James Kettleborough determined to keep driving Staffordshire forwards

Staffordshire captain James Kettleborough

As maiden campaigns go, James Kettleborough could be highly-satisfied with Staffordshire’s achievements.

Kettleborough switched allegiances after 13 years with Bedfordshire to sign for Staffs ahead of the 2023 season.

But as well as bolstering the batting unit, the 31-year-old was installed as captain.

He targeted development alongside newly-appointed head coach Andy Carr – but the summer exceeded that particular ambition.

Kettleborough skippered Staffordshire to the NCCA Twenty20 Cup for the first time in their history, not that the Staffs leader is content that his work is done.

“I absolutely loved my first season with Staffs,” said the Checkley batsman. “When I accepted the captaincy I had ideas and visions of what it might look like. But the reality far exceeded any expectations.

“To be a player in any Staffordshire side is incredibly important; Staffordshire cricket is widely followed. So to be given the opportunity to represent the county and put that shirt on is a real honour. It’s not something I take for granted.

“To lead the county on top of that is nothing short of a privilege. I have fully embraced all the highs and the lows that come with that.

“Of course it can be challenging at times, that is to be expected. But Staffordshire cricket is something a lot of people care about. To be at the forefront of that, in the role that I am, gives me a lot of pride. I’m looking forward to continuing to build and develop this squad moving forwards.”

‘Top talent’

Twelve months ago, Kettleborough highlighted his excitement at embarking on a new stage in his cricket career.

And the former Northamptonshire and Glamorgan batsman says plenty of lessons were learned.

“It’s really important to me that regardless of outcomes that we, as individuals and as a group, keep learning and trying to better ourselves in order to keep moving forwards and striving for excellence,” he explained.

Staffordshire County Cricket Club celebrate winning the NCCA Twenty20 Cup
Staffordshire’s players celebrate winning the NCCA Twenty20 Cup last summer. Picture: Alfie Shenton

“Personally, I probably just found reassurances more than anything; I’ve always tried to remain calm but resilient when under pressure, not to get too worked up or emotionally involved in the moment, to be able to set examples on and off the field and to enjoy myself. I was able to still do all these throughout the season regardless of the range of situations I found myself in.

“As a squad, I found confirmation of just how good this group of players really is. And I learnt the ability to trust and back them when needed.

“The main takeaway from the season was that we really want to increase the strength in depth within our squad. But we also want to continue to build the really strong culture we’ve developed since Andy Carr and I started in our roles. The power of a good culture and a strong bond between these players can’t be understated.”

‘Trophy joy’

The highlight of Kettleborough’s first season in charge was, undoubtedly, a May day at Tring Park where Staffs clinched the T20 Cup.

They defeated Berkshire in the semi-finals thanks to a stunning Nils Priestley century. They then their nerve in the final to see off Cornwall by just four runs.

“The memories from Tring last May are still very vivid in my mind’s eye and the pride I felt that afternoon was immense,” added Kettleborough.

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“Some will say there is an added pressure of defending our title. But it’s a new season, new competition so it’s a completely level playing field.

There’s some strong sides all across the country and anything can happen in T20 cricket.

“Having said that, someone has to win it and there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t consider ourselves a side that can do just that.”

‘Highs and lows’

Staffordshire followed up that T20 success with a disappointing 50-over campaign as they failed to qualify from their group. However, rain had a say in the outcome.

And the jewel in the crown, the Championship format, saw Staffordshire finish as runners-up in Division One East behind Buckinghamshire.

“Of course, any time we don’t deliver the level of performance we expect or hope from ourselves it is frustrating, but I’m also realistic that we aren’t robots, we aren’t professionals and we do make mistakes and have bad days unfortunately,” said Kettleborough.

“I think only one really poor performance against Wiltshire cost us and we showed glimpses against Bucks (even though we lost on D/L) and in the showcase game against Leicestershire of just how good we can be, so it gives me plenty of belief we can compete in that format for the upcoming season.

James Kettleborough enjoyed a fine first season as Staffordshire captain.
James Kettleborough enjoyed a fine first season as Staffordshire captain. Picture: Alfie Shenton

“The Championship is the pinnacle of the season in my opinion. Played in the height of the summer, it really challenges you physically and mentally. It doesn’t allow for too many slip ups if you want to go all the way.

