In August 2013, the Steelbacks claimed the club’s first piece of major silverware for 21 years when they won the Friends Life T20 at Edgbaston, seeing off Essex Eagles in the semis and then Surrey in the final.
Northampton Chronicle and Echo sports editor Jeremy Casey spoke with Alex Wakely, the Steelbacks skipper on the day, and in this first instalment he takes us through the build up to Finals Day and that semi-final win against Essex.
It was a long time coming…
Not since the NatWest Trophy Final win over Leicestershire in 1992 had Northants lifted a major piece of silverware.
When Allan Lamb grabbed that prize at Lord’s, Alex Wakely was just three-years-old, but at Edgbaston in 2013, he was to be the next County captain to get his hands on a pot.
The Steelbacks were a good T20 side, and reached Finals Day after topping their group and then easing past Durham in the quarter-final at the County Ground.
They had a powerful batting line-up, led by Aussie Cameron White and South African Richard Levi, with the likes of Wakely, Kyle Coetzer, Steven Crook, David Willey and Ben Duckett backing them up.
The bowling attack of Mohammed Azharullah, Crook, Lee Daggett, James Middlebrook and Willey made up a formidable unit.
But they were still underdogs as they headed to Birmingham for that semi-final showdown with Essex.
JC: Ahead of Finals Day, the team had a great campaign and the players must have taken a lot of confidence from topping the group, and then going on to beat Durham in the quarter-finals?
AW: “We had a massive reshuffle in the winter leading up to the season and there was a big prioritisation of white ball cricket by the club.
“We thought we would turn the corner because everybody had put in such a lot of hard work, but I have to be totally honest, we never expected to do what we did, and never expected things to work as well as they did.
“We didn’t even expect to top the group, we just wanted improvement in our white ball game, that was the target.
“But this is when I learned about momentum in the T20 competition, because in the group stages we won one game, then we won two, and suddenly it was ‘hang on a minute, we are alright here’, and it just got better and better.
“I think we kind of had the perfect team.
“We didn’t have the big superstars, we did have Cameron White, but it wasn’t like your A-list, icon player, and we went under the radar. Nobody saw Northants as a threat, and that played into our hands as the momentum got going and we kept winning games.”
JC: You say nobody saw Northants as a threat, did that annoy you and the team going into Finals Day? Did you use it as a motivation?
AW: “It didn’t annoy us at all, but we definitely used it as a motivation.
“We spoke about it as a group, but it was all new to us anyway, as not many of us had been to Finals Day before.
“I had been to one a few years before, but not many of the squad had been involved in big days like that, so we were enjoying it and were there for a good day out – but deep down we thought ‘we have got a chance here’.”
JC: Yourself and David Willey were the only players involved in the club’s previous Finals Day appearance in 2009 when Steelbacks lost in the semis. Was that an advantage or hindrance?
AW: “I remember that first time at Finals Day, and my eyes were on stalks! It was the biggest crowd I had played in front of, and the day almost got the better of me.
“The second time, I remember Cameron (White) saying ‘just enjoy the day lads’. He said: “Look around and soak it up, these are the days that cricket is all about”.
“We had some old heads, we had people like James Middlebrook and Cameron, who, when the youngsters were getting a little bit silly and showing off, they would just sit there grumpy in the corner, but they were very level-headed.”
JC: When you arrived at Edgbaston for the big day, Steelbacks were on first against Essex Eagles. Do you think that was a help? Getting straight into the action…
AW: “I think that it was the case that back then, nobody had won the tournament from playing in the first game on Finals Day, and we used that as a tool. Whether playing first was a help or not, I don’t know.
“It probably was from the fact that you wake up in the morning and don’t have to wait all day with the nerves, you can just go out and play.
“But vice-versa, the atmosphere is definitely better for the second game!
“As a player on Finals Day you want to play in that second game, purely because everybody is a bit lubricated!”
JC: Essex batted first in the semi-final, and crucially you got on top of them early…
AW: “We came out of the blocks firing, we were buzzing in the field and got early wickets, but then I dropped a catch at mid-off, and it could have been a turning point.
