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Northants' T20 nous a tribute to Moneyball approach

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WATCH - Northants lift T20 Blast trophy (0:29)

Northamptonshire celebrated in rain following their four-wicket win over Durham to clinch the 2016 NatWest T20 Blast (0:29)

At Wantage Road, Northamptonshire's home ground, there is a chunk of seats that does not really belong there at all. They were donated by Surrey: an act of charity from one professional sports team to another.

It is a microcosm of the financial chasm between Northants and the wealthiest teams in county cricket. Earlier this year, Gavin Warren, the chairman, admitted he was "counting every loo roll". He stopped eating lunch at the club on match days to save cash, and caterers had to be enlisted to help put covers on the ground. When players reported for a full day of training, the club did not provide them with lunch, leaving them to buy sandwiches from a petrol station instead. In recent years, dark rumours have lingered that Northants risked going into administration.

Inevitably the consequences have been felt on the pitch: Northants' basic spending on player salaries was the fifth lowest of the 18 counties in 2015. This year, they had the smallest professional squad of any team.

In 2003, Michael Lewis published Moneyball, detailing how the Oakland Athletics consistently reached the play-offs in baseball despite spending far less than most their rivals. Their success was built on the smart use of statistics: to nurture and improve their existing players, recognising what was really important to win baseball matches; and to spot players whose qualities were undervalued by other teams.

The notion of Moneyball - how to do more with less - has since infiltrated everything from education to political campaigning and sport, as Lewis wrote recently.

"In T20 cricket, Northants have built a dynasty, reaching three T20 Blast finals in four years, winning the crown twice - and mocking the notion of financial determinism in sport. Using data smartly they have become the Moneyball kings"

Preoccupation with Moneyball has extended to cricket, a game with obvious similarities to baseball: both are based on a batsman hitting a ball, and each pitch, or delivery, is an independent event.

As England coach Andy Flower recognised what cricket could learn from Moneyball. Many in cricket talk about Moneyball. Yet it is Northants, a Midlands team that are one of only three counties never to have won the County Championship, who have implemented Moneyball techniques with more success than anyone else.

If Leicester City's 5000-1 victory in the Premier League was the sporting story of the year, 30 miles away Northants have achieved something almost as remarkable. In T20 cricket, they have built a dynasty, reaching three T20 Blast finals in four years, winning the crown twice - and, even more than the Oakland As once did, mocking the notion of financial determinism in sport. Using data smartly, both to hone their T20 strategy and recruit players, Northants have become the Moneyball kings.

The summer of 2012 was dominated by rain and floods. For Northants, it seldom got better than the downpours: they won only four matches across three competitions, the worst tally in the land. They finished second bottom in Division Two of the County Championship, and second bottom of their one-day group, above only the amateur Unicorns. Worst of all was T20 cricket. Northants won a solitary game and lost seven. Mostly these weren't agonising defeats either: they were thumpings, by eight wickets, seven wickets (twice), six wickets and five wickets. In 2011 they had been almost as bad, winning two T20 games and losing 11.

They were a team of losers, unloved and irrelevant. "We were embarrassing," current captain Alex Wakely later said. "No one wanted to come and watch us. Even our own supporters were laughing at us."

In July 2012, David Capel, Northants' coach, was sacked. In his place David Ripley, a one-club stalwart as a player for 18 years, was elevated from 2nd XI coach and academy director. A month later, Ripley was appointed to the role full-time, with Phil Rowe taking over as 2nd XI coach and Academy director. This partnership would bring Northants, who had won only three trophies in their 107-year history as a first-class county, the best days in the club's history.

Ripley and Rowe took over a club in which "everyone was fed up with losing and being rubbish", Wakely recalls. That is not an enviable position, but for new coaches it brings certain advantages. No one stubbornly clings to old orthodoxies. Change is embraced as necessary.

The coaches inherited a team whose regime was unfit for purpose in T20 cricket. "We all practised really hard at red-ball, but when it came to white-ball practice, everyone had to hit the ball as far as they could and have a slog, like in a club net," Wakely reflects.

It was not only that Northants did not train properly for T20 cricket but that they did not train enough. Ripley reckons that 80% of Northants' pre-season training was focused on first-class matches, and only 20% across the two white-ball formats, one-day cricket and T20. These formats each made up one-third of Northants' season but only one-tenth of their preparation: that was madness, especially considering that, given their budgetary constraints, the shorter formats represented their most likely route to success.

