Take it to the Bridge
In 2003 Nottinghamshire were relegated and riven by in-fighting. In 2005 they won the County Championship for the first time in 18 years. Batsman and former captain Jason Gallian tells how they did it
Even though we won Division Two of the 2004 Championship in style, we knew that the 2005 season would present a whole new set of challenges. There was a new captain (the New Zealander Stephen Fleming). We had a less experienced spinner (Graeme Swann) to take over from the Australian Test leggie Stuart MacGill. And it was crucial to keep a skeleton seam attack fit if we were going to get anywhere. In fact, the squad turned out to be even stronger.
It quickly became apparent that we were not going to draw many games because of the pace at which we scored our runs, generally at four or even five an over. We batted all the way down to No. 9 and that proved crucial as the season went on. Three of our top order averaged over fifty and three passed 1,000 runs for the season. Again David Hussey led the way. Much like his brother Mike, David seems at ease with the English conditions and made 1,200 runs for the second season running - not bad when you consider that the coach Mick Newell was asked two years ago (by another player) why he had signed Hussey. "I'm having a punt," he replied. Well, that punt has paid off with interest.
Our weight of runs would not have been possible without high-quality wickets to bat on at home. In 2003 the Trent Bridge groundsman Steve Birks was under public pressure because of the poor state of the Test match pitch. He worked very hard to sort out the problems on the square and his dedication has paid off. He consistently produced good cricket wickets with good pace. If a batsman got in, the quick outfield allowed him the chance to rack up a big score.
Once we had the runs on the board it was then a case of finding a way to bowl the opposition out twice. That proved to be our major strength as I felt we had one of the best fast-bowling attacks in the competition.
Without necessarily having serious pace, our quartet of AJ Harris, Ryan Sidebottom, Greg Smith and Mark Ealham showed that disciplined and consistent bowling in the right areas takes wickets. They also bowled well as a unit and the mix of two left-armers and two right-arm bowlers presented different challenges to the opposition. AJ and Ryan would take the new ball, backed up by Greg, but it was Mark who led the charge.
From the outside people might see Mark as a gentle medium pace bowler but looks can be deceiving. He is a bowler for all types of wickets. If it is flat and not doing much he can tie an end up with his accuracy. But give him swinging conditions and seam assistance to work with and he will get as much movement and carry as any of the front-line seamers. He is also not shy of hard work, can be quite bullish with the ball in his hand and is willing to bowl at any time at either end. His all-round capabilities got us out of sticky situations with the bat as well. Just don't mention ice baths to him or serve him a poor lunch.
One of the big surprises for me was Sidebottom. He bowled long hard spells at good pace, troubling most batsmen with swing and seam movement, and got his reward with a career best of 50 first-class wickets for the season. A team player who wears his heart on his sleeve, Ryan would hang around with the bat and was as committed as a rugby league player in the field. It was fitting that he was named Nottinghamshire's player of the year.
Spin also played its part. Graeme Swann is a great character who loves to be the centre of attention but, when he has the ball, there is a real change in attitude. He is very focused and takes great pride in his performance. He changed games for us with his wicket-taking capabilities, athleticism in the field and his counter-attacking, almost cavalier batting style. And of course he kept everyone thoroughly entertained in the changing room. I was bitterly disappointed he and Chris Read did not make England's tour to Pakistan.
For the second season running Chris has averaged more than 40 with the bat and has clearly stepped up his standards. But his wicket-keeping is touched by genius. He broke his best for dismissals and hardly dropped a ball all year; and, if he did not take the edges, then you could rely on the slip fielders to snare the chances.
We cannot go through the reasons for success without mentioning Mick Newell. He has always gone about his business as team manager quietly but behind the scenes he has stuck by his convictions of bringing in players who would not only perform on the field but also fit into the dressing room. It was a brave but correct decision to make.
Mick may have had to stoke up some courage to ask me to step down in favour of Stephen Fleming. I was called in for a meeting with Mick last November and was told that Stephen was coming to lead the side. This was a complete shock to me but at least I had the winter months to come to terms with the decision.
Stephen came to the club with a reputation of being one of the world's best captains and he justified that this year. When he arrived he spelt out clearly why he believed we could win the Championship but he needed the senior players to give him feedback on a regular basis. He is an astute leader, evaluating our attitudes on a day-to-day basis and finely tweaking things to improve the side. He not only led from the front with breathtaking innings but he got the best from his players by posing questions and challenging individuals to improve their performance. In his own words, he was "the icing on the cake of two seasons of hard work".
Before he arrived I barely knew him so I didn't know what to expect. But he was very understanding and sought my opinion when necessary. I still felt part of the management team alongside other senior players like Ealham and Read. It worked very well and in hindsight, with my benefit year in progress as well, it allowed me to concentrate on my own game.
Unfortunately our new captain suffered the same curse as me and lost the toss on a regular basis: 11 times in 16 matches. It meant we would usually be in the field for the opening session of a match, much to our bowlers' annoyance. The ball has always swung at Trent Bridge, so the plan at home was to bowl teams out cheaply, bat heavily past them in the first innings and create `scoreboard pressure' on the them in their second innings. Most times it worked.
Our ability to bowl sides out twice would have been badly dented if our bowlers had not by and large stayed injury free. In fact, as a whole the squad avoided pulled muscles and serious aches and pains. Credit for this must go to physiotherapist Craig Smith. Our `Kolpak' from Cape Town did a sterling job in keeping us on track. Working with an experienced squad of professionals, he has certainly shown some old dogs new tricks about recovery sessions and rehabilitation. The age of the squad has been well publicised and it helped us to have top-quality players available for every game without the problems of centrally contracted or current England players. With Craig keeping us fit, the same team were able to produce at a top-quality level day-in, day-out. It gave the management the chance of consistent selection and gave the team confidence and reassurance.
When the magnitude of winning the Championship sinks in I can look back and see a squad of players who got on and enjoyed playing for each other; a manager who directed his team and whose signings paid off; and a new captain who not only led brilliantly but inspired us all. This supposedly ageing team is looking forward to defending the trophy that it worked so hard to win.
This article was first published in the November issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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