For Hampshire, this has been an uncertain winter. Three key players – James Vince, Mason Crane and Liam Dawson – have been involved with England in Australia and New Zealand and their international future over the next year is yet to be determined, with another three players having left the club – Michael Carberry, Will Smith and George Bailey.
Smith, at least, had not played any competitive first-team cricket last year, and so his loss is the least impactful. In the case of Carberry, his departure after 11 years will likely hit hard, while Bailey’s decision to remain in Australia with his family leaves the club without a Specsavers County Championship captain.
Director of Cricket Giles White confirmed on Friday the club’s plans for Vince, who leads the side in white-ball cricket, to take the reins in all forms. Only should he have a successful Test series in New Zealand next month, or indeed cement a spot in the England ODI side, he will be absent from his club for much of the campaign.
Short-term, though, that does not appear much of a concern, given that the club’s first five Championship fixtures fall outside of England’s entire schedule.
“That makes it quite straightforward,” said White. “So we’re expecting Vince to be here and playing and captain the side, and I think from there we’ll be able to see what’s happened prior to that and look at what we do after that.
“It gives us a nice period of consolidation and understanding what the season might look like in terms of availability.”
A large part of the club’s preparation over the last month has taken place in the West Indies, taking part in the Regional Super50 competition (Kent were also involved) and fielding a youthful squad – four of the 14 were 35 or over, with nine 23 or under.
Results did not go their way, finishing bottom of Group A having won two out of eight matches.
“That wasn’t why we were going out there,” White noted. “If you look a little bit more deeply at it, it was more about developing the individual as well and not results.
“Results is the summer. Improving by playing is a big part of how [the young players] develop. If they’re in the indoor school all winter not playing, they’re not going to learn what a lot of these young guys learn in an experience like that.
“We learnt a fair amount and we could probably do it again as long as we’re happy with how the pre-season phase goes.”
Joe Weatherley is one of those to have impressed, who was singled out by White. Weatherley’s 218 runs made him the club’s second top-scorer while his off-breaks also picked up eight wickets, including four for 25 against Trinidad and Tobago.
“Joe did well with the ball and I think he was one of the positives of the trip. He’s a good young player who’s getting better.
“He had a tough year last year. He was on loan at Kent and he didn’t get as many runs as he would have hoped, then came back, got a bit more opportunity with us and again it was a tough time.”
“He’s taken that away and again he’s worked very hard with [batting coach] Tony Middleton in the nets. He’s gone off to the West Indies and he’s produced, so really pleased with the way he’s gone.”
White was similarly pleased with the development of Brad Taylor, an off-spinning all-rounder who in 2013 became the youngest player in the club’s first team for 135 years. He picked up just five wickets but did add 198 with the bat.
“I think he’s close to the white-ball side,” claimed White. “His bowling: towards the end he did well. He bowled accurately, but his batting was fantastic and his fielding’s fantastic, and as a lower-order batsman he contributes and in the field he contributes, and if he gets the opportunity he’s a nice package.”
Amid positive signs in the Caribbean, Hampshire will be buoyed by the arrival of Sam Northeast from Kent. His signature has been eagerly contested in the weeks since he expressed a desire to leave his hometown county, with eight teams speaking to him about a move.
Northeast is the club’s first signing this winter and slots in as a handy replacement for Bailey. His record of over 8,000 first-class runs speaks for itself, and he improve a batting line-up that – depending on form, injuries and international call-ups – could look either frail or strong.
White said: “It’s nice when a player of that quality chooses to continue his career with us. He’s the type of player that we obviously are keen to have on board and I think he’s a good fit. It seems like the right fit for him and I feel it’s the right fit for us.”
“He’s going to test himself against some good players, hopefully in a strong Hampshire team.”
Northeast could end up the club’s only new face in 2018, although given the club’s expected calibre in T20 cricket, a specialist Vitality Blast import seems likely. Certainly, there will be no unnecessary signings; “We want someone who will make a difference,” said White.
The director of cricket is also not anticipating that any of his players will demand a white-ball only deal akin to the ones Adil Rashid and Alex Hales have signed at Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, respectively, this month – particularly given the club’s ambition for red-ball success.
“I can see players doing that in the future. [But] you’ve got to be one of the very best so whether it filters down to many players in county cricket, I don’t know.
“We made a conscious effort in 2014 to recruit for Championship success, and we went up, and now we’ve really wrestled to stay up. I think there’s an appetite to be at the top end of the division rather than the bottom but it is a difficult division.
“Over the years we’ve had success in white ball cricket. Championship cricket we’ve found tougher.
“This group of players have tasted success, but it hasn’t been in red ball and we’ve been pushing that form of the game for a few years now.”