Riding the Twenty20 wave
Northamptonshire are not renowned for making headlines or setting trends. They have never won the County Championship, and a mid-table division-two staple since 2005, it's fair to say they'll be stretched to break their duck any time soon. The tag they attract most often is "unfashionable", which they just about accept with a grumpy grin. But when it comes to Twenty20 cricket, there may be no county in the land that better captures the spirit of the age.
It is not just that Northamptonshire have won five of their first six matches in this season's Twenty20 Cup, although that certainly helps. Rather, it is the way in which a club that has spent much of the last five years getting its financial house in order now regards the lucrative 20-over format as first among equals. Concerned that Twenty20 will change the priorities of counties at smaller grounds who miss out on the extra cash provided by hosting international cricket? Look no further than Wantage Road.
For some this shift of emphasis - exemplified by the short-term, Twenty20 signing of Australia's limited-overs magician Ian Harvey - is embraced only ambivalently, and David Capel, the county's coach, is adamant that promotion to the first division of the championship is as holy a grail as anything.
But Northamptonshire's chief executive, Mark Tagg, is unhesitant about which piece of silverware in the club's cabinet he would prefer to walk past every morning. "From a purely financial point of view, to see the crowds and the joy on the kids' faces when we win a game of Twenty20 cricket, it's clear we need success where it's at its most visible," he says. "Twenty20 plays an ever-more critical role and can dictate whether we have a good or a bad season." And with the top three sides in each of the three regional groups automatically qualifying for division one of next year's new two-tier P20 league, the stakes this season are even higher.
It's easy to mock, but consider the maths: 75% of the money Northamptonshire pull in from corporate hospitality is generated by the Twenty20 Cup. The figure for gate receipts would be the same this year were it not for the three-day game against the touring Australians in July, which reduces Twenty20's share to a mere 58%. As Tagg says, "The reality is we're not going to get a full house in four-day cricket. The traditionalists might not like it, but that is the financial reality."
For Northamptonshire, even more than most counties, "financial reality" is a loaded concept. As recently as 2004, the club was coming to terms with a multi-thousand-pound embezzlement scandal involving a former employee, while last year's overall loss of £28,000 has been depicted as a small triumph, mainly because it means the club has not had to dip into its overdraft.
And even though the ECB has done its best to increase the championship's allure with a significant raise in prize money (the winners of the second division this year get £90,000, a 200% increase on 2008) Twenty20 is where the pound signs scream loudest. The tournament winners may receive a relatively modest £40,000, but corporate hospitality, ticket receipts, and qualification for lucrative overseas tournaments more than make good the differential.
"Sales were slow at the start of this year's Twenty20," says Tagg, "but now people are noticing that we've been playing fantastic cricket and they're starting to come back. Northampton's a funny town - people do respond to success. At the start we were knocking on people's doors and putting in calls. Now they're coming to us and asking for a table for 10." Even when Northamptonshire were riding high in 1995, the season Allan Lamb almost led them to their first-ever championship title, the locals didn't respond like this.
The question, though, is whether the short-term desire to cash in while Twenty20 is still coughing up like a nauseous fruit machine will damage the long-term need to produce Test cricketers, one of the reasons the county game exists in the first place. And that is where Capel is more cautious. "If you play the longer form of the game, that's where you learn the skills you can use in shorter formats and you can adapt," he says. "I'm just not convinced it works the other way round. You have to understand the nuances of the game, and those are best learned in championship cricket."
Northamptonshire are well aware of the criticism aimed at them for picking too many Kolpak South Africans - for Steelbacks, goes the joke, read Steelboks - and are into their second year of a five-year plan aimed at encouraging young English talent. The success so far this season of the 19-year-old David Willey, son of Peter, is hailed by everyone at the club as proof that the system is working, and there are high hopes for the likes of Mark Nelson, Graeme White (both born in nearby Milton Keynes) and Alex Wakely.
Asked whether the county currently views the Twenty20 Cup as results-oriented and the championship as a nursery for fostering younger players, even Capel concedes: "It's fair to say that." His chief executive, meanwhile, is well versed in the economic argument. "If we do well in Twenty20 cricket then we get more money to invest in our development in other forms of the game," says Tagg.
Whether or not the smaller counties are able to ride the crest of Twenty20's wave without drowning in other forms of the game remains to be seen. But by nailing their colours to the mast as unapologetically as anyone, Northamptonshire may just have bucked over 100 years of near-anonymity. Now all they need to do is win the damn thing…
Lawrence Booth is a cricket correspondent at the Guardian. He writes the acclaimed weekly cricket email The Spin for guardian.co.uk