Immediately Ripley changed the 80-20 balance between training for first-class and the two limited-overs formats to 50-50. When he returned to the club in the winter of 2012 after a stint on Middlesex's books, the allrounder Steven Crook noticed far more attention given to white-ball cricket than at his previous two clubs or in his first spell at Northants. Wakely, appointed limited-overs captain from 2013 (and captain in all formats from 2015) "was told by the board that the club was focusing on T20 cricket".

Using statistical insights in cricket has been discredited since Peter Moores was misquoted saying "we will have to look at the data" after England's calamitous performance in the 2015 World Cup. In this context, it is almost brazen for Ripley to declare: "I am a statto." Towards the end of his career as a doughty keeper-batsman at Northants, from 1984 to 2001, he was introduced to "mapping" innings in one-day cricket: breaking down how a team would reach a certain score, and where they needed to be at each stage of the innings to get there. "I really liked it. I thought it brought some clarity."

"We were embarrassing. No one wanted to come and watch us. Even our own supporters were laughing at us"

Northants captain Alex Wakely

There is a pervasive myth that T20 cricket is a game of slogging with no time for strategy. Yet the opposite might be true. Nathan Leamon, the England team analyst, believes that T20 lends itself better to strategising than other formats. "In T20 the only real guesswork is about how exactly this wicket's going to play, which is not going to change very much in four hours," he says. "You can pre-plan. A lot of your plans prior to the match go through the game unchanged in T20 cricket, unlike in one-dayers or first-class matches." Because T20 games are shorter and conditions are more homogeneous, similar scenarios repeat themselves often enough for analysts to reach statistically significant conclusions, which can then inform what teams do.

In 2010, the England and Wales Cricket Board mandated that every county log every ball in an analysis database. Northants enlisted Richard Barker, a lifelong fan and former American Football journalist, to do the job. But no one thought that Barker could actually help the team. "When I started off, I didn't do anything," he recalls.

Barker was used a little more over the following two years, but he was still, essentially, an unwanted spare part when Ripley took over. In the miserable summer of 2012, Northants were the only county not to film their T20 games.

After the season, Barker, Ripley and Rowe got together to answer a simple question: just why were Northants so hopeless at T20 cricket?

The answer was remarkably simple. Northants just didn't hit enough boundaries. In 2012, losing finalists Yorkshire hit 1006 runs in boundaries across 11 completed matches. Northants hit just 430 runs in boundaries across their eight completed matches; while Yorkshire averaged 91.45 runs in boundaries an innings, Northants averaged 53.45, the lowest of any county. And Yorkshire hit 28.9 runs in sixes a game, double Northants' 14.25. "That's the thing I like about stats - it just shines a light onto some things," Ripley reflects.

When Crook returned to Northants, he observed "a big drive to understand how to win a T20 game. We really tried to understand what it took - where people hit, where people bowl, and trying to counteract that." Rowe would demonstrate the best areas to hit the ball, and put fielders, on the classic board game Test Match.

As a devotee of US sports, Barker has long been aware that shrewd use of statistics can help teams. "I've lost count of the times I've read Moneyball and dipped into various chapters," he says. "It's always been in the back of my mind since I started at Northants. There are only so many cup final defeats and disappointing performances you can handle when you support a team for 30 years. It would have been rather remiss of me if I hadn't been looking for something to help us from somewhere."

Before 2012, Barker compiled a dossier identifying a "magic number" of 160, a match-winning score by the team batting first in 65% of games. A roadmap of how to get there was laid out: reaching 160 involved hitting 15 fours, three sixes and scoring 82 runs off the other 102 balls. But little attention was paid to Barker's work.

After he took over, Ripley built Northants' T20 batting strategy around Barker's findings, prompting an emphasis on recruiting boundary-hitters in the winter of 2012 - the belligerent Australian batsman Cameron White returned for a second season, Richard Levi, the burly South African, was signed, and Crook's return brought ballast to the lower-middle order.

