After a dismal 2016, that saw Hampshire crash out at the group stage in both white-ball competitions and avoid relegation from Division One only through Durham’s financial woes, spirits are remarkably high at The Ageas Bowl.
An eighth-place finish in the T20 Blast South Group marked the first time the club missed out on the knockout stages since 2008, leading some to wonder if their golden era had come to an end.
That isn’t the feeling on the south coast.
“We obviously didn’t do very well last year in white-ball cricket,” Liam Dawson said at the club’s recent media day. “It doesn’t make you a bad one-day side.
“People have a bad season in a certain format, and last season we struggled in all formats. White-ball cricket we’ve been good [at] in the last six or seven years, so it’s not a massive panic.”
Indeed, an off season isn’t indicative of the future, especially given the absence of a number of key players during the course of 2016. Fidel Edwards, Chris Wood, and Ryan Stevenson all suffered injuries, while Reece Topley’s numerous fitness problems kept him out of all but one match. And Michael Carberry’s illness forced him to miss the latter half of the season.
Dawson said: “Since I’ve been involved with the club, it’s been probably one of the toughest seasons that we’ve had as a group. It was hard work.”
But things are looking up. Wood and Topley are expected to be fit for Sunday’s three-day fixture against Cardiff MCCU, and certainly by their opening County Championship match at Yorkshire. Edwards is fit, and Director of Cricket Giles White confirmed Carberry will be able to start the new season:
“The way he’s batting, the way he’s moving at the crease, the way he’s hitting the ball, he looks good,” White said of the 36 year old, “He seems hungry, relaxed, and that’s a good blend. I’m hopeful that he’ll start the season well but it’s great to see him back and in amongst the runs.”
Carberry, who successfully had surgery on a cancerous tumour in December, scored 107 on the opening day of a recent internal match, an innings in which Dawson said: “You couldn’t bowl to him.”
Aside from the flurry of returning players, a handful of new signings have been brought in: Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw, both of whom gave up international cricket with South Africa to become Kolpak players, and former Australian captain George Bailey.
Bailey, who spent the 2013 season at Hampshire, will lead the side in the Championship while James Vince captains both limited-overs competitions.
White said: “When you have an experienced campaigner and player like George in your ranks, it would seem sensible to use him and the split seemed the obvious thing for us to do.
“For a young captain like James who’s impressed everyone with his leadership skills, it allows him to free up and concentrate on his batting as well.”
After a testing second season in county cricket, Mason Crane’s winter appears to have paid dividends with an upturn in fortunes; he became the first overseas player to feature for New South Wales in over 30 years. His time in Australia under Stuart MacGill’s tutelage and impressive performances in the UAE for the MCC and South have put him in a strong position ahead of the new season.
White said: “He’s done brilliantly well over the winter. It’s great to see because the summer was as expected for us. He’s a young leg spinner, it’s not an easy art, and he went away in the winter and bowled very well.
“It takes a while for leg spinners to mature, but he’s certainly on track and looks a very exciting prospect.”
Dawson agreed: “He couldn’t have asked to have a better winter. He’s the sort of lad who wants to improve as well. He loves bowling, for a leg spinner to enjoy bowling like he does and the way he handles himself as a leg spinner is a massive thing.”
By their own admission, the conditions may not be suited for Crane in the opening weeks. Indeed, despite having a refreshed and revitalised squad, the opening three weeks – which see Hampshire face champions Middlesex, sandwiched between fixtures against Yorkshire both home and away – may not be ideal.
But this is a club who not only know how to win, they know what it feels like to lose and be in a tough situation. And with pre-season prospects looking positive, that may be all the motivation they need.