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How Northants have embraced success through white-ball love

Northamptonshire with the Gillette Cup in 1976 PA Photos

Earlier this season I was at Trent Bridge when the ample frame of Rory Kleinveldt sidled to the crease with his side 206 for 5 in response to Notts' 445 in 50 overs of freewheeling, record-breaking carnage.

The deep-blue afternoon sky had receded behind the floodlights, and with the sun firmly past the yardarm, a raucous crowd grew giddily sozzled at the home team's Test-ground, East Midlands superiority. And then Kleinveldt - which in Afrikaans means "small field" - started to plonk the ball into the stands with brutal power and regularity.

At one stage, "a Johannesburg" looked decidedly on, but alas Kleinveldt, batting with a runner, ran out of steam, having bludgeoned - there is no other word for it - 128 from 63 balls with nine sixes, and Northants finished 425 all out with ten balls remaining, having smitten 17 maximums in their innings.

Given that a team's capacity to clear the ropes strongly predicts their prospects in T20 - this, more than exposure to international T20 leagues, is the cornerstone of West Indies' success - it should perhaps have come as scant surprise that Northants won this year's T20 Blast, having reached the final last year and having won it in 2013.

They give it a spank. If you add the three T20 successes of Leicestershire, then the two counties considered the most vulnerable to the periodically mooted reduction in first-class clubs have bagged it five of 14 times, heartening for those who like to see romance trump finance.

As a Staffordshire lad, I always had a soft spot for Northamptonshire, who had availed themselves of a steady stream of players from the Potteries - under Mike Turner's astutely thrifty chairmanship in the seventies they also mined another Minor County, pre-first-class Durham - including stalwarts from Brian Crump to Jason Brown, as well as four England players: David Steele, Rob Bailey, Paul Taylor and Jeremy Snape. Taylor had been signed on the back of a NatWest Trophy first-round match in which his 12 wicketless overs had disappeared for 92 runs. Sometimes you have to see through the numbers, and Taylor ended up taking over 500 first-class wickets for the Cobblers.

"In the 20 years between September 1, 1976 and August 31, 1996, no team reached more Lord's finals than Northamptonshire. Only Lancashire, with nine, made more than seven trips to Lord's over that period"

In fact, Staffordshire played Northants in back-to-back seasons, both times receiving a thorough shellacking (the pitilessness of which might be explained by Northants having been turned over by Staffordshire's neighbours, Cheshire, in 1988, the year after they had been to both Lord's finals). Jon Addison, who joined my club as pro in 1994, used to tell a story of one of those games, when he was due in at No. 3 as Staffs attempted to chase down Northants' mammoth 360 for 2 off 60 overs.

On a chilly day, Curtly Ambrose ambled in for the first ball, which came down at charity game pace. Next ball, Staffs' schoolteacher opener Steve Dean gave him the charge, flat-batting a four over extra cover. Cue double teapot, long stare, and the removal of several jumpers. The third ball scorched through. Another was top-edged over the keeper's head. Eventually, Dean gloved a catch to slip, and as Addo entered he muttered, "Thanks a f***** lot, Deany".

Not long after, having himself been dismissed, Addo asked why Dean had run at the world's premier fast bowler. "Well," Dean replied, "I figured I was only going to play against him once, so I wanted to see what it was like when he was bowling properly."

Northants themselves started life as a Minor County, winning two championships and sharing two more across ten seasons before accession to the County Championship in 1905, a competition they - along with Somerset and Gloucestershire - are yet to win. Given the way English domestic four-day cricket has settled into a semi-stable hierarchy, with counties based at Test venues at the top, and given these clubs' seductive pull for the most talented and ambitious red-ball players in Division Two, it is hard to imagine Northants ever winning it. So clearly a judicious move to focus on the white-ball game. And in that they are no minnows at all.

Indeed, in the 20 years between September 1, 1976 and August 31, 1996, no team reached more Lord's finals than Northamptonshire. They made the short journey down the M1 a total of ten times: a quarter of all finals. Only Lancashire, with nine, made more than seven trips to Lord's over that period; Yorkshire, who beat Northants in a 1987 thriller on fewer wickets lost, made just one. Another game was lost with scores level - to Derbyshire in 1981, which finished with Geoff Miller (who could well have been Mankaded in another era) diving face first at the stumps - while three were won: against Lancashire in '76, with Bishan Bedi, Mushtaq Mohammad and Sarfraz Nawaz in the team, Essex in 1980, and Leicestershire in '92.

Seeing Allan Lamb, squat and powerful, scuttling out through the famous old gate unfailingly sent a crackle of anticipation around Lord's. There was Wayne Larkins, too, a maverick who could, when the mood took him, destroy the very best bowling - and there was a lot of that about in the late 1980s. The cast also included internationals in Peter Willey, Geoff Cook, Nick Cook, Neil Mallender, David Capel and Kevin Curran; the overseas players, Eldine Baptiste, Winston Davis and Roger Harper; and lower-key key contributors in Tony Penberthy, Alan Walker, Alan Fordham, Richard Williams and current coach David Ripley.

In the aftermath of the recent success, Northants' skipper Alex Wakeley spoke eloquently about how the county's constraints had actually benefited them. The skeleton staff meant there was little anxiety over being dropped, which in turn bred adventurous cricket, while the budgetary restrictions (Nick Hoult reported for the Telegraph that the chairman was declining lunch on match days to save £25, while caterers were helping ground staff with covers, and players reporting in for half-day training on a PCA day had to buy sandwiches from the petrol station over the road) have also helped cultivate a "Dunkirk spirit".

It's perhaps little surprise that Steele, a man not predominantly famous for his fiscal extravagance, was so well loved at Wantage Road. I interviewed Steeley a couple of years back, just prior to the 2012 BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, and not too far into our chat, his eye well in, he enquired what I was going to do for him. "Quid pro quo," he said, in a sort of slow, low, velvety growl. Answering his own question, he suggested I send him a case of wine, doubtless assuming things were as they had been in his 1970s heyday, when journalists from the nationals may well have had an expense account to attend to such niceties. "I'm freelance," I told him plaintively, "and that would seriously eat into my fee." Perhaps through partial deafness, perhaps through plain doggedness, he failed to pick up the implications, so I caved in and asked what his tipple was. Before I could run through a few grape varieties, he flashed back with trademark assurance: "White." "Dry? Sweet…?" "Any type of white," he affirmed, as though my question were unnecessarily fancy.

As for Steeley, so for the Steelbacks: they, too, seem to prefer white to red these days.