As important was improving the boundary-hitting of those already at Northants. The 35-year-old allrounder James Middlebrook had "never really swept a ball in his life, but he had these sweeping sessions". David Sales, a senior batsman, learned how to reverse-sweep. Wakely remembers a winter in which "the bowlers bowled more yorkers than they'd ever done, and the batters hit more reverse sweeps. Everyone bought into it."

"After the 2012 season, the brains trust got together to ask: just why were Northants so hopeless at T20 cricket? The answer was remarkably simple. Northants just didn't hit enough boundaries."

Paradoxically, Northants used data to encourage their players to play with more spontaneity. Ripley explains, "We wanted to give some freedom to say, 'We need to hit the ball, and we might lose two wickets.'" The emphasis on boundary-hitting created what Rowe calls "a safe-to-fail environment".

The results were remarkable. In 2013, Northants hit 86.61 runs in boundaries an innings - 33 runs higher than in 2012. Northants hit 73 sixes, compared to 19 in 2012, and averaged 19 runs more in sixes every innings.

The formula carried them all the way to the T20 final, where they thumped Surrey - a side who spent £1.839 million on basic player salaries in 2013, double Northants' £973,000 - by 102 runs. Ripley believed that Northants would never repeat their feat, and when the club endured a grim 2014, which Wakely missed entirely through injury, he feared being proved right.

Northants' use of data has evolved since 2013. While they have in mind par scores at venues over the past three years and whether grounds are better suited to batting first or chasing, they no longer map out how they will reach a score, trusting players to assess the situation as they go along. Similarly with the ball. "It was more regimented in 2013 with six bowlers," Ripley says. "Now we've got a bigger pool of bowlers, because we tend to play seven bowlers, so it's a bit more about gut feel." Yet even here the impact of Barker can be felt: he stresses the benefits of using different bowlers at crucial times, to avoid being too predictable.

The side's approach has changed in other ways. Northants previously preferred to bat first, but now prefer chasing, reasoning that they can hunt down any score. Their reasoning is underpinned by statistics. While Northants scored a lower proportion of their runs in boundaries than any of the other 17 counties in 2012, they have scored the highest proportion of runs in boundaries of any team since 2013. They also score a six every 21.1 balls, second only to Nottinghamshire, according to CricViz. Such batting strength is an even greater asset than Northants' bowling: they only rank sixth in conceding the lowest economy rate since 2013.

Barker is modest about his impact: "The analyst's main job is to put the captain and the coach in the position where they don't needlessly f*** things up before the toss."

Yet others stress how sagacious use of data has aided Northants. "Statistics are playing a big role in cricket now. Richard Barker's role is very unheralded, he'll never get any of the headlines," Wakely reflects. "Batsmen can ring him anytime and they'll get video footage of things that are going wrong. The computer stuff is being more and more integrated into cricket. Statistics don't often lie, especially in T20 cricket." Wakely's belief in data is clearly sincere: during our conversation he says that 83% of T20 matches are lost if a side loses three wickets inside the Powerplay.

In 2016, Northants found someone else to log each delivery at Wantage Road, freeing Barker to find statistics to help Northants prepare. "That enabled us to do a lot more."

No detail is too small. Before a match at Chester-le-Street in 2014, the squad were discussing how to adjust to the large boundaries. David Willey was sceptical, and thought they were actually relatively small.

Ripley realised that there was no way of knowing who was right. Back in Northampton, Ripley and Rowe promptly went to local builders, who gave them a measuring wheel. Northants have been using it to measure boundary dimensions at grounds ever since. Ripley reckons that with most counties preparing flatter wickets in T20s, the most significant part of home advantage might now lie in being able to adjust the dimensions of the boundaries. Indeed, the small boundaries at Wantage Road suit Northants, aiding the team's boundary-hitting while reducing the importance of preventing twos for a side that is far from the most mobile.

"Ripley and Rowe went to local builders, who gave them a measuring wheel. Northants have been using it to measure boundary dimensions at grounds ever since"

There are clear limitations to the use of data in cricket. In baseball, each team plays 162 games in the regular season; in the T20 Blast, they only play 14, a far smaller sample size. "We still don't have that much data," Rowe says.

Before every game, in all competitions, Barker assembles a dossier for Ripley and Rowe. In T20, his analysis is built upon ground and opposition statistics and breaking down games into three chunks - the Powerplay of six overs, the nine overs in the middle, and the five overs at the death. "Some of his stuff is a bit wacky, but that's okay. But some of it's, 'Oh, hey, I'll be thinking about that differently now'," says Rowe.

