OPINION: Where has it all gone wrong for Nottinghamshire in red-ball cricket?
Where has it all gone wrong for Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club in the red-ball form of the game in 2016?
That is the question on most supporters’ lips as the county requires a miracle to avoid relegation to Division Two of the Specsavers County Championship – in the same season as they reached the T20 Blast finals day and continued to strengthen the success of the Notts Outlaws one-day brand.
Even victory in their final three County Championships Division One fixtures, including at Durham this week, will not guarantee their survival and avoid a second ever relegation.
You could say that it is unthinkable for a Test venue to be probably hosting Second Division cricket next summer, but it happened a decade ago and Notts bounced back.
There were no thoughts of relegation in May when Notts topped the table. Yet they will start at Chester-le-Street on Wednesday (31st August) 35 points adrift and with just one win all season from their 13 four-day matches – that victory coming as long ago as the opening game of the season against Surrey at Trent Bridge.
It has been a sudden fall from grace for Chris Read’s men, who won the County Championship just six years ago. But the side, coached by Mick Newell since 2002, have perhaps fallen guilty of not heeding the warnings of one year ago.
The 2015 season saw Nottinghamshire struggle in the opening months in Division One, before a terrific second half of the season took them up to third place.
The recovery was built on a strong batting line-up with Riki Wessels, Brendan Taylor and Alex Hales all scoring more than 1,000 runs. Not to mention the contribution with the bat of England’s James Taylor.
So it is perhaps ironic that both Read and Newell have both admitted as this season has worn on that a lack of runs has cost them dear this time around.
Yes, Nottinghamshire have been unlucky. First they lost James Taylor to the much-publicised heart condition that ended his playing career at the start of the season.
The success of opener Hales becoming a regular England regular has also been his county’s loss when runs have, so often, been at a premium. In fact, Hales has played just twice and tops the county’s batting averages.
More bad luck has come with injuries. Captain Read missed several matches after breaking his hand in May – and his runs have been badly missed.
Stuart Broad’s injuries and England duties have also severely limited his four-day cricket for Nottinghamshire – but that has been the case for several years.
However, his runs lower down the order would undoubtedly have helped as defeats became a regular occurrence in the championship.
Occasionally the experienced Broad and Read have chipped in with vital runs down the order, but the likes of Michael Lumb, Wessels, Brendon Taylor and Samit Patel (one incredible hundred apart) havn’t delivered often enough this summer – particularly in the second innings of matches.
Steven Mullaney leads the way (apart from Hales) with an average of 38, has struck two centuries and scored 856 runs, so should be exempt from criticism of the batting overall.
But the fact he is 43rd in the rankings of the division’s best batsmen shows how disappointing Notts’ run-gathering has been.
In contrast, England’s young seamer, local product Jake Ball, is 19th in the bowling averages.
Notts’ bad luck with the loss of James Taylor was compounded in the bowling department when injury prevented Australian international Peter Siddle from returning to Trent Bridge to be their overseas player before the season started.
But most observers do not place the blame for the almost-certain relegation on the bowling attack – or any perceived distractions by success in the one-day game.
The championship season started relatively well with that three-wicket victory over Surrey. But perhaps the alarm bells were ringing even then, in the second innings.
Notts, batting first, totalled more than 400 with Mullaney hitting a century and Notts enforcing the follow-on. Australian Jackson Bird, who replaced Siddle, and Ball underlined the strength of the seam attack to set-up a 169-run target, but the second innings wobble that saw Notts fall from 72 without loss to win by just three wickets was a sign of the batting frailty to come.
A week later an eight-wicket defeat to Lancashire was notable for the paucity of runs as only captain Read made passed 50.
A draw against old rivals Yorkshire in front of the Sky TV cameras saw Read hit the 25th century of his career and Mullaney, Broad and Patel strike half-centuries.
Notts came within one wicket of victory on a thrilling final evening and topped the table. But it needed 200 runs from the last four wickets in Notts’ second innings to keep them in the game as the top order again failed.
Hales, Lumb and Patel all made 50s in a rain-hit draw with Middlesex, before the fragility of the batting-order reared its head in spectacular fashion during a 53-run home defeat to Warwickshire.
Chasing a modest 227 to win, Notts collapsed with nine batsmen – including Lumb who struck a first innings ton – failing to make double figures.
The heroics of Patel, who smashed a 68-ball century while wickets tumbled around him, prompted coach Newell to admit: “When one bloke gets 75 percent of the runs you have to be a bit disappointed. Some of our players will have to reflect that they have not really had the best of games. You can manage with only eight or nine playing well, but not when it is only six or seven.”
Those thoughts were to be repeated by supporters for most of the rest of the summer as batsmen threw their wickets away cheaply.
Just three batsmen passed 50 in a defeat at Hampshire, where Read suffered that crucial injury, before a week later former Zimbabwe captain Taylor twice hit a century in a run-fest draw, marred by rain, with Durham.
When four-day cricket resumed a month later Notts were well beaten by 228 runs at The Kia Oval with only Taylor passing 50 against Surrey. Runs were again at a premium in a draw with Warwickshire, before Notts dominated a draw with Lancashire.
At that point Newell drew a parallel with last season’s fightback in the second half of the season – but this time it never came.
While the T20 side reeled off victory after victory, the four-day side continued to find runs hard to come by. A 10-wicket loss to Somerset saw Mullaney and Jake Libby put on almost 200 for the first wicket at the start of the match. Somehow no other batsmen then got past 44.
Mullaney hit his second century of the season in a losing cause as Notts were humbled by 176 runs by Hampshire at Trent Bridge two weeks ago.
Then last week, in a must-win clash with Yorkshire, Notts somehow again turned a strong position into a defeat.
Having reduced Yorkshire to 51 for six, Notts then crumbled to 94 all out in reply to Yorkshire’s first innings 282. A second innings capitulation for 146 runs has surely spelled the end for Notts’ survival hopes.
They lost 20 wickets in less than 100 overs at Scarborough in front of a noisy crowd full of holidaymakers. This season has been anything but a holiday for those who follow Nottinghamshire cricket.