There’s a new era at Hampshire. Amid minor chopping and changing on the field, off it there have been critical moves.
Out went Craig White in October, for personal reasons, in stepped Adrian Birrell, the South African head coach who led Ireland to the Super Eights of the 2007 World Cup. Beside him sit Alfonso Thomas, the South African bowler who spent nearly a decade in county cricket, and Jimmy Adams.
With Adams comes huge playing experience but, more importantly, he’s loved in these parts for his 17 years of service to the club. For all the criticism sent Hampshire’s way for bringing in Kolpaks and players developed at other counties, this appointment is a reminder of the club’s core, and is sure to pay dividends.
Birrell first met the squad just three weeks ago, at a pre-season training camp in La Manga. The preparation may seem short — “time’s flown,” he says — but he has bedded in well and, despite some perceptions, he doesn’t think radical overhaul is necessary.
“They’ve won more white-ball trophies [five] than anyone in the last ten years. They came fifth last year out of 18 counties and everyone thinks they’re a poor red-ball side. I don’t get it.
“I do get it in that in 156 years [since the club’s formation] they’ve won the County Championship twice so there’s a great hunger to win it, but if it was going to be easy they’d have won it a lot more than that.
“I can’t promise we’re going to win anything but we will plan and prepare as well as we possibly can to try and win [trophies].”
“It’s not like a magic wand that you wave and suddenly you win a Championship. I think it’s a lot harder than any of us think but hopefully it’s about trying to compete in all formats. That’s what I’ll try and do.”
It would be hard to argue with him. Hampshire ended their six year wait for silverware last year with the Royal London One-Day Cup and the foundations are there to build on that success.
With a coaching career spanning two decades, Birrell brings with him a deep knowledge of the game. Ireland’s arguably most famous day, beating Pakistan in the 2007 World Cup, came under his management. More recently, he guided Paarl Rocks to the semi-finals of the inaugural Mzansi Super League in December.
But Paarl were denied the opportunity to win the competition by rain, which forced the semi-final to be abandoned and Jozi Stars progressed with a better qualifying record.
“Sport’s about competing and then when you can’t compete it’s hard to take,” Birrell reflects. “They were a good side but we were on form, we had scrapped and scrapped and got there.”
Disappointed though he was, he says he’s used to it by now. “I was in Ireland long enough and I kept saying to the Irish, if you’re not prepared to play cricket in drizzle you won’t play.” Wise words, one suspects, in an often drizzly England.
Unreliable weather conditions may be a constant for county cricket, but Birrell’s main constant is at home: the 58-year-old is a keen beef, honey, and wildlife farmer. He smiles while explaining simply that the land, while not very big, is his — although his wife, sons, and neighbour pitch in to help when he isn’t there.
“I think it’s more that it’s a release outside of what I do. The pressures that go along with this job are quite big and it’s a passion outside of the pressures of trying to win cricket matches. Sometimes, it puts things into perspective a little bit better.”
Birrell is a composed figure as he speaks, sat in a suite at The Ageas Bowl. Can he remain that way under pressure at Hampshire? He expects so, citing confidence in his ability to reflect on the past.
On the pitch, the club seem well placed. Of the regular players, just Jimmy Adams and Reece Topley — who had a white-ball only contract — departed in the winter with Keith Barker, James Fuller and Aneurin Donald making their way to the south coast.
More recently, there has been a dilemma over getting an overseas player, with Dimuth Karunaratne initially signed but no longer coming to Hampshire due to potential involvement in Sri Lanka’s World Cup squad.
In his place, Aiden Markram, the South African opener. But Birrell was keen to point out that signing a big name overseas player merely adds to a squad he believes good enough to win titles — despite much competition.
“You look at one to 11, it’s a strong side. Equally you look at Essex and they’re also a strong side, and I’ve had a look at Yorkshire and they’re also a strong side.
“I didn’t know the squad when I started but I can see that Giles White has done a good job in recruiting but also growing players from within and it’s a good squad all-round.”
That consistency and familiarity will be important for Hampshire to continue making progress under a new regime. If Birrell can dig up a trophy along the way, that will only add to the positive vibes at The Ageas Bowl.