The coaches discuss Barker's findings with Wakely, and then decide on a few choice statistics to relay to the team. "The difficulty is, sometimes we get too much information," Wakely reflects. "You don't want to sit people down for too long, because they don't listen, so we have to go through it, sift out the best bits of information, and feed those back to the dressing room so that it gives us the best chance of winning."

Barker's data-crunching forms the analysis aspect of Northants' pre-match team talks. A sheet of paper is hung up on the dressing room wall outlining the strengths and weaknesses of batsmen and bowlers, and a few choice stats - like a batsman's strike rate against different types of bowlers, or where an opposing bowler tends to bowl at the death - that can inform action. "We will see that a guy's strike rate against spin is 220, and his strike rate against seam is 120," says Rowe. "You can't always have the perfect game plan out in the middle, but knowing that is very important."

The sheet of paper remains in the dressing room for the whole game. "Sometimes out there on the pitch I might get someone off the field to have a look, and find out how this guy's been getting out," says Wakely.

Pre-game analysis is put into practice in other ways. Northants always discuss "match-ups" - the batsman-bowler combinations between them and the opposition that are most favourable. Before the quarter-final at Hove in 2015, Northants' measuring wheel found that there was an unusually short boundary up the hill, with the wind howling to the leg side. Willey promptly smashed 34 off a single over from Mike Yardy during a blistering century. Northants also always have in mind opposing bowlers they can target if they are behind the game.

This use of data is married with instinct. On a slow pitch in the 2013 semi-final, Wakely called upon Kyle Coetzer's occasional medium pace; he had only bowled two overs in the competition all season. Coetzer's second ball snared Ravi Bopara, caught at midwicket. "It surprised me. But he recognised that pace off was the way to go," says Rowe. "That's brilliant captaincy: knowing your personnel, having a gut instinct and making a decision."

At the start of 2016, Northants found another use for data: to show how they could overcome the loss of Willey, their star player, who had departed for Yorkshire. In a team meeting Ripley presented Willey's statistics at Northants, emphasising that he had missed many matches, and saying the team had often won games that he did play without Willey making a significant contribution.

"His stats weren't as breathtaking as we had perceived. We just put it out to the group to smooth it over for everybody." Ripley had a simple message for each member of the team: "You just might have to have one more [match-winning game] than last year."

"Some of his stuff is a bit wacky, but that's okay. But some of it's, 'Oh, hey, I'll be thinking about that differently now"

Northants academy director Phil Rowe on Richard Barker, the team's analyst

Just as the Oakland As recovered from losing their three star players - Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi and Jason Isringhausen - after 2001 to do even better in 2002, so Northants performed even better without Willey in 2016. This was the greatest testament to Northants' T20 strategy yet: the proof that it could withstand the loss of their most audacious cricketer.

Prudent recruitment policy has underpinned Northants' success. "We go to the same principles: what do we need, and do homework on their character," Ripley says. He works through targets with Nigel Felton, a board member responsible for the final negotiations. Felton reflects: "We can't afford to get it wrong".

Just after Ripley took over, the club said that it was "actively looking to recruit players to assist us" in limited-overs formats. "It is a white-ball-dominated squad," Barker notes, though Northants won their last three matches in County Championship Division Two in 2016.

Prioritisation of white-ball cricket reflects a wider advantage for Northants: expectations. While many Test-playing grounds would not tolerate mid-table finishes in Division Two even if it meant performing outstandingly in limited-overs formats, Northants can see that as a trade-off worth making. The club was in Division One as recently as 2014, and is determined to return there, but no one is grumbling about their County Championship form while they are performing so outstandingly in T20 cricket. Northants even rested players from Championship matches before their quarter-final and finals day, so they could focus on white-ball skills.

