From no-hopers in ’99, Notts became promotion contenders in 2000 and were still in with a decent chance of going up when they travelled to Gloucestershire for their final game of the season. Although their placing of seventh out of nine in the Second Division was only one place better than 1999, it belies just how close they came to making the jump to the top flight.
Promotion was ultimately missed by just 12 points, and it illustrated how much difference could have resulted had the players been allowed to capitalise on the winning positions they set up away to Essex, Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Sussex rather than sit forlornly watching the rain fall from their dressing room.
Certainly considered a transition year, many personnel were brought in and many were on their way out. Graeme Archer, Richard Bates and Matthew Dowman had all left, alongside overseas star Vasbert Drakes, and the retirement of Kevin Evans and Tim Robinson was also a blow to the club. Clive Rice brought in left-handed opener Darren Bicknell from Surrey and ex England middle order batsman John Morris. David Millns and Andrew Harris were brought in from Leicestershire and Derbyshire respectively in order to beef up the seam attack. Nottinghamshire then signed their overseas player in Pakistani test star Shoaib Akhtar, the world’s fastest bowler. Many thought the club had pulled off a major coup, however, it subsequently emerged the 24-year-old put his body through such contortions to deliver the ball at upwards of 95mph that his rib actually impacted on his pelvis. By June it was apparent he would never be fit enough to play for Notts and his contract was cancelled in June.
Consequently Rice signed the impressive Paul Reiffel, the Victoria skipper, who averaged at 68.75 in his eight Championship innings. His bowling was just as influential, taking 21 wickets, averaging 2.5 runs an over and he did not bowl a single wide.
The zonal games started in mid-April, and Rice would say there was no excuse for losing so easily to Lancashire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire. The only game Notts looked like winning was against Durham at Trent Bridge, coming down to the last ball. Franks faced it, needing two runs to win. He missed and was bowled, sending Nottinghamshire to another loss. Ten days later, however, Notts and Franks would have their revenge in their first NCL game. Again the match came down to the last ball and Franks, once again faced needing two runs from one ball. Incredibly he missed, but he scampered a bye and with the ball also adjudged to be a wide the Outlaws had won. This win set the tone for the rest of the Outlaw’s season in the NCL; they went on to win 11 of their 16 matches in the competition to secure promotion to the first division.
Promotion was sealed in a home win over Glamorgan. Fittingly, victory came from the final ball when Matthew Maynard failed to hit the boundary required and prompted a joyous pitch invasion the like usually reserved for finals at Lord’s. Paul Johnson was the hero, coming good with 62 at more than a run a ball at the end of an injury-ravaged season. Another star of this campaign was Usman Afzaal, whose remarkable form would earn him a place on the England ‘A’ tour of the West Indies alongside teammates Chris Read and Paul Franks.
The popular 23-year-old was in terrible form at the start of the season, averaging only 9.2 from seven innings, including three ducks. Afzaal’s turnaround in form started with a stunning 151* against Worcestershire and the bowling of Glenn McGrath, one of the best fast bowlers in the world. After that he averaged at a superb 63.25, smashing two centuries, four 50’s and passing 1000 runs for the first time in his career.
Overall the season was extremely promising. Promotion in the NCL was extremely well received and Nottinghamshire were unlucky not to be promoted in the Championship also. An improvement upon the 1999 season was required and that was exactly what we got.