Northern Districts Knights will once again contribute plenty to Aotearoa's Blackcaps, however their domestic troopers are set for a rather intriguing summer across all formats. Eight of the 20 players offered Blackcaps contracts are part of the Knights squad and only the spin duo of Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi aren't consistently part of the Aoteaora Test squad, while all eight of those Blackcaps Knights dabble in white-ball cricket.
This has always put ND in an interesting spot as they require plenty of depth to cover the ins and outs from game to game. ND cricket didn't get off to a great start ahead of the season as they were the only domestic association who decided to drip-feed their contracted player list in rather weird fashion, while every other association released a contracted player list.
Head over to the NZC website and you'll find that the five other associations compiled a basic list, for their own media and for NZC's website, with ND Knights absent from that group. For whatever reason, ND decided it was a good idea to make it as niggly as possible to find their contracted players and even then, it was up to my battler self to flip their little yarns into a basic, plain, simple list.
That's a poor start from the Knights. The Knights are graced with the services of Tim Seifert, Daryl Mitchell and Scott Kuggeleijn, three lads who aren't contracted as Blackcaps but could find themselves playing a decent amount of white-ball cricket for Aotearoa. This would stretch the Knights' depth even further, however having these three as a core unit will be a point of difference for the Knights this summer.
The Knights struggled to match their rivals last summer in Plunket Shield and Ford Trophy cricket. Ish Sodhi was the only Knights player to finish in the top-five for runs/wickets in either Plunket Shield or Ford Trophy cricket and if the Knights are to be a factor in Plunket Shield or Ford Trophy, they will need players to enjoy breakout summers with bat and ball.
Two batsmen who could do so, are Henry Cooper and Joe Carter, two of the Knights youngest batsmen. They finished up last summer's Plunket Shield as the leading run-scorers for the Knights, both scored over 400 runs with Cooper averaging 36.23 and Carter averaging 42.30. Cooper is a undercover opening prospect to keep tabs on as he's taken his career First-Class average up to 35.84 after 20 games, while Carter contributed in both formats.
The journey of Bharat Popli continues to entice as a narrative to watch out for, given that Popli has struggled to back up his beastly summer of 2015/16. After averaging 67.58 that summer, Popli has averaged 23.27, 33.90 and 23 in the following three summers in Plunket Shield cricket. Popli did manage four Ford Trophy games last season with a 50+ score and the Knights will be hopeful that Popli can level up, along with Cooper and Carter. If these three are making consistent contributions, then the Knights will be in good shape.
Dean Brownlie was strong in either format last summer, averaging 40.37 in Plunket Shield and 36.62 in Ford Trophy. Daniel Flynn on the other hand could only manage 17.84avg in the Plunket Shield, which could be a bit concerning ahead of this summer considering a slight lack of experience in their batting group. This is where Mitchell and Seifert will play key roles for the Knights this summer as their runs will ease the pressure on the veterans; Mitchell and Seifert as fringe Blackcaps should emerge as leaders of this Knights squad along with Brownlie and Flynn.
They don't get much steadier than James Baker and the grizzly seamer, who had another strong Plunket Shield campaign averaging 28.40 last season, will once again lead a young seam attack. Other than Kuggeleijn, the Knights have Zak Gibson, Brett Randell, Brett Hampton and Mathew Fisher; Fisher is yet to play domestic cricket.
Randell was the best performing seamer from that group (excluding Baker and Kuggeleijn) and the Knights will be hoping that one of these seamers can command further attention. The all-round abilities of Mitchell and Anton Devcich will help the Knights bowling unit, especially now that Corey Anderson has moved up to Auckland and having the Kuggeleijn/Mitchell combo offers lovely balance.
Whether Josef Walker can step up and take plenty of wickets with his offies, in the absence of Sodhi and Santner will be a key factor in the Knights success. Sodhi was the leading wicket-taker in Plunket Shield cricket last season (24.97avg), while Walker took 5w in his lone Plunket Shield appearance and averaged 92 in Ford Trophy with the ball.
The only way the Knights can sustain success without their Blackcaps, if others churn out commanding performances. I find this season an intriguing little juncture for the Knights because in previous seasons, the likes of Mitchell, Seifert, Kuggeleijn and Sodhi have played their way into Blackcaps squads via their emphatic performances for the Knights in the absence of their Blackcaps. Now I'm curious about whether the next wave of Knights can emulate those performances, or if the Knights will struggle to compete when those either in the Blackcaps or on the fringes aren't available.
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Peace and love 27.