In T20 cricket, wealthier counties have tried to sign the best players available, no matter how short the stint. In 2015, Surrey signed Pakistan quick bowler Wahab Riaz for two games in consecutive days. Such an approach is unimaginable at Wantage Road, where budgetary constraints and the wish to protect the team dynamics mean that overseas players have been signed for the majority of the T20 season. In 2013, Cameron White played every match. Kleinveldt was signed as an overseas player from 2015 partly because he was available all season long, unlike many of the itinerant overseas recruits common in the shires. For their second overseas player in T20 cricket, Northants signed Shahid Afridi in 2015, who played eight matches, including on finals day; and in 2016 they signed Seekkuge Prasanna - like Afridi, a legspinning allrounder, ensuring continuity in the balance of the side - who played ten games before injury.

Only very rarely do Northants sign players who are already established as first-team regulars at other counties - Josh Cobb, signed from Leicestershire before 2015, was the only exception in the T20-winning side in 2016, yet even he came from an unfashionable county and was identified for a specific skill: as Barker identified, Cobb hit more sixes in 2011 than Northants' entire team.

Rather than sought-after names, Northants' recruitment of non-overseas players focuses on three types of cricketer: those outside the professional system altogether; those "blocked" at other counties; and those who could be politely termed as misfits.

In 2006, Mohammad Azharullah was playing league cricket in Bradford. He was a professional cricketer in Pakistan, a skiddy and canny fast bowler good enough to play for the Pakistan Academy, and was earning some extra cash in the off season.

While playing for Pudsey Congs, he started dating Emma, the club's scorer. The relationship lasted, though Azharullah moved to different clubs in Yorkshire, and they were engaged in 2008, married in 2009, and had a daughter, Aisha, in 2011.

Azharullah soon realised that he did not want to spend English winters away from his wife, playing first-class career in Pakistan, and pulled out of his contract with the Water and Power Development Authority midway through the 2009-10 season. But he continued to play as the club pro for Pudsey Congs, and always hoped to play county cricket from 2013, when he qualified through residency as a non-overseas player.

"Northants' recruitment of non-overseas players focuses on three types of cricketer: those outside the professional system altogether; those "blocked" at other counties; and those who could be politely termed as misfits"

In the final months of 2012, Azharullah emailed his CV to almost every county. Most did not even bother to reply. Only two - Northants and Worcestershire - told him they might be interested in signing him.

Northants had already received a tip-off about Azharullah. Ralph Middlebrook, the father of James, had seen Azharullah in the Bradford League, and recognised him to be just as good as his first-class statistics in Pakistan - 190 wickets at an average of 26.50 - suggested.

In January 2013, Ripley invited Azharullah in for pre-season training. Azharullah arrived at Wantage Road with one thought: "I need to bowl as fast as possible."

He was as good as his word. "Indoors, bowlers tend to be quite polite. No one really bowls bouncers," recalls Wakely. "He hit me first ball. I thought: wow this guy's pretty good. He came with serious intent." After training, Crook approached Rowe with a simple message: "He's a genius. You've gotta sign this bloke."

The trouble was, Northants couldn't: they had no budget left. Azharullah was invited in again, this time for three days of training, with the club eager to find out whether his brilliant display in training was a one-off. It wasn't. So Ripley and Rowe went to David Smith, the then chief executive, cap in hand. "We felt there was a window there," Ripley says. "He was just getting English qualified. And we thought, 'If we don't do this now, as soon as he plays somewhere someone else is going to get him.'" In March, Azharullah was offered a one-year contract. "It wasn't a lot of money but I just took it. I wanted to play," Azharullah says.

Six months later Northants had gone from winning one T20 game in 2012 to winning the T20 Blast in 2013.

Perhaps a little serendipity was at work. On finals day in 2013, Azharullah's daughter Aisha turned two. "I didn't get her a gift, so I thought I'd get her a medal instead. I used that as a motivation." By the day's end he was not only a champion, he had taken 27 wickets in 2013, the highest tally in the competition. He has been at the heart of both Northants' T20 triumphs, bowling a variety of yorkers and slower balls and relishing winning matches at the death. With hindsight it seems extraordinary that Northants did not face any competition to sign him.

There are others from outside the system whose tales are almost as remarkable. Ben Sanderson, a strapping seamer, played three games for Yorkshire before being released in 2011. He took to playing in Minor Counties cricket, until, in the summer of 2015, when he was 26, Northants offered him a trial. Sanderson did well in four first-class games, and was then offered a two-year contract. This year he took 55 first-class wickets at 21.03 apiece, and in Northants' two victories on finals day, recorded combined figures of 5 for 52.

