By Stuart Foster
A new wave of optimism swept into Trent Bridge when Clive Rice arrived to rubber stamp his return as Cricket Manager…but there is no doubt that Nottinghamshire cricket badly-needed much a lift.
The summer of 1998 had been a bitterly disappointing one for all concerned, falling well below most people’s expectations and causing a considerable amount of upheaval along the way.
What made it so demoralising was that everything seemed to have fallen into place nicely right to the first ball of the season and we had a good reason to believe we could make significant progress.
But as we discovered even the best-laid plans sometimes don’t work out according to expectations, and from the moment that were shot out for 118 against Derbyshire, it all went horribly wrong.
That is why we won’t allow ourselves to get carried away on this new wave of optimism, even though we do feel we have acquired the right man in Clive Rice to turn things round, so that we start producing the kind of results that a Club of this stature should expect.
Even after a season as poor as the one we experienced, there is a still a strong consensus within the game that we have a talented young squad, but it’s a matter of getting the best out of those players.
Everyone told us that there was only one man for that job when we set about the task of finding a replacement for Alan Ormrod, and that is why we were determined to bring Clive back here, even when our initial approach didn’t offer us too much encouragement.
It’s his determination, discipline and drive which will get the best out of those round him, but he was many other qualities, most notably, of course, his international experience and the fact that he has been a winner wherever he has been in his cricket career.
There is, however, a subtle difference to his time as the inspirational skipper of the side in the 1980s, because he can’t actually be out there batting and bowling, which is why it will still be down to the players to go out and produce an improvement in performances.
They have to accept their share of the responsibility for the fact that we decided to relieve Alan Ormrod of his managerial duties, because he was judged first and foremost on the team’s results.
A record of just eight wins from 50 Championship matches in the final three seasons of Alan’s term in charge simply wasn’t good enough and the time had come for us to take the necessary action.
It had become quite apparent to us that the management was not strong enough and when we suffered an alarming decline in the final quarter of the season, there was a clear need to make a change.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t an easy decision to reach. Alan was a hard working, conscientious and well-liked manager, but at the end of the day his record was relegation form in football terms.
There was also some reluctance to make drastic changes owing to the fact that we have tried to retain some stability at the top in recent years, and also due to the upheaval earlier in the season.
When the last remaining hope of honours disappeared with our exit from the NatWest Trophy at the quarter final stage, Paul Johnson decided that the time had come for him to step down as captain.
Paul had given it his best shot, but like many other people at that time, he had become very frustrated with what was happening. After much discussion, it was felt that it was his best interests, and the Club’s best interests as well, that he relinquished the leadership, and his form after that decision certainly justified that move.
Indeed, Paul deserves a lot credit for the way he performed throughout a difficult season, emerging as our most consistent runscorer. All too often, it seemed that our hopes of success in the one-day matches rested entirely on his shoulders.
Another development followed the change of captaincy when we parted company with Eddie Hemmings after it became apparent that differences of opinion had arisen in the dressing room.
The unfortunate thing was that Eddie had made a significant contribution as bowling coach to the improvement in our bowling bonus points tally and the progress made by the younger bowlers.
Most notably, of course, the continuing emergence of Paul Franks provided one of the brighter spots and he was our only bowler to claim more than 40 Championship wickets in the season.
The year began well for Paul, with him playing a major part in the World Cup triumph enjoyed by the England Under-19s in South Africa, although it was a surprise to us all that he didn’t make the England A squad this winter after gaining more valuable experience in County Cricket and showing that he is capable all-rounder.
It would be fair to say that the future does look a lot brighter in the seam bowling department than it did a couple of years ago, with Andy Oram overcoming his fitness problems early in the 1998 season to confirm that he is a fine acquisition, while young Matthew Whiley’s promise as a sharp left arm seamer was rewarded with a Championship debut in the final match of the season against Gloucestershire. Matthew should also be congratulated on gaining recognition at England Under-19 level along with off-spinner Stephen Randall, which is a further illustration of the potential we have in the bowling department.
There should therefore be some strength in depth and good competition for places because Chris Tolley bowled well on occasions when he wasn’t troubled by the shoulder injury which required an operation in November, while experienced back-up is provided by Mark Bowen and Kevin Evans, and it was good to see Jamie Hart back to full fitness after suffering such a serious hamstring injury in 1997.
Hopefully, Alex Wharf will bounce back from what is proved to be a disappointing first season at Trent Bridge disrupted by injury, but he wasn’t the only new signing who suffered his frustrations our- overseas player Paul Strang being another notable one.
At the time of his arrival Trent Bridge, many people felt that we had got ourselves a real matchwinner following his success with Zimbabwe and, just as significantly, in his one season Kent.
But although conditions didn’t help him for much of the time, Paul wasn’t happy with his own form with either bat or ball.
His acquisition, together with those of Jason Gallian and Chris Read, gave us genuine cause for feeling that we could go from strength to strength after showing signs of improvement in 1997.
Jason had his fair share of ups and downs though. His settling in period was upset by a nasty groin injury which took time to recover and then he had to take on the responsibility of captaining the side much sooner than expected when he was running into his best form.
He relished the task of captaincy, although it was never going to be easy for him stepping in at short notice. That took its toll on his batting, but I am sure that his quality will come though.
Our other new face Chris Read made the most of his opportunity when Wayne Noon was injured early in the season, and in confirming that he is one of the best young wicketkeepers in the country, he was selected for his second England A tour this winter. However, knowing what a competitor he is, I am sure that Wayne will be pushing Chris hard for the first team spot at the beginning of next season.
In trying to strengthen the squad more recently, we made a determined bid to sign another England A tourist, Mal Loye, which only failed because he decided to stay at Northamptonshire. We felt there was a desperate need to sign a frontline batsman after a lack of consistency proved to be our undoing yet again in 1998.
The loss of Tim Robinson with a broken wrist shortly after he had made a marvellous hundred at Scarborough was a major blow, but there were too many players who under-achieved as well.
Matthew Dowman will be disappointed with his downturn in fortunes after passing 1,000 first class runs for the first time in 1997 and the coming season promises to be an important one for him.