Hampshire’s survival as a Division One team was a close run thing last season. A last-gasp final day win over Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge and a Yorkshire championship-winning party against Sussex ensured Dale Benkenstein’s side lived to fight another year in the top division.
Struggles were not forecast for Hampshire, but they certainly materialised. A home loss to Worcestershire underlined the fragility of a supposedly strong county side. A batting order boasting names like Michael Carberry, Jimmy Adams and James Vince shouldn’t have been collapsing, but it was.
Meanwhile, the bowling attack, headed up by the likes James Tomlinson and Gareth Berg, failed to cut the head of many opposition batting line-ups. A lack of variety and pace was eventually overcome by Fidel Edwards. The experienced West Indian fast bowler played a key role in keeping Hampshire up with a late flurry of wickets, including 10 in the win over Nottinghamshire, and his return for the 2016 campaign is an important one.
With lessons learned from last year, Benkenstein and his side will be aiming higher this year. Mere survival is hoped to be beyond them.
The arrival of England international Reece Topley from Essex, in particular, is seen as a real coup. The left-armer has the ability to swing the ball and with a taste of international cricket behind him he should be hungry to push on and prove his worth.
On paper a bowling attack of Tomlinson, Berg, Edwards and Topley along with Chris Wood and spinners Mason Crane and Liam Dawson should be effective. The batting, as ever, will be reliant on the experienced names of Carberry, Adams and Vince, as well as Sean Ervine and Adam Wheater.
Away from the slog of the four-day game, Hampshire will again look to the familiar shorter formats for relief. A quarter-finals in the Royal London One-Day Cup and semi-finals of the Natwest T20 Blast achieved last year is now somewhat of a benchmark. Hampshire have long been one of the more successful sides in white-ball cricket and the normal line up has been bolstered by international stars this year.
The promoted sides, Surrey and Lancashire, will both be fancied to stay in the division and considering Hampshire survived by just two points last year, it may be another hard task. The Ageas Bowl was far from a fortress last year, but Hampshire’s home may need to be just that this campaign if they’re to succeed.
If the side can accomplish a more comfortable existence in the County Championship and reach the latter stages, or even win a white-ball competition, it will be a job well done.
Ins: Reece Topley (Essex)
Outs: Danny Briggs (Sussex), Yasir Arafat (Somerset, season-long loan) Basil Akram, Joe Gatting, Tom Barber, Sean Terry (all released)
It’s hard to look past captain and England international James Vince. A poor campaign by his high standards last season saw him score 743 runs at an average of just 28. Vince managed just one triple-figure score in the County Championship and that came, crucially, in the final game.
Hampshire certainly lacked a leader of the batting line-up last year. Vince can, and should, be that man this season. He has the technique, application and attitude to succeed in Division One and if he is to push for a place in the England Test side – which must be the ultimate ambition – he will need to show consistency.
He decided not to go into the Indian Premier League auction for a reason. At his best Vince is just about the best batsman to watch in county cricket: full of crisp striking, fluent cover drives and elegant flicks. A return to form would be most welcome on the south coast.
Player to Watch
Young leg-spinner Mason Crane made an emergence towards the back end of last season and caused a great deal of excitement. Due in part to the rarity of spinners in county cricket and in part to the serious talent he has already displayed in little over a dozen first team games for Hampshire, he has a real career ahead of him.
Despite only making his debut on July 2015, the 19-year-old has a fair bit of experience behind him. Crane played an important role in England U19s’ run at the Under-19 World Cup and his experience in subcontinent conditions and pressure situations will help.
He is the youngest Hampshire player to take a five-wicket haul – but the club hope he won’t stop there. Liam Dawson may be the spinner who made it into the England T20 World Cup squad, but Crane has been earmarked as the star of the future. Spin bowling in county cricket is a difficult skill and only time will tell whether Crane has the stick-ability to make it, but he seems to have all the requisite skills.
There’s plenty to get excited about in the overseas signing department. West Indian captain, all-rounder and all-round nice guy Darren Sammy has signed for the T20 Blast. He’ll be joined by Shahid Afridi who is yet to make his mind up whether he’s retiring or playing on indefinitely.
South African Ryan McClaren will be a handy, hard-working seamer in the four-day fare. The 33-year-old is vastly experienced, has played all around the world and will hopefully prove his worth. McClaren is also very capable with the bat and could provide some lower-order hitting.
How they’ll fare
Ultimately avoiding another relegation battle like that of last season will be the aim. The squad looks more than capable of that and a mid-table season looks more likely. Hampshire have always been strong in the shorter formats and a seventh T20 finals day would not come as a surprise.
v Warwickshire, Sunday 10th April at The Ageas Bowl
Specsavers County Championship Division 1: 16/1
Royal London One-Day Cup: 8/1
Natwest Twenty20 Blast: 9/1