T20 platform allows Willey to dream
If there had been a prototype for the perfect Twenty20 cricketer, it probably would have looked something like David Willey. Naturally competitive, willing to innovate, capable of changing a game with bat or ball, stunning run-out or implausible catch. Tall and broad shouldered, he scrubs up pretty well for promotional work too; and he has personality.
Fittingly enough, it was T20 that put his name in lights, two years ago, when he took the final of what was then the Friends Life T20 by storm, smashing a 19-ball half-century, the fastest of the season, and following up by taking 4 for 9 with the ball, finishing the match with a hat-trick as Northamptonshire won their first major silverware for 21 years.
There was a bit of spice for good measure in the shape of a skirmish with Jade Dernbach, whose goading prompted him to hit 20 in one over off the Surrey fast bowler and offer some forthright opinions in the press conference later.
"I love the competitiveness, I thrive on that," he said. "But at the same time I still want to have fun when I play. I took to T20 for that reason. It is the party game, with the big crowds and the music and it is fast paced, high intensity and I enjoy that. My game is suited to that."
Willey's career has advanced to another level since 2013. He is now an England T20 and one-day international player with a bright future after some strong performances against New Zealand in England's renaissance summer. More than ever, he wants to emulate his redoubtable father, Peter, and play Test cricket. Yet he has every reason, as Northamptonshire attempt to book a place at the NatWest T20 Blast Finals Day against Sussex at Hove on Wednesday, to wish for 2013 to happen all over again.
His county, in financial straits after losing £300,000 last year and with similarly grim figures likely in their next published accounts, have perhaps never had a more pressing need to be seen as winners. With his own career approaching a crossroads, moreover, another repayment on his own figurative debt to Northamptonshire would be timely.
"As a kid, all I ever wanted to do was play for Northants, like my dad did," said Willey, who had called into Oundle School for the final of the NatWest U15 Club Championship finals. "I'm Northampton born and bred, we lived just round the corner from the ground and I was up there all the time, not always watching but playing with my mates round the back, or on the field during the intervals.
"I was never the best player as I grew up but I think some of my dad's character came through and made me work hard to be as good as I could and so to play a big role in that final, the first competition Northants had won in 21 years, meant a lot to me.
"Playing for England was a dream, and so playing for my country for the first time is something I'll never forget. But winning a trophy with Northants was brilliant and I wouldn't say that one was more special than the other.
"To win it again would be fantastic for the county and we are capable. There have been a few changes to the team and we miss the expertise and experience of Cameron White in the short format but there is a core of players left from the 2013 team and with the quality that has been added we are a team full of match-winners."
Willey's future has been the subject of much discussion since that 2013 final, as is always the case when any player with his qualities emerges at one of the smaller counties. As a left-arm swing bowler, he is a sought-after commodity and Northamptonshire's relegation last season after a single season in Division One has seen speculation intensify. Only last week, champions Yorkshire made no effort to deny stories that they would be interested in offering him the chance to follow former team-mate Jack Brooks from Wantage Road to Headingley.
Understandably, with his focus on the NatWest Blast quarter-final and the county's chance to qualify for the last eight of the Royal London Cup, he is reluctant to be distracted by discussing a move.
Yet he was candid enough to admit that the realities of the modern game meant it was more likely than not that he would have to move, not only to allow the England selectors to evaluate his ability more accurately but, crucially, to allow himself to break the shackles of repeated injury. A stress fracture in the lower back restricted his appearances last season, leading in turn to a shoulder problem that ultimately required surgery.
"If I have to leave Northants to further my career I would be bitterly disappointed," he said. "It is an honour to play professional cricket and Northants gave me that opportunity.
"But I have to be honest: Northants is a small county with a small squad and with the financial situation they are in, ultimately that means you have got the same guys playing in every fixture of the season and you cannot compete in all three formats and keep yourself fit for the duration.
"That has been a problem for me over the last two years. To play my best cricket I need to stay fit, I need to be on the field, and to be looked after injury-wise it may be in my interests to move on.
"I have ambitions to play for England in Test cricket and that is going to start with consistent performances in four-day cricket. I've scored a couple of hundreds this year but I'm not the finished article.
"To win the County Championship one day would be a dream as well. I want to win across all three formats and play for England in all three formats. If that means that I have to move to play with better cricketers, day-in, day-out with a bigger club in Division One, it is something I will have to consider.
"If you don't give yourself the opportunity you are not going to achieve your ambitions."
It is the kind of advice you could imagine his father passing on, straightforward words without unnecessary embellishment. Theirs is an interesting relationship. They seem very different characters. Peter as hard as nails, craggy, taciturn, yet capable of crushing a would-be adversary with little more than a curl of his upper lip; David easy-mannered, loquacious by comparison, up for a laugh, although not without a snarl of his own in the heat of battle.
"He never wanted to push me to play cricket," he said. "There was never pressure, just encouragement. I never saw him play but I would go with him sometimes when he umpired, helping with the scoreboard at Fenner's and stuff and I just loved the game anyway.
"I didn't always listen to him, which is one regret I have. If I had listened I might be a better player and further on with my career now but I was stubborn, I thought I knew better than him when he was just trying to help me. As I've matured as a cricketer and a bloke I've started to listen to him a bit more. He had 40-odd years' experience of first-class cricket and that's something I should tap into as much as I can.
"He was a tough man as a player and as a dad he is tough when he needs to be tough. I've got a bit of my mother in me. I like to have fun and like to have a bit of a joke, which isn't really in my dad's character. He struggles to get his head round that sometimes.
"He puts me in line when I need to be, which I'm thankful for. I haven't liked it at the time but over the years he has had to give me a clip round the ear at times, which has probably helped along the way."
David wishes his father would share a few more tales from his England career - "it's like getting blood out of a stone sometimes, he doesn't give much away" - and laughs at his reluctance to submit to the emotional experience of watching his son play, when by his own admission he struggles to keep a grip on his nerves.
Asked about role models, he mentions Ryan Sidebottom as a left-arm swing bowler he particularly admires, but if he has an idol it is probably his dad.
"As a kid, I never really watched a lot of cricket. The biggest spur was the father-son rivalry, I always wanted to be better than him. He played 26 Tests, 26 one-dayers, and if I can achieve anywhere near what he did I would go to my grave happy."
David Willey was speaking at the NatWest U15 Club Championships Finals at Oundle School. NatWest are committed to sponsoring T20 cricket from grassroots to the top of the professional game. Find out more at natwest.com/cricket