2017 marks my fiftieth summer of supporting Derbyshire.
In that time I have seen very good and distinctly average sides, enjoyed some wonderfully entertaining days and suffered plenty that were hard work from start to finish.
When I walked away from the 3aaa County Ground for the last time last summer, as the shadows lengthened over the outfield and the ground staff busied away after another ultimately disappointing day, I knew that things had to change over the winter.
For all that we had some good players on the staff - by definition, if playing at that level - we had too many whose maturity appeared to be some time off and who seemed, at times, to be overawed by their opposition. When sides were chirping away at us in the field, we seemed to be too nice; when the going got tough, the tough opposition got going and we were too often in their slipstream. Not, I think, through a lack of talent, though there were those whose technical failings became evident as the summer wore on, but through experience and that all-important thing called mental toughness.
A lot of very good players have fallen at the county cricket hurdle because of that and it would appear to be something that Kim Barnett, returned to the fold as Director of Cricket, has picked up on very quickly.
Reinforcements have come in, men of proven quality and reputation. International stars, such as Imran Tahir and Jeevan Mendis share the overseas role, suggesting that home wickets should not be overly blessed with moisture content. Both are men of proven reputation to bowl sides out and win matches. Few teams will fancy chasing much over 200 against us on the final day this summer, but Barnett's preparation has been thorough and has also catered for sides who win the toss and opt to bat first to avoid that.
Last summer's seam attack was overly reliant on the willing Tony Palladino, with able, occasional support from Tom Milnes and Will Davis. With Tom Taylor hors de combat for most of the summer and Ben Cotton not yet able to dismiss as well as he contains, too many batsmen came to Derby, saw off the new ball and then drank at the well.
They shouldn't do that this year. Hardus Viljoen arrives from South Africa with a reputation for serious pace and for topping and tailing innings, bowling 90mph from a physique worthy of the moniker 'Man Mountain'. We missed Mark Footitt last year, but have someone every bit as quick and very hostile. With a young apprentice in Will Davis, we will have our fastest opening attack in years.
With Palladino taking on a coaching remit in his new deal, he may play less than previous summers and I expect he and Milnes to rotate as the third seamer, each providing handy lower-order ballast with the bat. The others will need to wait their turn, take wickets when opportunity presents itself and make competition the buzz word of the summer.
The batting? Several players had their career-best averages last summer, though too many feasted on favourable early season tracks where groundsmen were wary of the new toss regulations, then tailed off in later season.
Gary Wilson has been recruited from Surrey, a dependable bat and glove man, as well as a player with captaincy and international experience. Meanwhile Daryn Smit has signed a two-year deal on an ancestral visa and should bring his considerable experience to bear in a middle order that proved fallible too often last year. With the talented Luis Reece also in to add competition for places, there is a solidity to the batting line up, on paper at least, that we have not had for a long time. With the admirable Madsen in the middle order and captain Billy Godleman and the improving Ben Slater 'up top', we should not want for runs.
The wicket-keeping is in very safe hands, with Wilson competing with the hugely talented Harvey Hosein for the number one role. With Smit as a third option, the club is well-covered in all aspects of the game.
Key Players? The new ones, who need to make the difference that they suggest they will, but also Shiv Thakor. He looked a class act with bat and ball last year, but the move to number three in the order will test him further. Whether it restricts his bowling role time will tell, but he has an opportunity here. The good thing is that, should he not take it, there are plenty of options awaiting theirs. Look out for Tom Wood, a batsman of real talent and don't discount Alex Hughes, a gritty cricketer who I still expect to make the grade.
Prospects? It would be a little gung-ho to say we will storm the division, but if everyone ups their game from last year by even 5% and the new arrivals live up to their career statistics, we should push everyone and be in the mix. If key players stay fit we should score runs and no one will want to face Viljoen on a green top or Tahir on the last afternoon.
Nottinghamshire will start favourites, of course, but a first choice Derbyshire eleven need fear no one. If we get our share of luck with the weather and injuries. hold our catches and play anything close to potential, a promotion challenge is a possibility.
Whatever, it promises to be a summer of special cricket and golden memories.