In an important development for an age when so many cricketers are getting too highly stressed – Jonathan Trott, Mike Yardy and Tim Ambrose among England players alone – Northamptonshire are shifting the emphasis from physical to mental health, and winning.
Northants won the T20 competition last summer in spite of being nine for three in the final against Durham. It took a masterclass by Surrey’s Kumar Sangakkara to knock them out of the 50-over quarter-finals by one wicket.
In the Championship they have won their opening match for the first time since 1995, demolishing Glamorgan in two days, and if they beat Derbyshire starting on Thursday that will be their fifth Championship win a row: so much for being white-ball specialists.
And all this is being done by the smallest staff on the county circuit, with only 17 players, one of whom – Ben Duckett – will be needed by England. Smallest, yet in another sense the biggest. Wantage Road is home to some of the largest physiques in county cricket, or what their head coach David Ripley refers to as 'chubsters' - "it’s a word for the more rounded player," he laughs.
And so what, provided they perform? Better than players obsessed about bleep-tests, tormented with anxiety, and losing.
“We can’t shake off that Big Lads tag but we feel there are more important things than physical fitness in the dressing-room, especially county cricket,” Ripley said. “I understand international cricket [is different].
“We’re all thrown together for six months and it’s pretty tough. The more important things are what people provide, what competitive element they bring, what skill they bring, what grounding they bring.
“But what I would say is we’ve also got some very good athletes. We’re not all big chubsters. Some of the catches we took last year on T20 finals day – Steve Crook and Rob Keogh, and Josh Cobb took a brilliant catch, and Graeme White is a very fine athlete and fielder. We do have some – it’s a nice mixture.
“I wish we weren’t quite so old-school sometimes but the majority of the time I’m quite proud we’re old-school.”
When Ripley was a player himself – keeping wicket for Northamptonshire’s most successful side before the current one – the tone was set by Allan Lamb and Nick Cook, neither of whom had the motto of early-to-bed and early-to-rise. “We wouldn’t dream of having a curfew for our players,” said Ripley.
Northants’ supporters can be included in the socialising, especially at away games. “We invite opposition players to a drink in the pub on the third day [of a championship game] because we felt there weren’t enough [Northants] players talking enough about cricket. Any player of my generation, I haven’t met one yet who hasn’t said they learned a lot in the pub by listening to some of the great players. You don’t have to have a whisky or a pint, it could be an orange juice.”
As Ripley adds, wisely: “We like a laugh and a drink, but at the end of the day it is our job.”
Nobody is larger than life in the Northamptonshire dressing-room than their oversize overseas player Rory Kleinvfeldt, who has grown into a major figure as well as an inspiring all-rounder in all formats of the game.
“We love him to bits at Northants,” Ripley said. “He’s a real driving force with that competitive edge.”
Kleinveldt was brought in as the overseas player largely on the recommendation of Nigel Felton, the opening batsman of the Lamb-Cook era and now on the committee: their fathers had been players, and printers, in pre-apartheid Cape Town. Kleinveldt was initially a wicketkeeper at Plumstead High School, which South African Test players Paul Adams and JP Duminy also attended, before becoming a pace bowler at 14 and learning the “tricks of the trade” from the Barbadian coach Emmerson Trotman.
After four Tests as a seamer for South Africa, Kleinveldt has developed into a serious hitter, thanks to increasing confidence, hours spent on the bowling machine - and that enormously powerful physique. Last season he hit 128 off only 63 balls in a 50-over game against Notts. Last week he hit 86 off 58 balls to pulverise Glamorgan by an innings: “It wasn’t the easiest wicket and it needed a bit of a counterattack,” Kleinveldt said with understatement.
“It’s quite gruelling and taxing because the squad is nowhere near what we have at Cape Cobras, so it’s a struggle to get through the season with the small squad we have, but hopefully we can push for promotion in the championship. We come across as a team that enjoy themselves on and off the field but we are really competitive. We sold ourselves short in the past [in the championship] and want to put that right in future. Me, I’ve got to do well every year [because Kleinveldt has a year-by-year contract]. It’s easy to sign a three-year deal and fall into a comfort zone.”
Kleinveldt gives the credit to Ripley for making Northants a happy county.
“We’re a group of 17 who get on well with each other. It’s a long season so there’s going to be a mishap now and then, and we’ve had a few issues but Rips gets hold of whoever it is and nips it in the bud.” This depends on the captain Alex Wakely, who is in the dressing-room, working with Ripley, who is not.
“Everyone’s relaxed,” Kleinveldt added. “There is a little bit of stress but that happens if you want to push for high honours, and there’s some good banter in the dressing room. There’s always someone trying to pull a prank, and I’d say David Murphy [wicketkeeper] is one of the clumsiest people I’ve met, and he cops a bit of abuse but he quite enjoys it.”
As scrutiny and stress seem to increase in most walks of life, it is an important message: be happy in your own skin, whatever its size.