Yorkshire v Hampshire: Yorkshire well set to match their own great expectations
IT IS a measure of how far Yorkshire have come in recent times that they were disappointed last year to finish third in the County Championship and to progress no further than the semi-finals of both one-day tournaments.
Not so long ago, such a return would have merited an open-top bus parade and a souvenir pull-out in The Yorkshire Post, complete with pages of piffle from yours truly.
But expectations have soared as Championships have been won to the extent that a season without silverware is almost seen as failure.
It is not, of course, for the consistency that Yorkshire showed last season could only be seen as success, but such is the benchmark that a highly-skilled group of players and management have set for themselves.
As such, Yorkshire’s main target in 2017 is the acquisition of another trophy – or two, or perhaps even three – for the Headingley mantelpiece.
It will not be easy, with success in the latter stages of one-day tournaments very much about what happens on the day, as Yorkshire found out to their cost last season, while the Championship looks particularly difficult to call.
But having had their sights on the treble going into the closing weeks of last summer, Yorkshire were bitterly disappointed to come away with nothing as Middlesex took the Championship, Warwickshire the One-Day Cup and Northants the T20 Blast.
It was the proverbial case of “so near and yet so far”.
So, as the season gets underway today, what can we expect from Yorkshire this time?
The answer is another serious crack at all three competitions and, given a fair wind, that they will win at least one of them.
Yorkshire should be capable of another top-three finish in the Championship, with Middlesex and Surrey perhaps the biggest dangers.
Last year’s efforts also suggested that Yorkshire are closing in on their first one-day silverware since 2002, although the club have lost 17 of their last 20 List A semi-finals dating back to 1979, which is a lot of false dawns.
However, if one considers that after 2002 Yorkshire went the longest of the 18 first-class counties without winning a league or a cup prior to claiming the 2014 title, they have reinvented themselves in recent years.
So much so, they not only crave success; they expect it.
Instead of wondering where the next trophy is coming from, Yorkshire now go into each season confident of doing well.
Such optimism is not even dimmed by the regular unavailability of their England players, with neither Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow nor Adil Rashid allowed to play in today’s opening match against Hampshire at Headingley.
However, perhaps the one man that Yorkshire cannot replace is Bairstow, who played an important role in their 2014 title and an even bigger one in their 2015 success.
Of course, one cannot take a player of that quality out of the team and not miss him, which Yorkshire most certainly did last year, when he appeared in only four Championship games.
Bairstow’s rise to prominence at England level has increasingly deprived Yorkshire of someone who played key innings for them in their double title triumph, often in great adversity.
Last year, the top-order batting was exposed with no one to bail it out, which was perhaps the biggest reason why Yorkshire did not perform the title hat-trick.
As such, two factors inspire confidence going forward.
First, the regular availability of new captain Gary Ballance, who lost his England place last winter.
The captaincy was just what he needed after that disappointment, and Ballance is determined to lead by example.
Along with openers Adam Lyth and Alex Lees, the only Yorkshire batsmen to pass 1,000 Championship runs last season, Ballance will expect a four-figure return.
The captaincy has brought the best out of his batting in the past when he has filled in, and he will be strengthened by his experience in England’s school of hard knocks.
Second, the signing of Australian batsman Peter Handscomb, one of the rising stars of international cricket.
At one point last winter, Handscomb’s embryonic Test average stood at 99, which might have had a certain DG Bradman twitching in his grave.
Levity aside, it emphasised that Yorkshire have recruited a top-class player – only 25 and with plenty to prove.
Although Yorkshire will probably be without Handscomb during the Champions Trophy, and possibly for a tour to Bangladesh later in the summer, they hope to have him available for much of the year.
In addition, there are signs that Azeem Rafiq is continuing his rise as a talented off-spinner, that pace man Matthew Fisher’s hamstring problems are behind him, and that young bowlers such as Ben Coad are improving all the time.
All of which suggests that the extra 10 per cent that Yorkshire must find to win silverware should not be beyond them, and that this era of success in their history can continue apace.