Hampshire could hardly have been given a harder start to their bid to retain Division One status after being granted an unlikely reprieve by the ECB at the end of last season. However, after grinding out an equally improbable win over Yorkshire inside three days at Headingley, perhaps a visit from the reigning champions has come at the right moment for a team riding high on confidence.
The most promising aspect of Hampshire’s Headingley heist was the fact that everybody contributed and looked in reasonable form. Michael Carberry made runs in reassuringly bullish fashion, while Jimmy Adams made a fighting 72 in the fourth-innings chase and Kolpak signing Rilee Rossouw chipped in an attractive 47.
James Vince also made runs but showed a few signs that he still has a penchant for injudicious driving as well. Yorkshire’s injury-hit pace attack just could not break Hampshire down, and young keeper Lewis McManus saw them through to victory.
Middlesex did not feature in the first round of fixtures, instead meting out a punishing 333-run defeat to the Cambridge MCCU side at Fenners.
A century for Dawid Malan and match figures of 6-23 from Ollie Rayner were the standout performances (Rayner also bashed an unbeaten 91 in Middlesex’s second innings), but there is only so much you can tell from a game that does not even have first-class status.
Middlesex’s players would have taken professional, if not personal, pleasure in following Hampshire’s victory over a side many predict will be challenging strongly to regain their crown this season. However, Middlesex will be approaching the Ageas Bowl with a little more caution after Hampshire proved their appetite and capacity for giant-killing.
Their next giants were last beaten in this competition by a Tom Fell-inspired Worcestershire in 2015 – will Middlesex stand tall in 2017?
Middlesex have an array of hugely talented cricketers and will no doubt make a strong defence of their 2016 title, but if anybody stands out among the crowd it is Nick Gubbins. While headlines vaunt Haseeb Hameed and Keaton Jennings as the future of English cricket, Gubbins is building a very strong case for international consideration despite being a relatively old hand at 23. He contributed 125 and 93 in Middlesex’s title-winning match against Yorkshire at Lord’s, which shows he is not a man who will shy away from the big occasions.
Hampshire have been criticised for signing Abbott and Rossouw on Kolpak deals for 2017, but both showed signs against Yorkshire that they can make rich and valuable contributions to the tapestry of county cricket. Abbott in particular bowled with devastating skill, accuracy, and speed at Headingley, setting the stage for Hampshire’s terrific heist. Another game, another top-class line-up to challenge his credentials.
Hampshire’s motto after topping Yorkshire appears to be something along the lines of “if it ain’t broken…” and they have named an unchanged squad.
Hampshire squad: James Vince (c), Kyle Abbott, Jimmy Adams, Gareth Berg, Michael Carberry, Mason Crane, Liam Dawson, Fidel Edwards, Sean Ervine, Lewis McManus (wk), Rilee Rossouw, Brad Wheal
Middlesex have named a very strong squad, as they are only missing Nick Compton (recovering from an injection in his shoulder). Adam Voges is available to bat having arrived in the UK last weekend.
Middlesex squad: James Franklin (c), Stephen Eskinazi, Steven Finn, Nick Gubbins, Tom Helm, Ryan Higgins, Dawid Malan, Tim Murtagh, Ollie Rayner, Sam Robson, Toby Roland-Jones, John Simpson (wk), Adam Voges
Middlesex are unbeaten in their last five encounters with Hampshire (W2 D3).
Hampshire have only tasted defeat once in their last 13 home matches versus Middlesex (W5 D7).
Middlesex were the only side to go the entire 2016 campaign unbeaten (W6 D10).
Nick Gubbins reached 50 more often than any other batsman during the 2016 County Championship campaign (13 innings).
Weather and conditions
Forecasts suggest a dry and sunny Easter at the Ageas Bowl with some cloud cover on days one and two. Temperatures will be in the mid-teens. Expect the pitch to be a reasonable one for batting – last season Michael Carberry and Dawid Malan hit centuries in a rain-affected draw.
Date: 14th-17th April 2017
Ground: The Ageas Bowl
Odds (SkyBet): Hampshire 6/5, Middlesex 4/6