Hot like Notts
It seems hard to imagine now, but there was a time not so long ago when counties would spot Nottinghamshire's name on the fixture list and drool with glee. Between 1996 and 2001 their finishing position in the County Championship did not even qualify as mediocre: 17th, 13th, 16th, 17th, then seventh two years in a row in the new second division. Yet when the latest round of matches began this week, Nottinghamshire's position at the top of the table, 10 points clear of the champions Durham, raised no eyebrows whatsoever.
Their coach, Mick Newell, has a characteristically modest explanation. "I think we've built a pretty good reputation as a well-run team both on and off the field," he says. "We're a friendly club, and although we haven't won a whole lot of trophies, we're a competitive one too. We've become quite an attractive team for other players to join. Even Ali Brown, who you would imagine is dyed-in-the-wool Surrey, is enjoying the experience."
If Sussex have been the dominant county of the new millennium, winning their first championship in 2003, then adding two more in 2006 and 2007 for good measure, Nottinghamshire are not too far behind. They won division two in 2004, the championship proper in 2005, and last summer were pipped at the 11th hour by Durham after suffering meltdown against Hampshire and Imran Tahir.
That capacity to self-destruct may still be there: Nottinghamshire were relegated in 2006 after carelessly taking only one point from their final match when two points would have sent Durham down instead; and last year they missed out on the NatWest Pro40 title when Murray Goodwin's last-ball six off Charlie Shreck redirected the silverware to Hove. But, as Sussex discovered, consistency can take years to build. And Nottinghamshire have come a long way.
"We have a good, solid group of experienced players now," says Newell. "They've worked hard in four-day cricket. Our win over Hampshire [last week] came half an hour into the final session. They take pride in winning tight games."
The route to that good, solid group was Newell's own handiwork. County sides are often accused of treading water, but in 2004 Newell identified the need to bring in what he called "winning characters". Enter the likes of Mark Ealham from Kent, Ryan Sidebottom from Yorkshire, Graeme Swann from Northamptonshire, Stuart Broad from Leicestershire and, most recently, Ali Brown from Surrey.
And just because three of the five are current internationals, it doesn't mean Nottinghamshire are suffering as a result. After England were knocked out of the World Twenty20 at 9pm on Monday night, Sidebottom made his way from south London to Bristol for the Friends Provident Trophy quarter-final against Gloucestershire the following morning. He arrived at the team hotel at 1am. The dedication reflects well on the club. Just as importantly, it can be infectious.
Like all counties, though, Nottinghamshire are currently wrestling with the implications of ECB proposals to increase payments to clubs who field English-qualified players under the age of 26. As George Dobell revealed on Cricinfo last week, this is causing widespread consternation on the circuit, with counties worried that quality will drop and the worth of young cricketers will be artificially inflated.
In their match at the Rose Bowl last week Nottinghamshire included seven England-qualified players aged 26 or over and arguably reaped the benefits when one of them, the 39-year-old Ealham, was able to steer the 20-year-old Luke Fletcher, batting at No. 9, through a match-turning eighth-wicket stand of 152 in the first innings. Then Brown, another 39-year-old, hit 148 in the second to set up a declaration. Nottinghamshire won by 191 runs.
"Do you play the kids to get the money or do you play your best side?" wonders Newell. "Not every team will be able to play their best one, and that won't help the county game. We've decided to play our best team next summer come what may.
"That partnership between Ealham and Fletcher was a very strong argument for having Ealham in the side. And Brown is very good with the youngsters, a great influence. His four-day batting has been exceptional - a tremendous argument for keeping the older guys in. Also, runs mean more if you get them against more experienced players rather than a bunch of youngsters. There is a real danger sides will be weakened."
Not that Nottinghamshire are devoid of young talent. Fletcher, Bilal Shafayat and Samit Patel (both 24) all played against Hampshire, and each presents his own challenge to the coach. Newell wants Fletcher to become what he calls a "classic No. 8" in the mould of Paul Franks, Ealham and Broad; Shafayat is in his second stint at the club after a spell with Northamptonshire; and Patel is trying to resurrect his career after England dumped him for being overweight.
"Samit was dropped on 0 [against Hampshire], so he could have bagged a pair," says Newell. "His form is a concern. He's got to knuckle down for the next three months and accept he's not going to be an England player until September at the earliest. He's got to perform for Notts. He's probably in the worst run of his career. It could be linked to the England thing, and I think it's got him down a bit."
It's the kind of honesty that has allowed Newell to run as smoothly as possible a club frequently disrupted by England call-ups for Broad, Swann and Sidebottom (not to mention, in the past year, Darren Pattinson and Patel). After all, how many counties would have parted company with Kevin Pietersen before he hit the big time? Newell puts the decision in perspective.
"KP has played so few games for Hampshire," he says. "Others seemed surprised, but we knew he could have an outstanding international career and I think we got the best out of him as a county player. Although he may not think it, we were good for him too."
Pietersen has not been the only beneficiary: the international prospects of Broad, Sidebottom and Swann have not exactly been hampered by moving to Trent Bridge. Now Nottinghamshire just need to add more trophies. You would not bet against them.
Lawrence Booth is a cricket correspondent at the Guardian. He writes the acclaimed weekly cricket email The Spin for guardian.co.uk