Whilst some may point to this season’s disappointing results down to a lack of quality within the squad, for me, as the 2016 season has progressed, the one factor which has been increasingly obvious is just how unsustainably small the squad is. Not only has it been shown to be far too small to mount a title challenge, it has also been too light on numbers to keep the threat of relegation at bay. Let’s have a look at the facts.
Up until the recent match against Hampshire, Nottinghamshire have used a total of 18 players in the County Championship this season. Three of these have been overseas players. When you additionally factor in that Broad and Hales have been England regulars, and that young Matt Carter is not, rightly or wrongly, considered for selection for most matches (just two appearances this season), then you are left with a situation where, in effect, 12 players have been competing for the remaining 10 places open to domestic players. This is even before the Test selection of Ball, and the injuries to Hutton and Read are added into the equation (and let’s be clear about one thing-Nottinghamshire has been very fortunate to escape with such a relatively light casualty count this year). These circumstances would be challenging enough even for a squad consisting of proven, high quality, county performers. Of course we have seen this season that the squad is actually the antithesis of this description, lacking as it is, both the required ability and mentality in crucial areas. It is true that you could add in Luke Wood to the squad outlined above, however the management had decided not to select him until this point at least, whether that be for reasons of injury or preference.
Whilst on the subject of young players, it does seem that there is an inherent conservativeness in selection policy at work here. The management have always shown a preference for experience over youth over the past decade, however as criticism of the Director of Cricket has mounted, so it appears that he has withdrawn into his shell even more and has decided to stick with what he knows. Under more enlightened leadership, the injury to Chris Read , for example, would have provided the ideal opportunity for either Tom Moores or Tom Keast to play in the T20 Blast. Instead the gloves were taken by a combination of Brendan Taylor and Riki Wessels. Wessels is a reasonable wicketkeeper, but deprives the team of one of their two best fielders. Taylor’s wicketkeeping ? Well, let’s just say that it’s best not viewed by small children on a dark night…
As a comparison, I’ve looked at the number of players selected by the nine Division One teams in the County Championship this season. I’ve excluded overseas players from the totals, and also included the number of players who have played two, or fewer County Championship matches, largely because they can be considered ‘fringe’ players, in brackets. What it reveals is that only Somerset (no England players) and Middlesex (1 England player) have a first team squad as small as this.
Durham 20 (3 played 2, or fewer, matches)
Hampshire 18 (2)
Lancashire 18 (4)
Middlesex 15 (1)
Nottinghamshire 15 (1)
Somerset 15 (1)
Surrey 17 (0)
Warwickshire 16 (2)
Yorkshire 18 (3)
It’s against this background that various player acquisitions have been mooted for 2017, however the optimism that a proven batsman, or two, to fill in the gaps at the top of the order would be acquired, has quickly dissipated. The club initially confirmed that they had made an approach for Warwickshire’s Varun Chopra who was known to be leaving Edgbaston at the end of the 2016 season, before suddenly dropping out of the running without explanation. Clarification was soon at hand, when it was announced that Chopra preferred a return to his cricketing alma mater of Essex than a move to the East Midlands. Durham’s Mark Stoneman was also one who piqued the interest of many a county, and became available due to a combination of personal ambition and the financial problems at his current county. As it happens, I believe that in Stoneman’s case, it was the desire to achieve England recognition which was the predominant driver of his move. The fact that it was Surrey who has secured his services should not come as a surprise. Recent changes passed by the ECB allow Surrey and Middlesex to have a greater salary cap than that of the remaining 16 counties, which of course gives them extra bargaining power in the competition for player acquisition (just don’t get me started on the iniquity of this…). It should also be no surprise that Surrey have also reportedly approached Durham about Scott Borthwick, another rumoured target for Nottinghamshire.
Personally, I would have welcomed any of these players to Nottinghamshire, with the proviso that opportunities should not be denied to the promising players who we have. I believe, for example, that Jake Libby may have what is required to succeed as an opening batsman, however he needs to be given the opportunities in the first team to develop.
The fourth name linked with Nottinghamshire, but less heavily, is the Surrey batsman Steven Davies. A fine player, no doubt, however the fly in that particular ointment is that the motive for his imminent departure is a desire to take up the gloves again. Of course Trent Bridge is not exactly lacking in options in the wicketkeeping department, so it is hard to envisage Davies taking up that role in the short term. In the longer term of course, there may be implications for the two young keepers at the club-Toms Keast and Moores-if the Davies move were to happen. Already there are undercurrents that one or the other may be getting itchy feet because of a lack of opportunities. The signing of Davies would surely send negative signals to the two young men and hasten the departure of at least one of them. It is, however, more likely that Davies ends up elsewhere. Somerset is mooted as the most likely destination.
Of course there are those of a lower profile who may be available. Warwickshire’s Laurie Evans is one example. What added value, however, would a 28 year old with a first class average of under 35, bring to Nottinghamshire? The same goes for Phil Mustard. A more interesting, and adventurous choice would be Nitish Kumar, the 22 year old Loughborough University batsman and offspinner. Kumar, a Canadian international, is chasing a county contract after recently being acquired by the St.Lucia Zouks for this year’s CPL. Sure, his acquisition would be more of a gamble, but the potential rewards may be greater in the long term. Gambling, however, is not in this Director of Cricket’s modus operandi.
The cricket media has also written plenty of the possible departure of Alex Hales, so I don’t propose to add too much, other than to say that it is rather mystifying why he would consider leaving at this stage in his career. After all, he will almost certainly receive a central contract from the ECB, so he wouldn’t be paid by Nottinghamshire in 2017 anyway. Money, therefore, can’t be an issue. He’s also playing at The Home of Cricket (copyright Graeme Swann), so facilities and environment should not come into it either. Of course, he insists that he wants to remain at Trent Bridge, which is to be welcomed. However, there are obviously other issues involved, perhaps his previously stated desire to play in the IPL. We’ll just have to wait and see.
The Director of Cricket has also stated that decisions will be made soon on the futures of Greg Smith and Sam Wood. I don’t feel in appropriate to discuss too much the employment situations of these two players, neither of whom, irrespective of ones opinions of their ability, could be accused of lack of effort or commitment. It’s not enjoyable to ruminate on the possibility of anyone being out of a job. Rumours abound that the Elstone-Carter career path may be followed by at least one of the pair however (incidentally, it is an indictment of the management that five years after his debut, no-one is really any the wiser as to whether Sam Wood has what it takes to make it as a cricketer)
A recent interview on the BBC’s ‘Stumped’ podcast with new Zimbabwe coach Makhaya Ntini also suggested that Brendan Taylor may be one of several former Chevrons (no, I didn’t realise they were called that either) who he wanted to entice to return to international cricket. I don’t envisage this happening. The state of the finances of Zimbabwe cricket, and the low standard of play, do not make this likely. The neighbours and local police also take a dimmer view of their cars being commandeered for the purposes of sleep, I understand…