County previews 2014 March 27, 2014

Northants can roll forward in 2014

Last year 2nd, CC Div 2 (promoted); Champions, FLt20; 2nd in Group A, YB40.

2013 in a nutshell
Excellent. Hailed as the "best season we've ever had" by chief executive, David Smith, Northants' won just the fourth trophy in their history - the Friend Life t20 - and gained promotion at the expense of richer rivals with more high-profile players in the Championship. They also only missed a Yorkshire Bank 40 semi-final on run-rate.

Bearing in mind how awful they had been in 2012 - no team had won fewer games across all three competitions than Northants - it was a remarkable improvement and vindicated the appointment of David Ripley as replacement for David Capel midway through 2012 and the appointment of Stephen Peters and Alex Wakely as captains across the formats.

A feature of Northants' Championship cricket in 2013 was the depth of their batting, with the lower-order regularly disheartening their opposition with impressive fightbacks. So 171 for 8 against Essex became 399 all out; 236 for 6 against Glamorgan became 453 all out - both setting up innings victories - and 172 for 7 against Hampshire became 425 for 9 declared.

With the ball, Trent Copeland proved an inspired addition and was well supported by David Willey and Stephen Crook. Andrew Hall, released from the burden of captaincy, enjoyed an excellent season with bat and ball.

Willey enjoyed a fine T20 season and was rated the competition's most valuable player, with Richard Levi and Azharullah, the top wicket-taker in the competition, also featuring in the top 10. But it was fitting that in the final Willey scored the fastest half-century of the season and claimed a hat-trick to seal the title.

2014 prospects
Northants have not enjoyed the perfect run-in to the season. They have already learned that their limited-overs captain, Alex Wakely, is out for the season after sustaining a ruptured Achilles tendon on the pre-season tour of Barbados, while David Willey is recovering more slowly than expected from a stress fracture of the back and, less than two weeks before the start of the season, has barely bowled and reports more pain in the affected area.

Trent Copeland, so effective as an overseas player in 2013, cannot return due to (self-defeating) work-permit regulations while his replacement, Jackson Bird, has had his stay curtailed on the orders of Cricket Australia.

But there are grounds for optimism, too. Batsmen Rob Newton and Peters are both back to fitness after injury problems last year, while the club have added seamer Maurice Chambers and spinner Graeme White. Olly Stone should also boost the seam attack after an injury-ruined 2013. While survival in the top division should be deemed a success, it is not beyond Northants and there is no reason they should not continue to challenge in the limited-overs formats.

Key player
Steven Crook should probably have been in Bangladesh with the England World T20 squad. A powerful batsman and deceptively quick, skiddy bowler, he is just the sort of allrounder England required. But, whether it is age, 30, his Australian heritage or the fact that he plays for an unfashionable club, he seems to have been oddly overlooked. But England's loss is Northants' gain and Crook should continue to have a large impact at county level. As well as proving counterattacking batting or acceleration, he has the pace and variations to surprise well-set batsmen on good wickets. It would underline his influence on the side if he was promoted to the captaincy of the limited-overs teams this season in the absence of Wakely.

Bright young thing
It bodes well for Northants' future that there are several options in this category. Ben Duckett, who looks likely to benefit from Wakely's absence, appears to have a bright future as a keeper-batsman, while 20-year-old Olly Stone is a highly impressive seam bowler. But it is Rob Newton who could surprise opposition this season. The 24-year-old was injured for much of last year but has the compact technique and range of strokes that looks capable of helping him emulate the success of David Sales.

Ripley remains head coach, with Peters captain of the four-day team. No replacement has been named for one-day captain Wakely, though Crook is the favourite for the role.

ESPNcricinfo verdict
Despite the injury setbacks, Northants should be capable of avoiding relegation. While the depth of their squad is not huge, they have more quality within it than Derbyshire had in a similar position last year and a better crop of young players developing through the club's system. Repeating the success of the FLt20 will not be easy but Northants should remain challenging opponents in both limited-overs formats.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo