So then, to the season that shouldn’t have been. Hampshire were the eighth worst side in a division of nine last season. They drew a whopping 10 of their 16 matches, with inconsistency and blunt bowling defining a disappointing campaign. Dale Benkenstein’s side deserved the drop. But they didn’t get it.
There was no great escape like 2015 to save them. Instead, Durham’s sorry financial plight led to their demotion and, as a consequence, Hampshire’s salvation. Default: as Homer Simpson once opined “the two greatest words in the English language.”
Last year was a bad vintage across the board. Hampshire, winners in 2010 and 2012, finished a miserable eighth in the T20 Blast’s south group and fifth in the One-Day Cup. There is certainly plenty of improve upon.
Best make the most of some good fortune. And, despite occupying the lower reaches of the County Championship for the last two seasons, there’s no reason to see why Hampshire can’t make some hay while the sun shines.
There are still players capable of big things. James Vince, who will captain in the two shorter formats, may be coming in off the back of a relatively lean last campaign, but his talent is undeniable – it just needs honing. Sean Ervine, one of few to perform excellently last year, offers more than useful lower order runs. While Liam Dawson, now a favourite among England coaching staff, has improved right across the board.
Throw in a smattering of young players with potential, key players back from injury and shrewd signings and there is optimism to be had on the south coast.
Ins: George Bailey (Middlesex), Kyle Abbott (Kolpak), Rilee Rossouw (Kolpak), Asher Hart (Durham), Fraser Hay (UK Passport)
Outs: Ryan McClaren (Lancashire), Adam Wheater (Essex), Joe Weatherley (Kent, loan), James Tomlinson (retired), Andy Carter (retired), Tino Best (released), Yasir Arafat (released), Gareth Andrew (released)
Key Player: Reece Topley
Topley was signed from Essex before the start of the 2016 season to much excitement. The left-arm seamer was making headway in England’s shorter format plans before back and hand injuries struck. He missed all of his debut season, but now back, fit and with a new contract he will be a big player for Hampshire this time around.
Hampshire won just two of their 16 County Championship games last season. Their highest wicket-taker snared just 32 victims and has since left the club. The team have capable bowlers, but few you would term ‘strike bowlers’. Topley not only offers valuable variation, but also pace and swing. If Hampshire are going to manage to take 20 wickets inside four days, the 23-year-old will be key.
Player to Watch: Mason Crane
Mason Crane isn’t just the player to watch at Hampshire, but arguably in the whole county. The young leg-spinner comes into the season in ideal circumstances, riding the crest of a wave. Hype is nothing new for the 20-year-old, but his form – and improvement – over the winter shows he is really starting to justify it.
Like many young county players Crane spent a fruitful winter in Australia. He was the first overseas player to represent the New South Wales since Imran Khan. Work with former Australian international Stuart MacGill clearly benefited Crane, who followed up his stint by starring in the North versus South series in Dubai. In front of England’s coaching staff and selectors he turned the final game on its head, taking 4-1 in 10 balls to secure the series 3-0 in the favour of the South.
Dip. Flight. Turn. Control. Nerve. He’s got the lot.
Crane took 31 wickets in 12 County Championship games last season – pretty good – but this campaign promises something special. Full England recognition can’t be far off.
On the face of it Hampshire have done some good business over the off-season.
Battling Aussie George Bailey, who played for Hampshire in 2013, was signed from Middlesex as the overseas player and, somewhat surprisingly, installed as captain for the County Championship season. The 34-year-old’s value obviously comes from his batting – he averages a shade over 40 in first-class cricket – but also, crucially, in his leadership. Bailey has been a captain wherever he’s played: Tasmania, Kings XI Punjab and Australia’s T20 and ODI sides have all benefited from his nous. Hampshire look to have a steady hand on the tiller this campaign.
Elsewhere, Hampshire have benefited from the mass movement of South Africans to sign now-former internationals Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw on Kolpak deals. No matter what you think of the deals, there is no doubting the quality of both players. With last year’s leading wicket-taker Ryan McClaren having joined Lancashire, Abbott in particular will be crucially important to Hampshire’s four-day fortunes.
How they’ll fare
Hampshire are unlikely to pull up trees in the County Championship. The likes of Yorkshire and Middlesex have incredibly strong squads to call upon and strength across every department. But while they won’t be mixing it with the best, they perhaps shouldn’t be scratching around at the bottom, either.
Although it is hard to predict so early, the quality of bowlers still seams lacking somewhat for the four-day fare. Abbott was good in his last stint for Hampshire and has improved since. But with James Tomlinson having retired, McClaren moved on and 36-year-old Gareth Berg nearing the end of his career, much will depend on Topley’s fitness and effectiveness and bursts from the erratic Fidel Edwards.
The shorter formats have generally been good to Hampshire and in Vince, Bailey, Ervine and Rossouw there appears to be a strong batting line-up. However, the star names – think Darren Sammy or Shahid Afridi – are missing for the time-being.
There is cautious optimism for a middle-of-the-road County Championship season and, as ever, you should never rule out Hampshire out of the shorter formats.
v Yorkshire, Friday 7th April at Headingley
LV County Championship Division One: 10/1
Royal London One-Day Cup: 8/1
Natwest Twenty20 Blast: 8/1