approach so wholeheartedly. He encourages discussion and expressiveness, even championing the aggressiveness of David Willey - "I hope he never changes" - and the use of the dressing room as an open forum before and after games. It is a brave move, considering this is a dressing room that harboured former Northants captains Andrew Hall and David Sales, as well as the Australian Cameron White, reputed to be one of the finest tacticians of the last decade. Rather than fall victim to his pride, Wakely would often seek their advice, while also being brave enough to stick to his guns. They respected him more for it.
His admiration for the trio at this disposal is clear, but when talk turns to White, you can just make out a glint in his eye.
"Seriously, how isn't he, at least, playing T20s for Australia? It's crazy. I don't think I can speak highly enough about Cam. I owe him a lot, especially for his time off the field. I would also use him as a focal point for anything I did because he's got such a great wealth of knowledge. I've never met anyone who can control a game, even when he's batting. He controls the game so well. I can't quite do justice to just how much of an impact he had on the club, both as a cricketer and as a bloke off the field. We would have him back in a heartbeat."
Like White, Wakely is no fan of the limelight; his lot is truly the success of the team. But his personality has been imprinted onto the Northants limited-overs side, whether he likes it or not, and he will have to remember how to take those compliments as well as he used to. Heaven knows there will be much more to come.