Despite this era of media-managed platitudes, Dane Vilas is not afraid to offer a candid assessment of Lancashire's past failings. “Maybe there was just a little bit of complacency,” says the club's new captain.
“The season before last we were pushing for the title and finished second to Essex. That was a little bit deflating, having played well but not actually winning the County Championship. Then after having been challenging for the top to have to start again with so many good sides in Division One - there was this situation where anyone could win it and anyone could get relegated.”
This isn’t just a cliche; since 2001, four teams have been crowned county champions only to be relegated the following year. In Lancashire's case, finishing second in 2017 was a precursor to last season's demotion: life in the second tier begins on Friday against another fallen giant, Middlesex.
“If you haven’t done as well as you wanted to in the previous year you might look back and think, ‘Where can we improve?’” Vilas adds. "But then when you win it, or nearly win it, you start thinking, ‘Well, we can just keep on doing what we are doing.’ In that case you’ll get overtaken.”
Lancashire’s squad is still sprinkled with Ashes hopefuls. It is easy, therefore, to assume that this is a team with much to prove and little time to do so. Vilas, however, is in no such hurry. On signing a Kolpak contract with Lancashire in 2017, the South African sacrificed his own international ambitions to commit to a county which he knew little about and which, he admits, knew not that much more about him. It has, however, allowed Vilas to take a more holistic view.
“I don’t have to worry about the pressures and everything else that goes with international selection,” explains Vilas, whose sixth and last Test cap was against England three years ago. “It is very difficult as you’re always looking over your shoulder, wanting to do well, trying to see what your competition is doing. I don’t have to do that. What I can do is I can help some of the guys get to playing international cricket, help them get better and deal with the pressures and the emotions that go with it.”
Ironically, playing a more nurturing role appears to have worked for Vilas’ individual game. Only three Lancashire players scored a Championship century last season; Vilas managed three, including an unbeaten 235 against Somerset.
“There were a lot of good individual performances,” he observes, protectively. “But we didn’t really string them together in terms of a great team performance. That is going to be a major focus for us – ensuring that those individuals get us into positions to win games, and then to get us over the line.”
“Each player is on a different individual journey. But what I’m trying to emphasise in the team is that the only reason that you get selected is if you’re playing in a good side, a winning side. I use the example of Surrey last year. It’s no surprise to me, nor to a lot of people, that they got five or six guys selected for England and its because they were in winning teams. If you are going to do well as an individual, you need to make sure that you stand out in a winning side.”
To achieve that, Vilas believes experience must be blended with nurturing new talent. “I think Lancashire have found that balance. There is only so much that you can read about the game. The best way to learn is through mistakes, not only your mistakes but also the mistakes that some of the older guys may have made so that you don’t then have to make the same ones.”
In a history steeped with illustrious overseas signings such as Clive Lloyd, Wasim Akram and Farokh Engineer, Vilas hopes that this year’s recruits, Australians Glenn Maxwell and Joe Burns, invest in this approach. “I can sit here and say that obviously I hope that they score thousands of runs in a couple of innings,” quips Vilas. “But we want them to add value. It’s not only about what they bring on the field but also if they can add value off the field.
“If they can help us build a culture and a value system, and make us a better team in both winning performances and in general, then that is ultimately the goal for us.” That, of course, and gaining automatic promotion.