“I think we were brilliant in this format. Similarly to the 50-over campaign, we had one really poor game at West Brom against Bucks which ultimately cost us. But for the other three games we were outstanding with a number of different members of the team sticking their hand up when needed. That is exactly what you like to see as captain.

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“I’m sure if we are successful in obtaining some more silverware this season it will be nice to look back at our shortcomings last season and how we’ve improved and that will be immensely satisfying.

“But for now Andy Carr, myself and the rest of the squad have had some honest conversations, taken from last season what we feel we need to do, but have now parked that and moved on to focusing on the job at hand this season.”

‘Nice balance’

On the playing front, Kettleborough not only has his own experience to fall back on, but the help of senior performers.

The likes of Michael Hill, Liam Hurt and Tom Brett fall into that category, while a number of youngsters also slotted in seamlessly into the side.

“If you look at most NCCA sides you’ll find three or four senior players who perform reliably for their respective sides. But what separates the best sides from the others is those who have their younger players providing valuable, match-winning contributions,” said Kettleborough.

“We had that with the likes of Sam Atkinson, Nils Priestley, Callum Hawkins and Rory Hayden all showing their class.

“I think it’s crucial we are always finding ways to keep moving forwards and challenging ourselves to get the best out of the group.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean reinventing the wheel at all.

New players added to Staffordshire squad for 2024 NCCA season

“When we’re doing so many things well it comes down to the little one percenters. The little things mean a lot and that’s what we have been focusing on over the winter.

“We’ve a great group of players which presents a perfect blend of senior, experienced players and younger lads.

“I think it’s really important there is a good level of player continuity. We had a successful season so it would seem irrational to start chopping and changing too much.

“It’s valid recognition to the players involved and as a player it is always rewarding to feel valued and wanted so although we are always looking at areas we would like to strengthen, it works both ways and makes sense to carry on moving forwards with a very similar group of players who have built such a strong unit over the last 18 months.”

‘New challenge’

While Staffordshire will be aiming to defend their T20 Cup, they will have to do it in a different way.

This year’s format has been tinkered with, which now sees five groups of four playing in the initial stages.

The top two from each group, plus the best two third-placed sides will advance to the Super 12s stage, played across four grounds. The four winners will then progress to finals day.

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“It’s exciting. The initial group stage starts and finishes within nine days for us, so it comes thick and fast. Then unknown of the Super 12, provides an element of excitement too,” said Kettleborough.

“It provides a longer route to finals day and winning the trophy, but as I said before, someone has to make that journey. There’s no reason why that can’t be us, but we will have to play close to our potential.”

The main ambition for plenty, though, will be to clinch the Championship title.

Sam Atkinson is one of Staffordshire's talented youngsters.
Sam Atkinson is one of Staffordshire’s talented youngsters. Picture: Alfie Shenton

However, it looks like being a testing three-day schedule after Kettleborough’s former county Bedfordshire were promoted into the top flight.

“It’s never easy to be successful. That remains the case in Division One of the Championship this season.

“Bucks have shown their class in the Championship over a period of time now. They richly deserved the title last season.

“It’s the job of us and the other three sides to narrow that gap and put them under pressure. Naturally you’d think the newly-promoted side could find it difficult to adjust.

“But actually when you look at the strength of the Bedfordshire side and the manner in which they swept aside the competition in Division Two last season with the quality of Matt Coles leading the way, I fully expect them to be as strong as any side this season.”

‘Hungry for more’

So could there be another trophy heading to Staffordshire in the 2024 campaign?

“Whether it’s realistic to expect another trophy, I’m not too sure. But we’re hopeful that if we play anywhere near our best we’ve a chance of winning one or more of them,” revealed Kettleborough.

“It’s a fine balance between feeling confident and believing in ourselves and respecting that there are some seriously strong sides out there. We don’t want to be complacent to think we’re going to be better than them without doing the right things well.

“It’s going to be a competitive season. I can’t wait to see how we compete and hopefully come out the other side of it with another trophy.”

Main image: James Kettleborough is eyeing up another season of success with Staffordshire. Picture: Alfie Shenton