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Feature

Mickey Arthur fires Derbyshire dreams: 'We've got to think big'

South African coach relishing preparations for second stage of his "four-year project"

Mickey Arthur has set high standards for Derbyshire, Derby, March 30

Mickey Arthur has set high standards for Derbyshire  •  Getty Images

Mickey Arthur accepts this is the time of year every coach will tell you they have never had a better lead-in to an upcoming county season. Even so, he cannot help himself: "But we have!"
If you can't be optimistic in March, why bother going into April for the six months of grind? The difference for Arthur is what he has witnessed at Derbyshire over the last year, the first of what he regards as a "four-year project" - one he is so evidently committed to he even managed to convince PCB chair Najam Sethi as much. Sethi recently ceded ground by allowing Arthur to take up a remote position as a consultant for the Pakistan men's side. Rarely do counties end up on the right side of such negotiations.
What charm Arthur wields on administrators is just as strong when it comes to his players, which is why the original intention of the PCB was to get him back as head coach. He is one of modern cricket's more sincere enthusiasts.
That quality is exactly what Derbyshire needed when they snagged Arthur at the end of 2021. The club had been drifting aimlessly, an all-too-familiar presence in Division Two. Their last venture into the top flight was in 2013. The last England player they produced was Dominic Cork, who made his Test debut back in 1995. Neither is particularly helpful at a time when English cricket is looking inwards with a scalpel wondering, "what is it that you do here exactly?"
The former is easier to rectify than the latter in the short term. But right now there is hope around the club that their current trajectory under Arthur will allow them to eventually solve both.
Maybe these are also the noises every county makes, particularly those of Derbyshire's ilk, as they emerge from a winter with Andrew Strauss' high performance review still hanging over their heads. Even if proposals have been watered down or dismissed outright by sheer will, justifying a right to exist evokes more fear than focus given where cricket is headed.
From Arthur's point of view, Derbsyhire's requirement is as much about ridding the tag of consistent underperformers as improving the balance sheets. He believes changing how the club is regarded can be influenced on the field and in the dressing room. He has certainly used the way they are regarded as a tool to influence both.
"At times I did use that as a motivation for us," he tells ESPNcricinfo. "That we're the county that the perception out there is 'little old Derbyshire'. We want to change that perception. By and large, last year we changed that perception.
"It was the most important part of my job," he says of that first campaign where a change of mindset was required internally. "To make the dressing room believe we weren't here to make the numbers up. Make the dressing room believe we were here to win games of cricket and become the best players we can be. To make the dressing room understand there were no comfort zones in there. We're here to do a job. It's a high-performance environment and that's how we operate and that's how we run. No excuses."
As you would expect from someone who has led four different Test teams, Arthur implemented "international standards" when it came to training intensity, preparation, recovery and behaviour - facets regarded as non-negotiables at the highest level. Those familiar with the workings of the Derbyshire dressing room say the culture has improved and, in turn, so has the robustness of the squad.
Last season's Division Two performances spoke of that change. Derbyshire only won three matches, eventually finishing fifth out of eight, but they only lost as many. Six draws suggested an inner steel was developing. Manufactured steel, to a degree: all six stalemates came at home at the County Ground, where Derbyshire passed 500 four times, as groundstaff were instructed to leave as little as 6mm of grass on their pitches.
"For too long, this squad and a lot of those players in it have been whipping boys," Arthur says. "So we wanted to be a team that was hard to beat, which I think we became last year.
"We played very good cricket: there were a lot of games we dominated but we just didn't finish it on day four. Our wickets here were very, very good - they didn't deteriorate, it became hard to bowl sides out. But with the points at 16 [for a win] and eight [draw], I knew we could get two draws which were worth a win."
With only five points available for draws this season, that approach won't fly, not that Arthur is bothered. As per his blueprint, this was always going to be the summer he pushed the group to go further.
"For me, we're good enough. Now, instead of having 6mm of grass, can we leave 10mm of grass on the wicket? Can we challenge ourselves that way? What brand of cricket do we play with that? If we leave that amount of grass, do we become a team that bowls first and chases on day four? That's where our discussions in the dressing room have got to.
"I'm trying to get 20% more out of our players and that for me is going to be the interesting thing - to see how much the players have left. How big a ceiling do they have? Those are the questions we are going to answer in the season I think."
Losing Shan Masood to Yorkshire was a blow, not just because of the 1074 runs in 13 innings he strummed but for an infectious professionalism. Matt Lamb has joined from Warwickshire to strengthen the batting reserves, with Leus Du Plooy given greater responsibility with captaincy in all formats. At 39, Wayne Madsen - Division Two's leading run-scorer with 1,273 - remains as vital as ever. Two 26-year-olds, however, represent Arthur's early changes to the club and beyond.
Anuj Dal, a bustling allrounder, came to recognise his potential with 957 runs and 34 wickets in 2022. Having been on the cusp of being released a few years ago, he has established himself as a lock at No. 7 and third-change seamer. Arthur describes it as "deadman donkey work".
"He comes in and bowls the donkey overs and he's either batting when we're flying or under pressure. His job is the unglamorous one but, you know what, he did it so well last year. He's just the perfect guy for that role because he's got the right temperament."
Like many England Under-19 cricketers, Dal, who began his career at Nottinghamshire before leaving in 2017, spent an uncomfortable amount of time trying to figure out his place in the game. Now things could not be clearer.
"He's just the heart and core of Derbyshire County Cricket Club," beams Arthur, who admits to badgering him to dream big on a daily basis. "I want him to keep thinking he's going to play for England from Derbyshire because I do believe he's that good."
Then there is Zak Chappell, who joined on a two-year deal from a similar place Dal found himself: not just as a cricketer on the periphery at Notts but one enduring stasis. His upside as a fast bowler is known throughout the country and the ECB's performance department, who were made aware of his gifts during his initial progression at Leicestershire. Beyond a few jaunts with England Lions and the odd flash domestically, injuries and struggles with rhythm have him arriving at a third club in five years with a modest record of 68 wickets from just 30 first-class matches.
Chappell remains hungry, ambitious, and reticent to be judged on the past. As such, he arrives into a group with an ethos very much aligned with his.
"For me, it was an easy sell," says Arthur on Chappell's signing. "I wanted a cricketer who wanted to come here to further himself and he felt this was the environment that would further it for him. It was almost the perfect marriage. I don't want a guy that's coming with no ambition and just wants to play two years county cricket. I want a guy who is coming here and wants to use us to play for England."
It is at this point Arthur pauses to take a breath and let that last sentence breathe. "That's almost the criteria now to come to Derbyshire," he reiterates. "We want to bring guys in with a lot of ambition."
There is a legitimate question to be asked here that could be considered either philosophical or cynical: how much of the good feeling at the moment is linked to having a coach of Arthur's calibre? And the answer at this juncture is, well, it does not matter. Evidently, structures are in place, values shared and a united vision of what the future of Derbyshire County Cricket Club looks like.
A clearer idea will come in September. Not that Arthur has any doubts.
"We've got to think big - we're not here to make numbers up. We're here to compete, we're here to force promotion, we're here to win white-ball competitions. We want to be that county."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo