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Cricket news - Low-profile Derbyshire happy to stay under the radar
Derbyshire are used to being written off. It comes with the territory for a small club in the shadow of more illustrious counties nearby. It's probably fair too, given their limited on-field success and their failure to produce many England cricketers. At the start of each season the expectations of them seem to get lower and lower, so as to have reached positively subterranean levels by now.
And at a time when the gap between the haves and have nots in county cricket is growing, it would be easy to cast them as a club who can no longer consistently compete with the big boys. That may be true - and Derbyshire are not alone in that - but it would also give a free pass to a squad which is more talented than recent results have suggested.
Aside from an excellent T20 campaign two years ago, the talent at Derbyshire's disposal has burned far too fleetingly of late. Last season was another uninspiring one, what with their failure to emerge from the group stages of either white-ball tournament and a seventh-placed finish in the second division of the Championship. Yet they had their moments. They beat Middlesex in the opening four-day game for instance, and did the double over Yorkshire in the T20 Blast.
In between times however, things weren't so good.
Given the loss of a number of important players during the winter, hopes for a significant season aren't high this time around either, but that does not bother one member of the coaching staff. "Let's face it, we are always going to be written off whatever competition we play in," Dominic Cork, the club's new T20 Head Coach, tells Cricbuzz. "People will look at Derbyshire and say they've got no chance in the second division, no chance in the 50-overs and no chance in Twenty20. In some ways, it's a good thing to be undervalued."
It's little surprise that Cork is bullish about Derbyshire's prospects this term. A former England all-rounder who spent 13 years at the club as a player, he was known for his spikiness and desire to meet a challenge head on. It made him the player he was, even if it riled up a few opponents along the way, and it's probably the sort of attitude that an inconsistent set of players - capable of brilliance one moment and mediocrity the next - need right now.
"Derbyshire have become a lot more competitive over the last few seasons," says Cork. "I see that in the way they are playing but there's been certain stumbling blocks over a number of years where the side have got themselves into a position and then haven't finished it off. Getting to quarter-finals. In four-day cricket, having two exceptional days and then having a bad session and all of a sudden they are behind the eight-ball.
"But I think Derbyshire are in good stead. They're up against some big squads, some talented squads but ultimately, we like to stay under the radar. I did that throughout my whole career when I played here. Everybody laughed at Derbyshire. They hated the ground, they thought it was boring, it was cold. The changing rooms were horrible, the food was horrible. You know, so what? Come and play cricket here and see if you can beat us."
Cork has been working with the squad for the last two seasons as bowling coach for the T20 side under New Zealander John Wright, and his elevation to the top job is one of a number of changes to the coaching staff as the club look to build on that solid, if unspectacular, progress. Former Zimbabwe batsman Dave Houghton has returned for his third coaching spell at the club as Head of Cricket, while Steve Kirby has been appointed as his assistant.
After a spell commentating for Sky Sports, Cork has loved his time back in the dressing room. He felt some time away from the professional game was needed once he retired from playing, but the competitive juices have returned and taking over from Wright was too good an opportunity to turn down. Cork's eggs are now firmly in the coaching basket, too. "I've enjoyed it so much being around players again and the atmosphere," he says. "But it's down to results, the same as a player. Nothing changes. If things don't go well, people will ask whether I'm the right man."
Given some of Derbyshire's performances last term, it's obvious there is something there. The inconsistency suggests the problem is a mental one, which is why the new coaching group's mantra this winter has been self-reflection. It's all well and good knowing where the club want to get to but first, they need to understand where they are and what they lack.
Derbyshire's players have spent the off-season thinking more about their own games, where their strengths lie, what their weaknesses are, how best to approach the different formats, how to utilise home conditions more. In understanding all those things better, the club hope for more targeted improvement. And the players have been left in no doubt that improvement is needed.
"If people were consistent and producing, other counties would be looking at them," Cork says of the current group. "It's about trying to get the most out of that individual and trying to push them on a bit further. There are some talented guys at this club who, perhaps through being in a comfort zone of being at Derbyshire, coming from other counties, maybe they think it's alright to be just okay. What we want is for them to be better than okay. We need them to be pushed on more and to work at their games. They are doing that."
While their limited overs play has certainly improved, for too long Derbyshire's weakness in the Championship has been an over reliance on a handful of players. Last year was a similar story. Only four batsmen averaged more than 30 - and one of them only played one match - while they used 23 players in all.
Cork's rallying call is the right one, then. The club need far more from the majority of the squad. "Sides win competitions by playing well as a squad," Cork says. "It's not about one individual. It's about the squad getting the side through and that's what we need more of in all formats."
Derbyshire's task will be more difficult this season given the departures of batsman Ben Slater to Nottinghamshire and the loss of South African fast bowlers Duanne Olivier and Hardus Viljoen. "It's frustrating to lose any players," says Cork. "But it's what players do. I left here and went to Lancashire and ended up at Hampshire.
"That's what you do. Move on to a bigger club to try and push your game on. It's not just Derbyshire. A lot of the lesser counties lose players. Look at Leicestershire and how many players they have lost to Nottinghamshire. It's always going to happen, it happens in all sport. We just have to adapt and try and fill the places of the guys who leave."
To fill the void left by Slater, much will be expected - as always - of captain Billy Godleman and Wayne Madsen, who won the Pakistan Super League with Quetta Gladiators this winter. New Zealand all-rounder Logan van Beek has been signed to take up the mantle with the ball after a glowing recommendation from Wright. Opener Luis Reece is back fit after an injury-ravaged season last year, while Australia's Kane Richardson will join for the T20 Blast.
Nevertheless, it is a squad which looks thin on the ground and competing in all three formats will not be easy, particularly if injuries hit. But the county is used to the struggle and Cork is not a man to back down from a challenge. "I just want the club and the players to succeed. Not for myself, for them. If I can be a part of some success, that's great. It's down to the group of guys to work hard to upset the odds."
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