Sanderson was only playing because Richard Gleeson was injured. Like Sanderson, Gleeson made his debut in a tour match against Australia in 2015, a few months before turning 28. Northants realised that he could generate deceptive pace, and signed him on a pay-as-you-play deal for 2016, a role he combined with his day job as a community coach for the Lancashire Cricket Board. In July, Gleeson signed a three-year contract at Northants, and he was soon recruited by the Bangladesh Premier League.

There is a common thread between Azharullah, Gleeson and Sanderson: all three were discovered in their mid-to-late 20s - long after most such outside the professional game have been written off as not good enough - while playing club cricket in Lancashire or Yorkshire, England's traditional fast-bowling heartlands. "They've got so many there that you can be brilliant in the leagues and no one knows about you," says Rowe. Ripley knows from personal experience how many good players Yorkshire produce - he grew up in Leeds before signing for Northants - and remains well informed about potential recruits in the county.

"Across all Northants' recruitment, there are two unifying themes: the preference for selecting players with a point to prove, and the importance of character"

Perhaps there are wider lessons here. "There's a great danger that it's all about process - players getting into the system, then into the academy. Sometimes what's important is to get the late developer or the guy who's just missed out," says Felton. "The guys who've gone out of the game are desperate to get back in - they just want to play. They're there for all the right reasons. You don't even talk about money to those guys sometimes."

Similar logic underpins Northants pursuing what the club refers to as "blocked" players: high-quality performers languishing on the periphery elsewhere.

"Other counties tend to stockpile, especially sides with bigger budgets. It doesn't mean they spend it in the right way," says Felton. "Sometimes players don't develop because they're spending too much time playing 2nd XI cricket and can't get in the team. It's finding those players, and making sure they're moving for the right reasons, and identifying them early."

Northants look two years ahead for players blocked at other counties who might leave. In recent years they have signed Crook and Adam Rossington, who have gone from being fringe picks from Middlesex to front-line players for Northants. Graeme White - a product of the Northants academy who moved to Nottinghamshire in 2010 before returning in 2014 - is another blocked player made good. An unobtrusive left-arm spinner and lower-order hitter, White was one of four automatic picks, based on the Most Valuable Player rankings, for the North v South 50-over series next year. Like Northants' coaches, the algorithm recognised White's quality.

Northants hope that the next fringe player from elsewhere to thrive will be the strapping fast bowler Nathan Buck. "He's a player that Rips and I have talked about a lot as someone who's got better cricket ahead," says Rowe. "He was on our small list of domestic cricketers we were after."

Together with locally qualified players outside the professional system or those blocked elsewhere, Northants have also recruited players who could politely be termed misfits. Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland As and star of Moneyball, built "baseball's answer to the Island of Misfit Toys", Lewis wrote. The misfits included Scott Hatteberg, who had a poor injury record but a high on-base percentage; Chad Bradford, who was one of the slowest pitchers in the game but, because he threw the ball from unusually low, was tricky to hit; and Jeremy Giambi, who was slow but knew how to get on base. Through these signings Beane was able to exploit the flaws of prediction by representativeness - judging people on how they look, not what that do - as Daniel Kahneman notes in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Northants' skill has been similar. It is almost impossible to imagine Surrey or Yorkshire signing players like Levi or Kleinveldt. To be crude, their waistlines just don't look the part.

Because other counties undervalued the two South Africans, this created a market inefficiency for Northants, like the Oakland As, to exploit. Levi has scored 1397 T20 runs at 29.10 apiece, with a strike rate a shade under 150, for Northants; Kleinveldt has taken 30 wickets at 22.56, at an economy of under 7.50, despite normally bowling during the Powerplay and at the end of the innings.

Both have had a wider significance, too. "The signing of Richard Levi was very important," says Rowe, considering him a catalyst for Northants' success. Tellingly, Northants were surprised there weren't more counties interested in signing him. Where others noticed his midriff, Northants saw only runs and copious T20 experience. Kleinveldt, meanwhile, is charged with telling those in the dressing room when they have stepped out of line: "He commands a lot of respect," says Wakely.

"We have ambition. And we want you to have ambition - but you've got a greater chance of fulfilling that ambition playing. You come here and play. Playing second-team cricket, or being a squad member at certain other clubs, you're not going to necessarily flower"

Nigel Felton, Northants board member

Across all Northants' recruitment, there are two unifying themes: the preference for selecting players with a point to prove, and the importance of character. In baseball, Theo Epstein, the general manager who led the Chicago Cubs to the World Series after 108 years of trying, talks about "scouting the person more than the player".

It is much the same at Wantage Road. "None of us like surprises," Felton explains. But the club do not merely seek players who will do as they are told. "If you've got some real red flags about a player, you might decide not to sign them, but sometimes that might be what you want - someone who is a little bit more get-up-and-go and in your face. You need some people who are quite confrontational and some who are heads down in the corner." Like many of the best sports teams, Northants are a mix of personalities.

"It's very difficult to value a player. The whole game is tussling with that," says Felton. "It's a debate we've been having as a county." While Beane prioritised on-base percentage, which was an undervalued statistic in baseball, Northants have no such formula for recruitment, and their signings are based less on statistical analysis. But they have still proved that by looking beyond the most fashionable cricketers, teams can override the logic of financial determinism.

Even for the poorest teams, success can become self-perpetuating. "Because of people like Azha and Gleeson, players gravitate towards you," says Felton. The club has honed its "USP" to cricketers from other counties. "We have ambition. And we want you to have ambition - but you've got a greater chance of fulfilling that ambition playing. Just think about your choices. You come here and play. Playing second-team cricket, or being a squad member at certain other clubs, you're not going to necessarily flower."

This message's appeal was highlighted by Buck rejecting more lucrative offers to join, defying rumours about the club's finances. "It was very refreshing, we just felt that he wanted to come to Northants," Ripley says. Other players whom Northants have signed - including Azharullah, Cobb and Gleeson - have subsequently decided to stay at the club, when they could have earned more elsewhere, reciprocating the club's loyalty.

Northants also recognise that there is no source of talent as cheap as home-grown talent. A team recently derided as the Steelboks, on account of their relish for South Africans, have produced two of the most exciting talents to emerge from England in recent years: David Willey and Ben Duckett. While Willey left at the end of the 2015 season - "a poor signal," Felton admits - Duckett chose to sign a new two-year contract at the end of 2016: a small indication of how far Northants have come. Should both players play more for England, Northants will be well rewarded by the ECB, helping to reduce the salary gap with other counties a little.

Northants began 2015 with a squad of only 15 professional cricketers, the smallest around. Occasionally Ripley was reduced to ringing other coaches just before games to sign players on loan.

And yet, through shrewd recruiting and management, Northants have turned their slight squad into an advantage. "If you're Surrey or Yorkshire, it's Christmas Day morning: they've got lots of toys and don't know which to open," Felton says. "We ain't got that situation. Sometimes it means you've got to make the very best of what might come your way." Ripley believes: "You need enough depth, but you don't need players three-deep waiting for an opportunity, because it just creates uncertainty and they become stale."

"We've got cooler heads than the opposition," Wakely believes. To Rowe, "we have got numerous players who want to be on the big stage - they love it"

"Role clarity" is the trope repeated endlessly by players and coaches alike. "Players with knowledge of their role gives them confidence," says Rowe. "They can practise that role, be clear on that.

"Players are by nature kind of vulnerable, and full of self-doubt anyway. It doesn't take a lot to unsettle the apple cart. So you need to be really, really careful." Several at the club express sympathy with Greg Smith, the Nottinghamshire opening batsman who performed well throughout the group stages but was dropped for their semi-final defeat to Northants.

In T20, a smaller squad can also render batsmen less fearful that a loose shot or two will lead to being dropped. "You don't feel like you're looking over your shoulder the whole time," says Crook, part of far larger squads during stints at Middlesex and Lancashire. "You then play fearless cricket. It becomes a less selfish environment."

The shallowness of Northants' squad, and the camaraderie between players, cultivates a culture of selflessness and honesty. A case in point is Levi during T20 matches. Opening the batting, he uses his vast T20 experience to feed information about the conditions and a par score to the rest of the team. "If Levi has a bad three or four overs and then gets out, he is very honest," Ripley says. "The trust is there."

