As new England national selector Ed Smith casts his eye across this week’s Specsavers County Championship scores, he might pay particular attention to events at The Ageas Bowl.
Not only will Test hopeful Sam Northeast – who scored a century in Hampshire’s defeat at Surrey on Monday – feature alongside James Vince, seeking to retain his spot at number three, but former captain Alastair Cook is set to make his first Championship appearance since struggling on the winter tour.
Talk of dropping him is extreme, particularly given that Smith’s remit will include continuing the search for Andrew Strauss’s replacement at the top of the order – the incumbent Mark Stoneman is another who needs runs to keep his place.
But Cook will be hungry for a score, and a big one. Last summer he ended his poor form with a trio of centuries in Essex’s opening three matches.
Here, he has just three games to remind those who have lost faith just why he is England’s leading Test run-scorer, and after a hundred against Hampshire last season he should be confident of impressing the south coast crowd.
His side are still yet to lose a match since earning promotion back to Division One having completed a 31-run victory against Lancashire last week, following an opening week washout at Headingley.
Hampshire boast a dangerous top order but, save for Northeast’s 129 and Hashim Amla’s first-innings 55, it failed to fire at The Oval as Surrey inflicted a 139-run win over the south coast unit.
They will still be smarting from their Southampton encounter with Essex last season, where the champions pulled off a remarkable victory having been forced to follow on.
With Hampshire tipped by some for the Division One title, this match provides an opportunity to prove themselves against a destructive team.
For Jimmy Adams, the 2018 season is likely to be a poignant one, with the left-handed opener expecting it to be his final year in professional cricket. He is presented with the opportunity to go out with a bang, particularly after an unbeaten 182 against Cardiff MCCU in pre-season. The 37-year-old has managed just 78 runs in his last nine first-class innings against Essex, and will want to deliver a big score for his side here.
The return of Alastair Cook will make all of the headlines, but it was the young man with whom he shares a surname, Sam, who did so at The Ageas Bowl last September. In just his third Championship appearance, 20-year-old Cook ran through Hampshire, picking up his maiden first-class five-wicket-haul with figures of five for 18. He might not take the new ball with Peter Siddle in Essex’s ranks, but the hosts will be wary of the youngster’s emerging talents.
Hampshire name Gareth Berg, Joe Weatherley and Chris Sole alongside the team that suffered defeat at The Oval. Berg missed the Surrey trip awaiting the imminent birth of his second child, with Chris Wood deputising, and with the baby still yet to arrive, he could miss out again.
Hampshire squad: James Vince (c), Kyle Abbott, Jimmy Adams, Hashim Amla, Gareth Berg, Liam Dawson, Fidel Edwards, Lewis McManus (wk), Sam Northeast, Rilee Roussouw, Chris Sole, Joe Weatherley, Brad Wheal, Chris Wood
Varun Chopra could make way for Alastair Cook’s return to the County Championship having scored just 38 runs last week. Sam Cook is included in the squad after recovering from a finger injury picked up ahead of the Lancashire match. Essex have also named Aaron Beard in the 13, with the 20-year-old last featuring in a Championship match in June 2017.
Essex squad: Ryan ten Doeschate (c), Aaron Beard, Ravi Bopara, Nick Browne, Varun Chopra, Alastair Cook, Sam Cook, James Foster (wk), Simon Harmer, Dan Lawrence, Jamie Porter, Peter Siddle, Tom Westley
Weather and Conditions
Rain is set to heavily affect the opening and closing days of this encounter, with the weekend looking cold and grey, but largely dry. On a pitch likely to be tinged green, Essex might make use of their option to bowl first.
Date: 27th-30th April 2018
Ground: The Ageas Bowl
Odds (SkyBet): Hampshire 11/10, Essex 8/11