Staffordshire all-rounder Michael Hill hopes the long trip to Cumbria this weekend will mark the first steps in banishing the memory of his lowest point on county duty.
Hill has enjoyed huge success, both individually and team-wise, since making his Staffs debut in the summer of 2014.
He was part of the Championship winning side that season, and also helped the county to Eastern Division title success in 2019 – a year in which Hill was the leading three-day run-scorer in the country.
But one-day glory has eluded Hill during his Staffordshire career, although there have been a couple of near misses.
Staffs were beaten in a bowl-out by Sunday’s opponents Cumbria in the semi-finals two years ago, but the Knockout Trophy final defeat by Herefordshire in 2016 is the one which still grates.
“Confidence was sky high in 2019 and we bulldozed our way into the semi-finals,” said Hill, who plays his club cricket for Meakins.
“It was going to be a tough game up at Cumbria, but we were confident that we could beat them and get to the final.
“A bowl-out is always a bit of a lottery and it was disappointing to come out on the wrong side of that. It was one of those things that can happen.
“But throughout my time with Staffordshire the biggest regret is the disappointment of losing the final to Herefordshire.
“We had destroyed them in the group stages, but we didn’t play to our potential on the day at Wormsley.
“That team was more than capable of winning it and it’s left a sour taste ever since that we didn’t get over the line.
“We’ve won the three-day stuff and we want to be in finals every year.
“Historically we are the biggest minor county in terms of winning the most titles and the lads are chomping at the bit to win more silverware.
“But we’re going to have to work hard and fight for everything. We want to be challenging for trophies at the end of the summer.”
Hill is part of the 12-man squad heading up to Cockermouth for Sunday’s Group One opener – and the match will bring huge relief to the Staffordshire players.
Last summer’s National Counties Cricket Association programme was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic, which means Staffs haven’t played a competitive fixture since losing to Berkshire in the Championship final in September 2019.
There are plenty of familiar names in the travelling party – notably Hill, Peter Wilshaw, Paul Byrne and Tim Maxfield – as well as a smattering of new faces.
Longton seamer Alex Coates, Porthill Park’s Louis Allison and Audley’s Jack Redman are the younger players looking to impress this summer.
“These are exciting times for Staffordshire,” said 30-year-old Hill.
“The core group of players have played for a long time and there’s some quality younger players involved as well.
“It’s 18 months since we last played a competitive game and it might take a bit of time mentally to get back into it.
“We’re just hoping that we can adapt quickly and hit the ground running with our blend of youth and experience.”
And Hill has a key role to play in Staffordshire’s quest to progress deep into the Knockout Trophy competition.
He has become a mainstay of the middle order, in all formats, and the left-hander has established himself as one of the stand-out batsmen on the NCCA circuit.
But he’s also eyeing a role with the ball this summer after enduring a frustrating time at club level so far.
He has bowled just seven overs for Meakins in the NSSCL Premier Division, but believes he can impact NCCA fixtures.
“My job with the bat is to work through the middle overs and then try to go big at the end,” added Hill.
“That is where my strengths lie. I am not a stand and deliver batsman who can go from ball one like Pete Wilshaw or Tim Maxfield.
“I need to go through the gears and then I can start to score freely, try to rotate the strike and keep the scoreboard ticking over.
“Bowling-wise it has been a frustrating start and I’ve had a few niggling injuries, which has prevented me from finding my rhythm.
“In one-day cricket I feel as though I have a role to play with the ball. I’ve shown in the past I can break a partnership in the middle overs, so hopefully I can chip in with one or two wickets along the way.”
Hill’s bowling option could well prove to be a useful commodity to have for new skipper Alex Mellor this weekend.
While Staffs sat out the first round of group fixtures, Cumbria were chalking up an impressive five-wicket win at Cheshire.
“It would have been nice to play in the first round, but I feel as though we have had a good pre-season and can get straight back into it,” explained Hill.
“Going up to Cumbria is never easy and we’ve always had tight games against them.
“We’re expecting the same and they are well led by Gary Pratt.
“It’s a challenge for us, but one we’re looking forward to and we’ve got to back our skills on the day.”