'The positivity was soon forgotten' - Where has it all gone wrong for Northants CCC?

'The positivity was soon forgotten' - a phrase donned by the Northamptonshire County Cricket Club website on Tuesday 4th September as they provided a summary of a day that saw the County Championship squad trudge off the pitch on 71-8.

Unfortunately for the East Midlands outfit, the five words sum up the entirety of their season - one that is in free fall as they have either finished or sit in the bottom three of the trio of competitions they have been involved in during this campaign, topped off by key players leaving.

No money, no stars

Northants are a county not known for their superstars. Instead, they have built their success, particularly in the shorter format of the game, on excellent team spirit with a host of hard-working players that compliment each other perfectly.

With the County Ground not utilised for international matches in any format, finances are limited. However, the teamwork that pulled them through to win the 2013 and 2016 Twenty20 competitions seems to be falling short as the game continuously demands faster, stronger, fitter and more powerful players in all three disciplines. The lack of international talent appears to be hindering the side's ability to cope with the fast developing nature of the sport.

They lost a key player in Azharullah last year, a bowler always able to pick up key wickets at crucial times. Similarly, the hard-hitting Rory Kleinveldt will call time on his career in England at the end of the season.

Yet, other than their league positions, perhaps the biggest sign that Northants cannot cope with the big boys around the country is the transfer of Ben Duckett to Nottinghamshire. The left-hander was the golden boy of Northants cricket, one of a select few that have been given the opportunity to represent their country from the county. He made his international breakthrough in 2016 but blew his chances of becoming a regular, at least for now, when he allegedly poured a pint of beer over legendary bowler James Anderson on the Ashes tour last winter.

Arguably the most naturally talented player to grace the Northants squad in recent years, Duckett showed his class when he made 80 on debut for Nottinghamshire this week - after contributing an average of just 25 at the County Ground this year. Confidence is a huge aspect of cricket...

Lacking confidence

Such a trait has clearly been missing from the Steelbacks throughout the season. Ten games passed before they won a Twenty20 contest, despite being such a successful club in the competition since its inception.

Nine of those ten matches were defeats and the majority of them were not even close - in two contests they fell short by over 50 runs and in another two they lost by over eight wickets - substantial margins in such a short format of the game.

Batting and bowling were both problematic for Alex Wakely's side. Only one century and nine half-centuries were formulated in 14 games, with half of those successes contributed by Josh Cobb. Other than the man who averaged 37.33, still outside the top 30 batters in the competition's knockout phases, only three players averaged above 20 - Duckett, Wakely and Richard Levi.

Wickets were also hard to come by - the Steelbacks managed just 54 in 14 matches. Richard Gleeson and Nathan Buck were the only players to average more than one a game (just!), with Gleeson's average the best of the Northants squad but 84th in the competition!

Inconsistent with the ball...

Gleeson is arguably their most dynamic bowler but his appearances in the longer format of the game have been limited to just four. Ben Sanderson has been the go to man with 44 wickets in ten matches at an average of 16.80 in the County Championship. Yet the fast bowler averaged almost 60 in the One-Day Cup with consistency a major issue for the Northants bowling attack.

Other than 35-year old Steven Crook, who has bowled just six overs in his testimonial year at the club, Luke Procter has been the most dangerous bowler in the latter of the aforementioned competitions, although his average of 32.80 is outside the top 50 in the standings of the tournament. That said, Procter does have a better average in the County Championship, albeit only sixth in the club rankings.

Overall, the bowling in the County Championship has been relatively strong but that is obviously not the case in the One-Day Cup. Yet, with three wins from ten and two wins from eight in the respective competitions, it denotes that the batting in the former has been weak whilst use of the willow in the latter could be stronger.

...and the bat

And the statistics back up that hypothesis. As with the Twenty20, only three centuries have been scored in the County Championship thus far - Wakely and Duckett with one apiece again whilst Ricardo Vasconcelos hit a top score of 140. Two of those players, Wakely and Vasconcelos, make up a trio of Steelbacks who are the only players averaging above 30 - and the only ones in the top 50 of Division Two.

Although not one player scored a century in the One-Day Cup, high-scoring innings have been more consistent. Levi, Cobb, Wakely and Adam Rossington averaged above 38 and Charlie Thurston scored 50 in his one outing.

If the bowling quality in the County Championship could be transferred to support the batting in the One-Day Cup and vice-versa, Northamptonshire would find themselves much higher up the table in both competitions - and probably would have performed better in the Twenty20 with increased form and confidence.

Where next?

A small budget and a growing gap between the smaller counties and their larger counterparts, the concern is where Northants go next. They still have a handful of fixtures remaining this season but they only harness chances to save some grace in front of their faithful fans.

The Steelbacks must look to keep together a core of players who have performed at least to an average level this season - Crook, Wakely, Levi, Procter, Gleeson, Buck and Sanderson. They also have young players who should only get better - Thurston is 22 and Vasconcelos is 20.

The key will be how well they can recruit over the winter - can they encourage players to join a club that has struggled in all formats of the game this season? One situation that will help their finances has been the British weather this summer - revenue has been continuous with limited games abandoned so there could be some extra funds to tempt tried and tested players to the County Ground.

Training will also be key. The squad need to become more consistent across all formats and much fitter - a handful of players are hardly the athletes that dominate the top-level of the game in the modern era and they are finding out that standing and striking will only get them so far against tactically improved bowlers constantly developing.

For Northants, the transition needs to begin now...