Under pressure in the field, Northants' small squad can also be an advantage. "When I brought a bowler on we got to the point where every fielder knew where they were going to be," Wakely recalls. The side's least athletic fielders - notably Azharullah, Levi and Kleinveldt - have become competent in positions that conceal their weaknesses, with Levi regularly taking girth-defying acrobatic catches. Even Azharullah, normally hidden at short fine-leg, took an agile caught-and-bowled in the final against Durham this year and effected a run-out soon after.

"My shit doesn't work in the play-offs. My job is to get us to the play-offs. What happens after that is f***ing luck," Beane famously said.

For Northants, this is where Moneyball comparisons fall short. Under Beane, the Oakland As have lost in six of their seven play-off series, and never qualified for a World Series final. Northants have won two T20 tournaments. If Northants have had some fortune - in 2013, Kyle Coetzer's injury in the semi-final meant that Willey was promoted to open, and promptly creamed 60 off 27 balls - their success in crux games speaks of something much greater than luck.

Barker's analysis work is even more valuable in knockout matches than in the regular group stage. As the T20 groups are regional, Northants play the same teams every year. Teams from the south group, who they only ever face in knockout games, are much less familiar. Before their quarter-final victory over Sussex in 2015, Northants had only played them once in a T20. They had never played a T20 against Middlesex before thrashing them in this year's quarter-final.

"We needed specific information about teams we didn't understand," says Wakely. "[Barker] came up with a pack of 25 pages with everything we needed: stats, average scores, pressure players, where boundaries were hit." The information was distilled before reaching the rest of the squad. Barker explains: "We were looking a lot at the slower-ball bouncers and variations they had at the death and what their bowlers like to do. In normal games it's like, 'We've seen this, no need to overcomplicate it.'"

"If you're Surrey or Yorkshire, it's Christmas Day morning: they've got lots of toys and don't know which to open. We ain't got that situation. Sometimes you've got to make the very best of what might come your way"

Felton

But data can only explain a little of Northants' pedigree in knockout matches. "There's not a stat in the world that gives you that edge," says Barker, reflecting on Northants' run of eight victories - three out of three batting first and five out of six batting second - in nine knockout T20 matches since 2013. "We've got cooler heads than the opposition," Wakely believes. To Rowe, "we have got numerous players who want to be on the big stage - they love it". Role clarity also helps: when Azharullah is defending ten off the final over, he is merely attempting what he has done successfully many times before.

Under pressure, Northants can also call upon their spirit. If it is tempting to recall Steve Archibald's aphorism - "Team spirit is an illusion glimpsed in the aftermath of victory" - Northants suggest that he was overly cynical. Even in 2014, when Wakely was injured all season and the team was regularly pummelled in Division One of the Championship, the dressing room did not descend into infighting.

"There's togetherness from the top to the bottom. They work hard, they party hard," says Azharullah. Before he retired after a 20-year career in 2015, Stephen Peters told Wakely that it was the best dressing room that he'd ever played in.

The captain, an academy product first thrust into the role at 24, has unified and empowered his players, eschewing rabble-rousing speeches but speaking with purpose when he does talk. "My role is more to keep the peace individually with people."

Wakely also has a relish for the big stage. He thumped 59 not out off 30 balls in the 2013 final, and then, entering in crises at 15 for 3 and 9 for 3, hit 53 and 43 in the two victories on finals day this year.

"I imagine WASP [Sky Sports' gizmo for giving teams a percentage chance of victory] was pretty much non-existent for us," he laughs. Defying the odds twice on finals day was merely an extension of what Northants have spent much of the past four years doing. "One thing people overlook is there's a hell of a lot of talent at this club," Wakely says. In 2013, Northants fielded almost the same XI throughout the tournament, but overcoming injuries and "a lot more adversity" made 2016's victory even more admirable.

To Barker, "Maybe the scary thing - one that no one at Wantage Road would ever admit or anyone else would ever accept - is that we've done what we've done because when the stakes have been at their highest we've invariably been better than anyone else."

After over 30 years involved in Northants, Ripley considered finals day in 2013 "my best day in cricket". But he enjoyed 2016's win just as much.

When Ripley and the team woke up the next day, nursing what was simultaneously the best and worst hangover imaginable, he confronted a new problem.

"I have tried to play the underdog tag a bit. But it's getting difficult to keep rolling it out."