Relegation from the First Division of cricket's County Championship might not be the catastrophe that Premier League football clubs fear if they lose their place in the elite but when Yorkshire and Hampshire began this year in the Second Division they had every right to feel apprehensive.
After all, more than half the sides who would attempt to deny them an instant return had been trying to get out for six or more consecutive seasons. The longer a county stays out of the top tier, the more difficult it is to climb back.
Yet it is not impossible. Yorkshire might still win promotion at the first attempt but the two rivals who could deny them include the county that has spent longer looking enviously upwards than any other.
Derbyshire have had only one season in the First Division since the Championship was split into two sections in 2000. By virtue of finishing ninth in the 1999 table, they were given a place in the higher group. But they finished last and in 12 subsequent seasons in the lower tier, they have never finished higher than fifth.
This season, though, it is a different story. Derbyshire suffered a wobble last week, when their defeat at Canterbury brought Kent back into a three-horse race with Yorkshire. But the final round of matches begins today with their destiny as much in their hands as it can be in a sport subject to disruption by weather. With a win over Hampshire, they will be playing 2013 cricket in the First Division. Their head coach, Karl Krikken, is proud of the transformation. But after opening up a 31-point gap between themselves and third place when they beat Kent last month, admits failure to go up would be hard to take. "There is plenty of cricket to be played," he said. "But we'd be disappointed if we did not get over the line now."
Krikken's team has few household names, although New Zealand opener Martin Guptill, and Usman Khawaja, the first Muslim to play for Australia, are both very talented cricketers.
Yet, according to Krikken, this is the best Derbyshire team since the county last claimed silverware in the 1990s, the days of Kim Barnett, Chris Adams, John Morris, Devon Malcolm and Dominic Cork. He should know – he was often their wicketkeeper.
"What we do have is a group of players who work hard and fight for one another," he said, which for Derbyshire is an unusual quality. Apart from finishing with the Championship wooden spoon a record 15 times, they have a history of infighting, in the dressing room and the committee room.
Perversely, it was an outbreak of civil war that paved the way for the revival. Bottom of the table two years ago, with an annual loss of £188,000, their board members split into two factions and from the wreckage emerged a new chairman in Chris Grant, a Derbyshire-born stockbroker who had made his fortune in the City and who had a vision to restore his county as a force.
It was Grant who promoted Krikken, then academy director, to replace John Morris as head coach, and who set out to build a team of England-qualified players, including a core group from the academy. "Things had to change," he said. "We had become a team packed with Kolpaks. We were seen as the place to go for a final pay cheque and some people were asking whether we should exist at all."
It was Michael Atherton, the former England captain, who raised that question. Atherton argued that Derbyshire, along with Northamptonshire and Leicestershire, did not produce enough players of their own and as such did not deserve to have their own first-class teams.
"The academy was producing players, many of them good enough to play for England at Under-19 level, but they were not going on to become first-team players with Derbyshire," Grant said. "We set out to field a team in 2013 that contained nine England-qualified players and we'll meet that. We will be back in surplus too. If anyone still questions whether Derbyshire should exist I'd like them to take a look at us now."
England-qualified is not limited to being home-grown and Krikken underlined the contribution made by Tim Groenewald, like captain and opening bat Wayne Madsen South-African born but with established domestic status, Tony Palladino, who arrived from Essex in 2010, and last winter's key signing, the discarded Yorkshire spinner David Wainwright.
"David has been a big plus ," Krikken said. "He has won matches on turning wickets and the seamers – Groenewald, Palladino and Jon Clare – have been immense. But we set out to put more faith in the younger players coming through and we are delighted with the way they have come on. Lads such as Dan Redfearn, Ross Whitely, Paul Borrington and Tom Poynton."
Redfearn has scored more than 800 runs, left-arm seamer Whiteley has become a capable all-rounder and wicketkeeper Poynton scored his maiden century against Northamptonshire.
"It is an exciting time," Krikken said. "We know it will a big step up if we start next season in Division One but this team has earned the chance to see what they can achieve."
What Derbys need to do
Six points cover Derbyshire (173), Yorkshire (172) and Kent (167) at the top of the Second Division. Derbyshire have the tie-break advantage of having won more matches than both their rivals.
If Derbyshire beat Hampshire at Derby with 18 points or more they will be guaranteed promotion, even if Kent gain maximum (24) points from their match against Glamorgan in Cardiff.
If Kent fail to win, Derbyshire will definitely be promoted if they draw and take two bonus points.
Yorkshire will be assured of promotion if they beat Essex at Chelmsford with 20 points or more or with a draw plus four bonus points if Kent fail to win.Reuse content