Marked men of T20: Northants' challenge to stay ahead

"Everyone always writes off Northants. Hopefully that happens again"

Alex Wakely

On Friday evening the Northants band was reunited at Wantage Road. The ground was heaving, brimming with merry evening drinkers who had come full of expectation. While the crowd was eager for another T20 season to begin, the team were altogether less well-prepared: they had only finished a gruelling County Championship game at Beckenham the previous day. A side that has thrived through meticulous planning in T20 was reduced to turning up at the ground on the morning of the game to reacquaint themselves with the demands of T20. "Ultimately the lack of preparation time killed us," Wakely says. "We weren't on our A game, a bit off the pace, and the plans were not as clear as normal."

In future matches Northants will not be undermined by this lack of preparation time. But, as well as the likelihood of a more formidable challenge from the wealthiest counties, Northants will have to face plenty of other challenges. Injuries to Azharullah - their death bowler will be out all season - and the big-hitting opener Richard Levi are unwelcome. Several leading players from last season - notably Gleeson and Ben Sanderson (who took 5 for 52 from eight overs on finals day) - will have to overcome Sophomore Syndrome; no longer are they unheralded and under-analysed.

Teams are also becoming more ruthless in exploiting Northants' weaknesses. This seemed in evidence on Friday, as Derbyshire, who have enlisted John Wright as a specialist T20 coach, toppled the holders at Wantage Road. During the middle overs - from the start of the seventh over to the end of the 15th - Derbyshire managed 11 twos, astutely targeting Northants' weaker fielders. In the same period of their own innings, Northants only ran a solitary two.

So Northants cannot merely repeat the performances of past four years; they must improve upon them.

"In sport it's a very dangerous situation if you think you're the best and try and do the same things over and over," Wakely says. "Someone will always be trying to get better to beat you."

Perhaps the main example of Northants' thinking evolving so far is in the use of Ben Duckett to open. Partly due to the absence of the injured Levi, and partly due to his own development - he hadn't even scored a T20 half-century before 2016, when his 84 rescued Northants from 15 for 3 against Notts in the semi-final - Duckett has been promoted to a position that he had never previously filled for Northants in T20 cricket.

He has responded magnificently, compiling 69 and 72, a wonderful fusion of the classically orthodox and impudent, in Northants' first two games. Duckett helped ensure that the home defeat to Derbyshire was balanced out by a notable victory at Chester-le-Street, a fixture that Northants had lost on their last four visits, suffering from the ground's boundaries being extended as far as possible, to effectively make games a battle of who could score more twos. This time it didn't matter. "The cobwebs had been dusted off," Wakely says. "The bowlers were back on song and we timed the batting chase to perfection. We were always in control of the game."

He knows that this season everyone will want to knock Northants off their perch. A combination of the block format, their status as defending champions, and the growth of data in T20 means that teams will prepare for Northants like never before. After they had triumphed in last year's Blast, Northants' players each identified one skill - anything from their catching to a specific shot with the bat - that they had to improve on.

They will all need to show it if the club can win a third Blast in five years. If most think realising that ambition is unlikely - Northants are only the joint eighth favourites with the bookies - that is just how the players like it. "Everyone always writes off Northants," Wakely says. "Hopefully that happens again."