“I was thinking ‘I am captain here, I have 25,000 people looking at me’, but we managed to managed to wrestle it back, and Kyle Coetzer got Ravi Bopara out.
“I don’t think Kyle had bowled an over in the whole tournament, and it was just one of those things. Him and me were chatting, and I said ‘go on then’, and it worked!
“That summed up our year, and summed up the whole thing for us, it was like a fairy-tale and things were meant to be.”
JC: Essex went on to make 168 for five thanks to a late blast from Graham Napier, recovering from 114 for five, and although the reply started well and Steelbacks were 74 for nought – it took a special innings from an until then unsung hero that was the key…
AW: “It was Steven Crook, and his innings that won that semi-final. It was one of the best innings I have seen, but it is so under-rated and I have never really seen it spoken about (Crook hit 46 not out from just 24 balls).
“I think Crooky single-handedly won us that match, because when I got out (with the score at 93 for three in the 13th over) we were behind the game big time.
“We had gone through the tournament, really only using four or five batsmen, that was how consistent we had been, and then suddenly we found ourselves three down, and Crooky hadn’t batted that often for long periods of time.
“He came in and won the game, hitting Shaun Tait for one of the biggest sixes I have ever seen over long-on.
“I remember sitting in the dugout thinking, ‘we are going to do this now’. The emotion had gone from ‘oh no, we’ve messed this up’ , to euphoria just round the corner.
“That was all down to Crooky.”
JC: It shows how finely balanced T20 cricket can be, and there were a couple of stages where that game could have gone the other way…
AW: “For me, in a T20 game you usually have two critical moments, and usually you have to win them both to win the game.
“But things in that game went our way, we had Kyle bowling that one over and getting a wicket, I dropped a catch from a key man, but then he didn’t last that long, and then when Crooky came in I think he might have played and just nicked his first ball.
“He wasn’t dropped, but it was a touch and go moment and they are the small margins in games that make a big difference.”
JC: That’s the thing about T20 cricket isn’t it? Players come in and take on those big shots, and when they come off it is great. But when they don’t, they can look the villain…
AW: “In T20 you have to give people the backing to try and execute shots, and if you are trying to hit a six, you know that there is a chance you may slice the ball straight up in the air, it can be caught at mid-off and you look an idiot.
“But that is the game.
“What we had done in that winter leading up to the 2013 season was practise more Twenty20 skills than we had ever done before, so there was a genuine confident and belief that everybody trusted each other to get on with their role.
“I have played in various teams, there that hasn’t been the case, and somebody gets out in a way where you have not seen them practise that shot, you’ve not seen them do it before, and the confidence isn’t there.
“Whereas in this team in 2013, everybody trusted everybody else and everybody knew their roles.
“That is why it is one of the best teams I have ever played in.”
JC: David Ripley must have had a lot to do with all that preparation in the winter months?
AW: “Rips was instrumental in it, and we had a chance at the club because we basically had a blank canvas
“So Rips drew up his plan of how he wanted it to work, and the rest is history.
“I would think that Rips’ T20 record has to be up there with any coach in the domestic game, and he has just got better and better.
“I do remember at the time though that he didn’t like and wasn’t comfortable with all the classroom stuff, and sitting down and looking at things. He is much more of a get on and get going type of character, and I am as well.
“David Willey was much the same, he hates sitting down in a room, but the three of us got together and said we have to get more specific on things, we have to talk through roles, and that winter was where it all started for us.”
FRIENDS LIFE T20 FINALS DAY
August 17, 2013, Edgbaston, Birmingham
ESSEX EAGLES v NORTHANTS STEELBACKS
Essex Eagles: 168-5 in 20 overs (Napier 38no, Rutherford 36, Foster 32no; Azharullah 2-38)
Northants Steelbacks: 171-3 from 18.1 overs (Levi 57, Crook 46no, White 36no; Topley 2-24).
Northants Steelbacks won by seven wickets
Man of the Match: Steve Crook