As Hampshire chairman Rod Bransgrove sought after a 2023 Ashes Test, it would have been disheartening to see his team languishing near the bottom of the Specsavers County Championship Division One for a third straight year.
Forget the appearance at Finals Day. To narrowly survive yet again doesn’t read like a team making progress — it looks like one clinging on for dear life.
This is not the Hampshire side Bransgrove would want to see. This is not the Hampshire side its fans would want to see.
But Division One cricket, salvaged with a draw at already-relegated Warwickshire in the season’s final week, remains a potentially untenable position.
A woeful 76 all out against champions Essex — who had been skittled for the same score in their first innings — in the penultimate game felt like the culmination of a Championship season defined by sub-par performances.
The Essex defeat was one of four occasions where Hampshire had their foot on the throat but failed to turn an advantage into a win — they were in good positions to defeat Middlesex, Yorkshire, and Somerset, all at The Ageas Bowl.
When a quarter of the teams in this division get relegated, sides cannot afford to miss opportunity when it comes. That is one of the big lessons to learn going into the new campaign.
Expectations should be tempered, too — at least on the red-ball front. Essex’s title win at the first attempt shows that anyone can win Division One, but the relegation of 2016 champions Middlesex reminds us how difficult this competition is.
Since Hampshire gained promotion in 2014, only two other sides — Yorkshire and Somerset — have remained in the top flight. But their experience means little if it cannot be converted into wins.
To help with that are Sam Northeast and Hashim Amla, Hampshire’s two signings of the winter months, who will add talent to a batting order that can look fragile.
Pace bowler Chris Sole has progressed from the second XI to enter a bowling group with no other additions from last season, with Reece Topley playing white-ball cricket only to aid his recovery from a stress fracture to his back. His skills in the Royal London One-Day Cup, in which Hampshire were eliminated at the group stage in 2017, could be vital.
Kyle Abbott, the club’s star signing in 2017, will continue to lead the line with the ball and Mason Crane will surely have progressed in his development from his experience in Australia this winter. The experienced heads are still there, too, with Jimmy Adams, Gareth Berg, and Sean Ervine all part of this batting order.
On paper, this looks to be a strong team. Whether that will prove to be the case on the field is another question entirely.
Ins: Chris Sole (youth), Sam Northeast (Kent), Hashim Amla (overseas, April-June)
Outs: Michael Carberry (Leicestershire), Will Smith (Durham), George Bailey (released)
Much furore came from the Kolpak signings of Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw last January, but Abbott in particular proved to be an inspired import.
Hampshire’s leading Championship wicket-taker, the South African was a crucial element of a successful survival bid and his role cannot be understated.
Taking 60 wickets – the third most in Division One – is some achievement. Removing him from this attack would be highly appealing to the remaining counties and would leave Hampshire’s bowling line-up somewhat impotent.
At 30-years-old, Abbott has plenty left to give and his performances will likely reflect that of his team – a difficult season could see them struggle once again but another successful year may present Hampshire with silverware, or, at the very least, prevent them battling relegation again.
Player to Watch
Lewis McManus has played the better part of two full seasons for Hampshire but is yet to truly come into his own and establish himself as an irreplaceable part of this team.
Scoring his maiden first-class century as a 21-year-old in 2016 was a good start, but his 2017 campaign was cut short by a finger injury suffered in August.
McManus looks a good gloveman and talented with the bat. With second XI wicketkeeper Calvin Dickinson having had a taste of first-team cricket in McManus’s absence, it will make for some healthy competition for a place in the side.
But if McManus continues his development as he has done so far, he could prove a real star for Hampshire this season.
The absence of 2017 Championship captain George Bailey, who is not returning in order to be with his family, leaves a hole in Hampshire’s batting.
Into that hole comes South African Hashim Amla, who will spend the first three months with the club before jetting off to Sri Lanka in July. Amla is a world-class batsman with over 16,000 international runs, 54 international hundreds, and a Test triple-century.
He will be available for eight Championship matches and the entirety of the One-Day Cup and he will be a much feared batsman on the county circuit.
How they’ll fare
Historical form means punters’ eyes will drift straight to the limited-overs competitions as Hampshire’s biggest chance of success and rightfully so.
Since 2008, the club have missed out on the Blast’s knockout stages only once, with last year yet another appearance at Finals Day. It has become something of a specialty, despite not winning the competition nor making the final since 2012.
The club have also not won a List A trophy since 2012, but certainly don’t lack the attacking players to compete. James Vince, for all his flaws in red-ball cricket, thrives in the shorter formats.
Hampshire will once again be in and around the closing stages of the Blast and could very well mount a strong challenge in the One-Day Cup. In the Championship, a comfortable mid-table finish would probably be acceptable and, despite their last three Division One seasons, that seems the most likely outcome.
SSCC Div One v Worcestershire, Friday 13th April at The Ageas Bowl
Season Odds (SkyBet)
Specsavers County Championship Division 1: 7/1
Royal London One-Day Cup: 10/1
Vitality Twenty20 Blast: 8/1