Derbyshire is a county famous for the breathtaking beauty of the Peak District’s rugged escarpments and plunging valleys. Rather fittingly, the form of its cricket team has been been marked by similar undulations over the course of its history.
A team all too capable of intertwining triumph and disaster, no better was Derbyshire’s capacity for self-destruction illustrated than by the club’s calamitous home defeat at the hands of Worcestershire this week. After the visitors had posted an 415-9 declared in response to Derbyshire’s respectable 275, Billy Godleman’s side had to survive just two sessions on the final day to secure a comfortable draw. Instead, Derbyshire crumbled to 98 all out in under 30 overs as they contrived to suffer an innings defeat despite the game having lost more than 100 overs to rain.
The defeat against Worcestershire was an unwelcome reminder of the sort of performances the club are trying to leave behind with the implementation of more considered strategies across all facets of the organisation. Derbyshire is a club that is developing a vision, but change doesn’t happen overnight and the team – still winless in the Championship this season – looks set to endure more short-term pain in their quest for sustained improvement.
Times have been particularly tough for Derbyshire since their relegation from Division One in 2013. Despite a 2014 campaign that fleetingly promised a return to the top-flight, the team slumped to 8th the following year before enduring a truly wretched 2016 season. Suffering early elimination from both limited overs competitions and failing to produce a single Championship victory, Derbyshire’s alarming struggles prompted much soul-searching within the club over the winter.
One of the few positive outcomes from last season was the board’s commissioning of a report into the club’s playing resources and internal processes. Compiled by Kim Barnett, a former Derbyshire captain and one of the county’s all-time greats, the report recommended that money be directed away from full-time coaching staff (with freelance coaches taking their place) and more readily invested in improving the squad through recruitment.
To their credit, key figures at Derbyshire took Barnett’s advice on board and appointed him as director of cricket to oversee the restructuring of the club in line with the vision set out in his report. In combination with Ian Morgan, Derbyshire’s new chairman, Barnett has set about changing the club’s ethos and building a squad that takes responsibility for its performances and can compete despite the county’s limited financial power.
Constrained by a relative lack of resources, Barnett’s primary challenge has been to search for diamonds among the county game’s rejects and misfits to construct a coherent team. After trimming the fat from last season’s squad, Derbyshire have built around captain Godleman with a combination of academy graduates, county stalwarts and players released by other teams.
The rebuilding process began as early as October last year, with Luis Reece signing a two-year deal at the County Ground after being released by Lancashire. Named as the young player of the year at Old Trafford after a stellar 2013 season, Reece’s development had slowed but Derbyshire were willing to bet on his talent. Still just 26 years old, Reece had made a promising start at his new home, compiling 168 in the season opener against Northamptonshire and offering a threat with his left-arm seam bowling.
Other important signings include Hardus Viljoen on a Kolpak deal and Gary Wilson, the former Surrey batsman and current Ireland international. Experienced at the highest levels of cricket, Viljoen and Wilson have bolstered a team that is also enjoying more consistent performances from the likes of Matt Critchley, Alex Hughes and burgeoning allrounder Shiv Thakor.
Derbyshire have also managed to attract a strong calibre of overseas players, with Jeevan Mendis joining for the first half of the season before being replaced by Imran Tahir after the Champions Trophy. Smartly, Derbyshire’s recruitment of the two international leg-spinners has been designed to aid the development of 20-year-old academy product Critchley who – if he continues his rate of development – has an outside chance of becoming the first Derbyshire player to represent England since Dominic Cork. Strategically, Derbyshire is a county that knows where it wants to be and is doing everything it can to move in the right direction both on and off the field.
Results may not have changed all that much so far this season, but there have been encouraging signs of progress, particularly in the One-Day Cup. A club-record chase of 308 – including a brilliant 130 from Thakor – against Northamptonshire showed that Derbyshire side is capable of excellence with the bat, while a four-wicket win over holders Warwickshire (chasing 293) and narrow defeats to Lancashire and Yorkshire (while chasing 350) have been cause for optimism.
Although their best performance of the season so far came against Northamptonshire, it is arguably the Steelbacks above all others that Derbyshire should be looking to for inspiration. As one of the poorest of the 18 counties, Northants bottomed out in 2012 when they finished second bottom of Division Two, bottom in the One-Day Cup and won just one T20 fixture.
Since then the team has rebuilt itself as a specialist limited overs side, signing players that are unwanted by other counties but meet specific performance criteria that contribute towards limited overs success and help the club to maximise its potential in the competitions that provide the highest financial reward. Two T20 Blast titles and a runners-up spot are proof of the value of Northants’ combination of science and thrift and Derbyshire, beginning their own rebuilding project, would do well to mirror certain elements of it.
Derbyshire’s progress is likely to be slow and incremental over the coming seasons, but the team is undoubtedly putting processes in place that can lead to more stable performance levels in the future. Planning for sustainable success (relative to their own ambitions), Barnett is guiding Derbyshire in the right direction and constructing a squad that can leave the dark days behind and take the club to the next level.