Can any county, outside of the Test match grounds, realistically sustain a challenge on all fronts?
The answer, I think, is no, unless recruitment is so shrewd that you end up with a group of players who are comfortable across the formats. Northamptonshire, with a small staff, have shown it is possible, adapting to the needs of various competitions with remarkable ease and considerable entertainment value.
There was little wrong with Derbyshire's recruitment last winter, but the problem was getting them all on the pitch at the same time. We never saw Hardus Viljoen till the T20, but he looked a class act in the season's closing weeks. Imran Tahir bowled steadily in the T20, but played little four-day cricket. When he played, like Viljoen, he took wickets and if we could get him back they would form the focal point of a decent attack.
The issue was a lack of quality support. Tom Milnes looked a shadow of the bowler of twelve months before, Tom Taylor was inconsistent and Ben Cotton kept it tight in the one-day game but struggled to get people out in the longer form. Conor McKerr had a successful loan spell from Surrey, but they quickly recalled him and we simply couldn't bowl teams out. Jeevan Mendis did pretty well with his leg spin in an unhelpful first half of the summer, but struggled badly with the bat.
Apart from Viljoen, in limited appearances and Mendis, only Tony Palladino took over twenty wickets and there is an obvious need for strengthening in the winter. Conversely, while plenty of batsmen averaged over thirty, only Alex Hughes managed to (just) top forty. Therein lies the crux of the matter.
For Derbyshire to advance, two or three players need to have very good seasons. In 2017, for a variety of reasons, too many had only average ones, while an unhealthy number slipped to sub-standard.
Indeed, the only two players who you would say had good seasons across the formats were Luis Reece and Alex Hughes. Reece emerged from a bit-part role at Lancashire to become a dependable batsman who could bowl useful left-arm seam. Hughes was deservedly player of the season, blossoming in the four-day game and enterprising in the one-day formats. Both have big parts to play in the future.
I have long felt that a batting average in the thirties was that of a decent county cricketer, forty a good one and over fifty worthy of the accolade 'very good'. Too many were in the thirties this year, including Billy Godleman and Wayne Madsen, both far better than that and unlikely to accept such a decline from previous summers. Shiv Thakor also declined with bat and ball, before an enforced lay-off mid-season saw him miss the rest of it, to the detriment of the balance of the side.
I expect a return to erstwhile glories next year, but they need support, continued progress from others and shrewd new signings. Not too many though, because the nucleus is there. Matt Critchley made encouraging steps forward and Harvey Hosein confirmed his batting technique and improving glove work.
The club needs to sort the wicket-keeping issue, however. Daryn Smit was the best we have seen in many years with the gloves, but struggled with the bat. Hosein has the best batting technique and is improving with the gloves, while Gary Wilson is the most pugnacious batsman and a shrewd vice-captain, but less consistent behind the stumps. We need one of them to step up their 'other' game and make the place their own at seven, because a likely first-choice attack for 2018, at this stage, contains little likelihood of regular runs from lower than that.
Hamidullah Qadri emerged as a spinner of outstanding potential, but he is too young to place major expectations on his shoulders, while Will Davis showed he can get players out but needs to be fitter and available for selection more often. Ben Slater remains a batsman of great talent, but three centuries in over a hundred first-class knocks isn't a good enough conversion rate. Next year is a big one for him and for a few others too.
There was enough potential in the T20 displays and those at the end of the four-day season to be cautiously optimistic. Wayne Madsen had a wonderful T20 and was as good as anyone in the country, something he is capable of repeating when relieved of the burden of benefit events next year. If the club can lure back John Wright, they have the personnel to again make a good fist of that competition, with shrewd recruitment.
Matt Henry was a disappointment, but if we can find a player who can galvanise in the short form, an overseas seamer who can bat for early summer and a spinner for later in the year, we can expect further progress in 2018.
There are reasons for optimism, but much work to do and we need a share of luck that wasn't always there this year. We should not lose sight of the fact that we were only third bottom of the championship because two sides started with a points deficit. For all the brilliance of some T20 displays, there were too many four-day sessions where we collectively batted and bowled poorly. Meanwhile, in the RLODC, we played some good cricket at times and probably batted better than we did for much of the rest of the summer, yet in the end missed out on progressing further.
In conclusion: it was better, in quite a few ways, but has to improve in many more before we can predict anything more special than a few more enjoyable days in the sun.
What do you think?