THE new cricket season is set to explode into life when the top two clubs in Hucknall launch genuine bids for promotion to the elite Notts Premier League (NPL).
Both Rolls-Royce Leisure and Hucknall are riding on the crest of a wave in the Gunn And Moore South Notts League and start their fixtures on Saturday May 5.
And with Papplewick and Linby already established members of the NPL, the trio are living proof that cricket in the Dispatch district has never been on such a massive high.
Last season, Rolls were runners-up in Division A, having finished third the previous summer, and also lifted the Hucknall Sports Twenty20 Spencer Cup for the second year running.
While Hucknall revelled in a sparkling debut season in the league’s top flight, finishing a close third and lifting the Popkess Cup, the league’s major knockout competition, by beating champions Plumtree in the final.
Now both clubs are chomping at the bit ahead of the opening day of the 2012 campaign tomorrow. And both believe they have big chances of taking the league title and joining Papplewick in the 12-team NPL.
Both also boast secret weapons. Rolls’s is the irrepressible John Birch. Hucknall’s is the irresistible Robin Maxwell.
More of Maxwell’s exploits later. But Birch (57), ex-Notts CCC manager and captain, is the man Rolls have enlisted to guide them to the promised land.
Installed as chairman, manager and coach, Birch can’t wait for the season to unfold.
“It’s quite exciting,” he said this week. “It’s a bit of a challenge but I am looking forward to it.
“There are one or two decent sides in the league but I think we are capable of winning it.”
Rolls have kept most of last season’s powerful squad together, including skipper Saleem Karim and crack batsman Raheem Karim, who plundered 775 runs in the league last term.
The Wright family — dad Graeme and sons Jake and Joel — seem poised to join Hucknall. But Birch has recruited a couple of key signings in Husnain Riaz and Matt Roberts.
Riaz made a big impact with Papplewick last summer, taking 34 wickets at an average of 25.50 to finish in the top 20 of the league’s bowling charts.
While batsman and off-spinner Roberts, who is a member of Derbyshire CCC’s academy, has been snapped up from NPL champions Clifton.
Roberts is the son of Steve and Sue Roberts, who have also been recruited as the club’s new secretary and treasurer.
Former chairman and secretary Dave Dixon has moved upstairs to president in a complete revamp of the club, designed to prepare them for NPL status.
“The main thing the club lacked last season was discipline,” says Birch.
“The first team had a few disciplinary problems but they won’t be having them again while I’m here.
“We have tried to set up the club properly, so it knows where it’s going, both on and off the pitch. Off the field is just as important as on it.”
Although the controversial suspension of former leisure club boss Brian Willows angered many sports clubs at Rolls, Birch is full of praise for the help he has received from the new regime, led by Colin Bancroft.
And he says plans are advanced to earn a Clubmark quality-accreditation as part of the nationwide scheme administered by Sport England.
Clubmark is a mandatory requirement of all NPL clubs and once Rolls have got it, they plan to go ahead with developments to their ground, coaching in schools and summer camps for youngsters. They have already launched a new youth section with two teams in a Kwik Cricket league.
Light years ahead of Rolls in this respect are Hucknall. They already have Clubmark. Their private ground at the New Gatehouse is very much fit for NPL purpose (and set for more improvements). The club are so strong they now boast four senior teams (the seconds did the league and cup double last year). And they have a flourishing youth policy that yielded a host of trophies last summer for teams at all age-levels.
Now they also have a first team to match the club’s respected status — thanks largely to the influence of 27-year-old all-rounder Maxwell, who has been a revelation since joining from Kimberley.
Not only did he captain Hucknall to their glory last term, he also led by example with both bat and ball.
Maxwell the batsman fired 780 runs in the league at an average of 43.33. In all games, that tally rose to more than 1,500 at an average of more than 50.
Maxwell the bowler topped the league’s bowling lists with 50 wickets at an average of just 13.44. In all games, that tally rose to 80 wickets for an even smaller average.
Not that Hucknall were a one-man team by any means. The club’s first-ever professional, Josh Buckley, who has been retained this term, was third in the league’s bowling charts with 45 wickets, while opening bat Richard Cross scored 572 runs at an average of 40.86.
“Richard leaves us halfway through the season to go to Australia on a work secondment,” says Maxwell.
“But unlike last season, Richard Greatorex will be available for all games, so that’s a boost because he is a big player for us.
“It was a fantastic season in 2011, which will be a hard act to follow.
“But our ultimate aim is to try and win the league, which I think is conceivable.
“Although we have not made any new signings, everyone has improved during the winter and some of our younger players, like Max Thompson and Jack Pates, are coming through now.
“Also, the experience we gained last season can only do us good.
“Because it was our first season in Division A, there was a fear factor. But now everybody knows what they can do.”