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Cricket news - You can't ever stop trying to get better: Luke Fletcher
For Nottinghamshire, 2018 had a lot to live up to. After winning both the Royal London One-Day Cup and the T20 Blast the season before, in addition to being promoted back to Division One in the Championship, expectations were high for another bumper season. Although two quarter-finals in white-ball cricket and four-day survival in the top flight was a decent enough return last year, it was all a bit of a come down.
That was to be expected. Those 2017 triumphs were delivered with a squad full to the brim of experienced players who had been there, done it and got the t-shirt. For some, the successes of that season were their parting gift rather than the start of something bigger. Chris Read and Michael Lumb retired at the end of that season and Brendan Taylor went back to Zimbabwe.
Then, Alex Hales opted not to play red-ball cricket the following year and Australian quick James Pattinson - who gave Division Two batsmen nightmares in 2017 with 32 wickets in five four-day games - didn't return at all. It's little wonder then that last season was more of a battle.
The squad needed more depth and more proven quality and the club has embarked on a signing spree to address those deficiencies. Some may take pot shots, decrying a club poaching players from smaller teams, but that's the way of the world. Players want to go where they feel opportunities are greatest.
For three hungry, high-class batsmen, including England hopefuls Ben Duckett and Joe Clarke, they have decided that's at Notts while Paul Coughlin, who made the move last year from Durham but was ruled out for the season with a shoulder injury, will finally get his Trent Bridge career up and running. Zak Chappell has been recruited from Leicestershire to add some pace and aggression to a seam attack which lacked it last term.
He will have no better example to follow than Pattinson, who has just been signed as the overseas player after carving it up for Victoria in the Sheffield Shield. Rapid, aggressive and with a thirst for the fray that puts the fear of God up opposition batsmen, he could be the most important signing of the lot even if he ends up being part of Australia's Ashes series.
An attack of Ball, Stuart Broad, who should be about for most of the first half of the season, and Pattinson will certainly take some stopping.
Despite the overhaul of the squad, a few familiar faces remain. Luke Fletcher, a one-club man, is one who has seen it all: the crushing blow of Championship relegation in 2016 which, for a club like Nottinghamshire, hit hard, followed by the highs of the next season.
Of late, Fletcher's stock has risen but it wasn't so long ago that he was being loaned out and his future at Trent Bridge was in doubt. That's no longer on the cards after two fine seasons and if he was somewhat taken for granted before, he's not now having placed an increased focus on his fitness which has paid dividends on the pitch.
Fletcher has become the team's fulcrum, their heartbeat and a firm favourite of the Notts faithful because he gives them everything. He even runs the club's own podcast. Now, he is one of the elder statesmen in the dressing room and he's enjoying the responsibility.
The squad is less experienced than it has been. Do you see your role as being to bring these younger guys along?
Yes and I've noticed it the last couple of years now. You go from, not being a young lad but something like that, to being a senior bowler and someone who the younger lads look up to and someone to set the example. I've enjoyed it. There's a few of us now who have been around for a long time.
It's refreshing as well. These younger lads come in, keep the changing room full of life. They have got a lot of energy around them. I'm only 30 so I'm not too old but we've definitely got a lot more youth in our team. The age thing doesn't matter though. If someone is good enough, age doesn't matter to me. The pleasing thing about these young lads is that they are all good enough to get in the first team right now.
Chappell, who hadn't played a lot for Leicestershire through injuries, has just been the standout bowler on the Lions tour to India this winter. The year before Coughlin got injured, he was one of the standout performers on the previous Lions tour. The lads who are coming in are younger but their skill is definitely up to a level where they can be playing Division One cricket, that's for sure.
How do you look back on last season?
At the start of the season, we set out to get into the quarter-finals of both competitions which we did. In that respect, anything can then happen when you get into finals, can't it? We weren't quite on our game in either quarter-final, though. We got beaten by two sides [Kent and Somerset] who were better than us on the day.
The red-ball target was to stay in Division One because it was a bit of a re-building process last year. We lost some key players like Chris Read, Michael Lumb and Brendon Taylor so to expect to have the performances those guys put in throughout their careers by newer, younger lads, unproven, coming into the side is very difficult.
We achieved what we wanted to, really. Obviously, comparing it to 2017 when we won two white-ball trophies, it was very different. But actually, what we wanted to achieve and get out of last season, we did.
You had a great start in the Championship but then fell away. What do you put that down to?
We didn't finish as we would have liked to in the Championship. We set that up quite well in the first half, sitting top of the league and in and around the top three for a long time and then we faded off towards the latter half which was disappointing.
We started off with an attack of Stuart Broad and Jake Ball in there as well as myself, Harry Gurney. It sort of changed throughout the year. We lost Broady to England as we do every year so that was expected but we lost Jake for most of the second half of the season when he did his back. Whenever you lose key players like that, it's very difficult to keep up the performances.
Batting wise, it was very difficult, not only for us, but for most of the county squads. We underachieved in that second half of the season but this year we've brought in some players who are all very capable of starting in the first eleven.
Do you think the signings you've have made give you a better chance of sustaining your form and competing in all three competitions?
Definitely. Players like Zak Chappell, Paul Coughlin, who will feel like a new signing, will add so much. The batting department now has Joe Clarke, Ben Duckett and Ben Slater who are all class players. It's quite exciting this year because everyone's pushing as hard as they can to get a place because the squad depth is much better.
Hopefully that can carry us right through this year until September because if you are going to contend for trophies, you need that. You can't keep putting out the same faces on the pitch in all formats. Bowlers get tired so you need a bigger squad and this year we have done that.
You had a strong season in all formats last year and were in great form in 2017 before your head injury. Are there still areas of your bowling you want to improve?
The last two years, I do think I've developed. A lot of that is down to the work I've done with Andy Pick, the bowling coach, and head coach Peter Moores. I am hoping to push on again this year and do better. I would have liked to have taken 50 wickets last year but didn't quite get to that so that's something I'd love to achieve this year.
I've been working on a few things this winter. You can't ever stop trying to get better. If you stand still in this day and age, people will overtake you because the skill sets now are just so good. I've been working on this wobble seam delivery, working on a few angles, bowling round the wicket to left-handers, over the wicket.
Once you get to an age like 30, the fundamental basics are there but you want to try and improve on that. We play against each other now so often that batsmen get used to you so if you can bring something different to the table next season, like different slower balls in one-day cricket, it gives you a better chance of getting more wickets. It's just been a big emphasis on skills this winter for me, trying to get better.
How has Moores helped your game?
He's just so enthusiastic. He's got bags of energy, he's always looking to get better. His knowledge of county cricket is unbelievable. He knows all the stats. Just him being so enthusiastic, just to be around him gives you that buzz to get better. He pushes you to be as good as you can be.
He was the influence on me this year working on wobble seam and around the wicket options to left-handers. He is always looking to improve players and he really does want people to get better. He works as hard as anyone I've ever seen. Having someone like that around the set up has kicked me on in the last two years.
How confident are you that Notts can have a good season?
We have a stronger squad than we had last season, 100%. Jake Ball is back, Broady is going to be available at the start and the batters we have brought in, as well as Chris Nash back into the fold after his injury last year, it is exciting. It's going to be difficult for a few lads who don't get selected but that's the way it is when you're at a big club and you have a big squad like we have.
I'm still loving playing and there's just excitement now. We are doing everything we can to be ready for that game against Yorkshire at Trent Bridge.
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