The 2011 season was one of encouraging progress - on and off the field - for Derbyshire County Cricket Club. It is perhaps natural to expect, especially if you are a dyed in the wool, fully paid up member of the county negativity squad, that this summer will see a step backwards. That has, after all, been par for the course over the past thirty years.
As the antithesis of the negative faction, I suppose it is natural for me to expect this season to be one of continued progress, but when I say that, it is not without genuine justification. For the first time in many years, Derbyshire seem to have the right team together both on and off the pitch.
Off it, Karl Krikken is a top qualified coach who has the additional benefit of being a good man-manager who has worked with many of the squad since they were young boys. He knows what they can do and they trust him to a man. Such reciprocal trust is important and ensures a good spirit in the camp. Krikken has also recruited his coaching staff well, with local heroes AJ Harris and Kevin Dean working with the bowlers and David Houghton returning to do the same with the county batsmen. All are good men, but the international reputation of Houghton as a batting coach par excellence augurs well for a young batting collective that in quantity is among the best in our long history. Redfern, Borrington, Whiteley, Hughes, Lineker, Siddique and Slater are all players of genuine talent and if Houghton can help all to realise their talent the future is less rosy than vibrant red...
On the field, those young batsmen above, with the added expertise of Wayne Madsen and Wes Durston have the ability to post good scores in the long game, scored at a rate that allows the bowlers time to do their work. The first choice batting line-up is one that will occupy the thoughts of Karl Krikken and fans will all have their opinion. They shouldn't lack for runs, though, especially with a middle/lower order that includes Clare, Wainwright and Poynton.
Realistically, we need at least two of the young players to enjoy rewarding campaigns. Whiteley will be better known this summer, but has the raw talent to overcome second season syndrome, a sound technique coupled with brutal power once set. Redfern looks a player of the highest class at the crease and a first century will surely open the floodgates for a highly talented young man. Hughes had his travails against spin last year, but remains a remarkable young talent who will enjoy a long career. Borrington and Lineker need to translate prolific league form to the county game but showed enough in limited opportunities last year to suggest they can make it.
We shouldn't leave the batting without mentioning two excellent overseas signings. Martin Guptill and Usman Khawaja should be capable of 1300-1500 runs between them and with Durston and Madsen capable of reaching four figures I have few concerns over a batting line up with plenty of options.
The switch from the Tiflex ball may or may not affect the penetrative abilities of our seam attack, but I would back ours against any in the division given comparable conditions. With seam, swing and pace among them there should be something for most wickets, while as I pointed out the other night we have more spin resources than for some time. We won't see too much of young tyros Knight and Burgoyne this summer, but fans will watch their international exploits with considerable interest; both have major parts to play in the county's future fortunes and have glittering careers ahead of them.
Mark Footitt's pre-season form is encouraging and few sides will fancy facing him or Mark Turner as the wickets dry out from June onwards. Tony Palladino and Tim Groenewald will always get wickets and Jon Clare is potentially an international all-rounder if he stays fit. Ally Evans is another who appears to have the knack of wickets, even from bad balls.
There are question marks. Can Madsen sustain his batting form with the cares of captaincy? Can Tom Poynton maintain his high standard through a long season? Can Wainwright prove to be the spinner we have lacked since Robin Peterson's departure? I think that the answer to all three is "yes" and a strong season is in store.
IF the wickets are right - in other words, produce results - we get our breaks with the weather and injuries and hold our catches I think Derbyshire are capable of a top three championship placing. With a strong team ethic and a competitive spirit we have a lot going for us.
A good start would be handy, but I can genuinely see a promotion challenge in four-day cricket. A happy squad playing aggressive cricket could shock a few people this summer.
As for the opposition - that's for another day...