Wakley Ensures The Justice, Of Hunger And Its Training, Northants Back From The Abyss > Cricket News, cricinfo, mobilecric, cricbuzz, livescore and more
Cricket news - Wakley assures honesty, hunger and drive to lead Northants back from the brink
"I honestly don't know if last year could have gone any worse."
Dramatic, perhaps, from Northamptonshire captain Alex Wakely - never one to indulge in histrionics. But pretty accurate when you look at how the club performed in 2018.
A season that started with the encouragement of an improved squad ended with a ninth-placed finish in the County Championship. The 50-over Royal London Cup went only slightly better - they were seventh out of nine. But the real killer was the T20 Blast. Despite winning the competition in 2013 and 2016, and a finalist in 2015, they failed to reach the knock-out stages and suffered the ignominy of finishing rock bottom of the North Group.
They had also lost two prized possessions before the summer was out. Dynamic opening batsman Ben Duckett - one of their own - left for Nottinghamshire. Then full-blooded quick Richard Gleeson - one of their diamonds in the rough - returned home to Lancashire. The former was understandable, the latter disappointing if somewhat inevitable.
At the end of the summer, after beating Sussex at home (just their second win of the red-ball season) the squad, minus the coaching staff, decided to properly have it out.
"There were a lot of harsh truths," Wakely tells Cricbuzz. "We just thrashed everything out. We are a tight group but there was a lot of honesty in the room." At times, things got heated, but everyone knew, deep down, comments and disputes came with good intentions.
"A lot of times you come out of a season as bad as ours and the captain and coaches go away and discuss what went wrong. But I'm a massive believer that if you want your team to buy into something, it has to come from the players. It never really works as a dictatorship."
At the end of this meeting, the players put together a one-page document of what each individual could do better. The document was later typed up and circulated to the team before each went on their respective off-season jaunts.
"To be honest, a lot of it was cliche," says Wakely. "But the sorts of cliches any team needs. You know - words like 'honesty'.
"Let's take that for example. 'Honesty' means so much. Every team meeting I've ever been in, someone says 'let's be honest'. But what does it actually do, being honest, when you're in a team environment? To us, it means being able to say to someone, 'come on - that's a shit shot. That's out of order. That's wank.' We were letting those things slip.
"We weren't being hard on ourselves. No one was being pushed out of their comfort zone. Everything was getting too easy. We were standing still while other teams around us were advancing. When push came to shove in those pressure moments, we just weren't good enough."
Among the areas to improve - heck, outlined as *the* area for improvement - was fitness. "If you looked at the physique of a lot of our players, that summed it up." Neutrals, you are right to bemoan the end of an era: so long to "big bellies, big sixes". We hardly knew you.
The tagline was forged in the guts of the Steelbacks' successful T20 run in 2016. Commentators, pundits and a heap of fans were amused at the general make-up of a side not given their dues for what are now mainstream short-form fundamentals, such as defined roles and low balls-per-boundary numbers. The players owned it, while not totally being enamoured with the tag. Ah well, it didn't matter - the silverware was in the cabinet.
Now, though, it seems things have gone too far. And just like all teams, including successful ones, a change of tact is needed.
"Like, that was all fun," remembers Wakely. "People were happy to write us off, poke fun at us. It gave us a bit of character and almost became a gimmick. But we were winning games, and when you're winning games you're always going to cover up the weaknesses.
"I think we noticed there were a few points last year where, through a combination of things, we couldn't stay in games for long enough. Whereas before we would know how to get out of tricky situations, last year, in particular, we found ourselves struggling to be clinical. It was like teams had cottoned onto us.
"The T20 performance was a shock. Winning became a habit for us when we were winning T20 trophies. We were almost doing it from muscle memory."
As part of said document, players have been given specific targets to hit with their physical preparedness for a long season. All have taken them onboard and, reporting back for pre-season, the majority, if not all, had made considerable strides.
Indeed, there is a sense at Wantage Road that players appreciate they need to step up. Not so much on the field, but off it. For the longest time, Wakely and head coach David Ripley took on more than their fair share. That's just the Northants way; neither moan about the extra workload as both are fully aware of the financial and administrative limitations at the club.
For example, Ripley still organises the team's travel arrangements. And, last season, when a security-mishap meant a Northants player was not allowed entry into the ground because he did not possess the right clearance, it was Wakely who had to sort it out. No skin off their noses, but a hassle nonetheless.
