As we all tick off another winter weekend, I am sure that many of you, like me, are looking forward to next week. Because then, after all the rain, cold and wind, all the dark nights and sometimes darker mornings, we can say, probably with smiles on our faces, that the cricket starts 'next month'.
It has been a good couple of weeks for the Derbyshire fan. First the signing of Mitchell Santner, for the T20 and second half of the summer, followed by the announcement of South African seamer Duanne Olivier for the first half, including the Royal London One-Day Cup.
I've a comment on the former if you bear with me, but first, Olivier, who took 2-37 against Australia for South Africa 'A' yesterday.
I have been a little surprised at the press pieces on him from the club, which refer to him as 'fierce, quick' and 'able to take wickets with raw pace'. I have seen such pieces on the web and they refer, I think, to his earlier days when he first came onto the scene, but they give a false impression, for those who haven't seen much of him, of our new bowler.
He doesn't LOOK fast. Like all the best of his kind, he will have a quicker ball, just as he has plenty of other variants, and his bouncer is lively enough to stop a batsman dropping onto the front foot with impunity. Yet those press pieces suggest that we are getting someone of similar pace to Hardus Viljoen, and he is not. I have also spoken to a couple of South African friends, who have both seen him and occasionally played against him, and their assertion is that he is fast medium. And 'a real handful, when he gets his rhythm right'.
My own thoughts, for what it is worth, is that he will be north of Tony Palladino and Ravi Rampaul in pace, while considerably south of Hardus Viljoen and Will Davis. The bottom line is that we have signed a very fine bowler who will enjoy our early season wickets, but don't expect to see him blast sides out in the manner of a Michael Holding. You can expect a bowler who is fit enough to maintain decent speed for long spells, however, which in itself is a pretty fine virtue. If you think Charl Langeveldt, rather than Nantie 'Wayward' Hayward, you won't be too far away.
Which brings me to my second point. Who do I expect to take the new ball, with such a galaxy of talent available?
While there is a school of thought that gives the cherry to the two quickest bowlers, for me we go with Viljoen and Olivier. There will be opportunities for Davis to do so, and I would like to think that like many young bowlers of the past he will benefit from coming on after the bigger names. Just as the young Harold Rhodes did, when first change for Gladwin and Jackson, or Paul Newman and Dominic Cork did when coming on after any combo of Holding, Malcolm, Mortensen and Bishop.
He will also learn, I hope, the importance of really using the new ball. Ones that zip through to the keeper, wide outside off stump, or go well over a batsman's head when pitched short are, to quote Cliff Gladwin 'a bloody waste of a new ball'. I would be surprised if we saw much of that this year, given the quality of the attack.
I also think this signing will benefit Ravi Rampaul, a very skilled bowler who could now slip under the radar. He will be quite happy to bowl first change, but after a winter of rest he will arrive in Derby as not the most high-profile member of the attack. There's the new overseas, the strapping, fast Kolpak, the young tearaway quick...and Rampaul. But discount him at your peril, because he will take wickets and be a key bowler.
There have been points made this week about our batting perhaps being light of one top player, but for me it is simple. Crucially, compared to last year, our attack looks capable of twenty wickets. Again using a 1950s analogy, as long as the batting gets enough runs for the bowlers to go to work, they will have done their job. You can't always make 400, but if you can graft to 250 on bowler-friendly pitches and then support the bowlers in the field, it is job done.
I expect both Wayne Madsen and Billy Godleman to be around the thousand mark this summer, as they usually are. I also see Alex Hughes and Matt Critchley building on their positive strides of 2017, while Luis Reece will do the same. It is a big summer for Ben Slater, who needs to turn more of his four-day knocks from fancy forties to solid centuries, while Gary Wilson needs to confirm he can consistently offer more than game-changing one-day cameos. For me, they fight for the sixth batting place in the championship, unless we go with only three seamers.
A word then about the wicket-keeping role and its importance. Batting at seven, either Daryn Smit or Harvey Hosein need to score more runs than last year, but also nurse a lengthy-looking tail.
I expect Smit to start the summer, at least, and to do much better with the bat than last year. He barely had a pre-season, when he was signed late, and spent the opening weeks recovering from shoulder surgery, but I think we will see him at his best this summer. A winter of work against the Dukes ball will serve him well and we all know how good he is behind the stumps.
Harvey will need to push him hard, score heavily in the seconds and make himself a strong option, even as a batting specialist. If he can combine his illustrated ability to stay in with a greater one of scoring more runs as he does so, his chance will come. Like most of you, I'm less than convinced of many runs from 8 to 11, but they have other fields to conquer and a keeper who can farm the strike and keep the score ticking over will be worth his weight in gold.
Which brings me back to my point on Mitchell Santner, before I close. In the week, Kim Barnett said that New Zealand cricket wanted to see him in the top six of the order and that Billy Godleman was happy to give him that opportunity. Mark Neve asked what people thought of that, so I am happy to reply.
Yes, give him the chance. Sometimes deals are dependent on specific things and if this was a 'breaker' in Santner playing here, then the opportunity should be given. Yet like all opportunities in life, it has to be taken. If he is batting six, it would drop Matt Critchley to seven, with the 'keeper at eight. It offers depth and greater solidity, but Santner will need to show himself as being capable of playing a long innings. That he can bat is undeniable, but he needs to produce the statistics to back up that assertion and turn a mid-twenties average into something north of thirty.
At this stage, all things considered, you can put me down as a 'cautiously optimistic' about the season's prospects.
Just as long as key personnel spend more time on the pitch than Fran Clarkson's physio table, we'll be a threat.