"I suppose the captain and coach at Surrey have other people to do those things. But deep down, you do love it. Maybe there have been situations in the last few years where we've had too much on our plates to focus fully on the playing cricket part of our respective jobs. But I wouldn't do it if I didn't believe in this club."
The appointment of batsmen Rob Newton and Josh Cobb as vice-captains will help lighten Wakely's load. And while specialist coaches are beyond the budget, Wakely has been getting creative.
While Ripley still does the majority of the coaching, Wakely leans on ex-players such as former skipper Stephen Peters and bowler Lee Daggett, who played 49 First Class matches for the county before retiring in 2013 to become a physiotherapist at local premiership rugby club, Northampton Saints. It was this latter connection the club cashed in, with Daggett helping to organise a pre-season training session at the club for Northants.But don't be fooled, though. Northants aren't just here to play.Indeed, they might have pulled off the coup of the summer in getting Jason Holder for the first throes of the season. The West Indies captain, pound-for-pound the best all-rounder on the planet, is available for the first two Championship games of the season, as well as the 50-over matches that see out April, before he joins up with West Indies' World Cup squad. They also, nearly, nailed the coup of the century so far. "We were so, so close to nabbing AB de Villiers," reveals Wakely.
Wakely and Ripley were given the green light to think big when it came to overseas signing. Their board assured them that if the right player was found, so would the money. A bowling all-rounder was a priority, hence Holder. Mitchell Marsh was also sounded out, and for the T20 Blast, they thought, why not?
Talks with de Villiers were promising with an attractive pay packet on the table but, ultimately, he chose Middlesex. Wakely holds no grudge: "Lord's over Wantage Road? Fair enough." But never mind, the club know what a decent get Holder is at the very peak of his considerable powers. "Oh it was great for us," starts Wakely. "Rips and I sat down and, looking at the numbers last year, Holder was the best all-rounder in the world." It's not wrong: Holder averaged 37.33 with the bat and 12.39 with the ball in Test cricket.
"As weird as it sounds though, no one had really heard of him. As in, no one was really looking at him. When we decided on Holder, Rips put in the call and spoke to his agent. Probably about a month before the England series. Jason told us he'd love to come. The deal basically got done - signed off and everything - just before the Test when he scored a double hundred." He finished the Test series with an average of 114.50 and 17.85 the right away around. "We were laughing. We couldn't believe our luck! We'd have had no chance if we moved later."
Holder made a note of getting Wakely's number and calling him up to say thank you for the opportunity. There are limitations on his workload (about 25 overs per First Class game) but nothing that Wakely is worried about. And the West Indies captain is raring to get going.
Those on the fringes have been challenged to make themselves first-teamers. Saif Zaib (20 years old), a promising all-rounder Wakely holds particular high hopes for, has gone away for the winter and returned as the fittest in the squad. Ricardo Vasconcelos (21), the South African keeper-batsman signed last summer, is another who is touted for big things. "He's classy," says Wakely, "a bit like Duckett. He'll play some shots and sometimes he'll get out. But when he gets in, he'll punish teams. Glorious cover drive, too."
Ben Curran (22) is another, having come onto the staff full-time last year after stints with the MCC Young Cricketers and Northants 2nd XI. "You can tell he's a Curran: he's got a lot of spunk about him. As a set of brothers, they're not the type to shirk a challenge. He's no different. Knows how to bat long. I'm a big fan." The acquisition of Nottinghamshire's Luke Wood (23), a quality left-arm seamer, for the first two Championship fixtures against Middlesex and Glamorgan, is both a vibrant cricketer and a shrewd purchase, albeit on loan.
Cards on the table: Cricbuzz entered this chat knowing it was going to have to ask an awkward question. Does Alex Wakely still have the hunger and drive to lead Northants back from the brink - again? It was after a dire 2012 summer in which they won only four of 38 matches across all formats that the renaissance began. His enthusiasm gives a clear enough answer. But just in case:
"Oh, 100-per-cent. I still love this club. I still believe I can turn this team around and get us back to where we need to be.
"We had a stinker of a year before we won the T20 for the first time. And just like that, we feel we're doing much of the same. We feel like we're starting from the bottom. We've stripped it back to the bare bones and starting again. We're ready."
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