Hampshire’s reputation as a specialist limited-overs side, established in the late 2000s and early 2010s, was beginning to wear off but the club is now presented with an opportunity to find that dominance once again.
Of course, that won’t necessarily be the aim. While building on last year’s Royal London One-Day Cup triumph with another white-ball trophy — or, at least, an improvement on last year’s dismal Vitality Blast — would be terrific, it’s success in all formats that the club crave.
Last season marked a slight upturn in form in the Specsavers County Championship, with Hampshire avoiding relegation in the penultimate week instead of during the final game, as had been the case in three previous years. Gradual progress is progress nonetheless.
Adrian Birrell comes in as head coach — replacing Craig White, who departed for personal reasons — to continue that progress. The 58-year-old brings a good reputation, having guided Ireland to the Super Eights in the 2007 Cricket World Cup, a run which included a victory over Pakistan.
This remains a Hampshire team that is strong on paper, but has been punching too far below its weight since gaining promotion to Division One in 2014.
The bowling attack, spearheaded by Kyle Abbott and Fidel Edwards — who has signed a red-ball only contract — is bolstered by the signings of Keith Barker and James Fuller. Mason Crane’s return to full fitness could be crucial in a season where half of the Championship is played in mid-summer, while Gareth Berg should be as reliable as ever.
Weak batting has been the problem in recent years and the retirement of Jimmy Adams, who served the club so brilliantly for 17 seasons, will not help. Joe Weatherley opened with Oli Soames towards the end of last season, but James Vince may be an option having opened in two pre-season matches.
Rilee Rossouw, Sam Northeast, Liam Dawson, Tom Alsop and Lewis McManus make up a good middle order and the additions of Aneurin Donald and Dimuth Karunaratne add to what should be a very competitive team.
The challenge is to prove that they can be competitive on all fronts — it has been a while.
Ins: Aneurin Donald (Glamorgan), Keith Barker (Warwickshire), James Fuller (Middlesex), Harry Came (youth)
Outs: Jimmy Adams, Sean Ervine (both retired); Reece Topley, Calvin Dickinson, Asher Hart, Chris Sole (all released)
Sam Northeast’s first season in Hampshire colours did not pan out as he would have wished. The 129 against Surrey in his second game proved his only hundred of the year, fracturing a finger days later and hitting four half-centuries — only one of those in red-ball cricket.
Still, he remains a classy player and one who harbours England ambitions. Positively for Hampshire, in the short term at least, is that he is likely to bat at four or five and Ed Smith already has almost as many middle order batsmen as England has counties. Even a fruitful season may not earn him a call up, leaving him to score runs at domestic level.
Northeast had arrived at The Ageas Bowl last year in scintillating form, with eight first-class centuries in his final two seasons at Kent; fully fit and in form, he can be destructive to any attack. He hasn’t gone this long without a red-ball hundred since 2015, but he will surely show the south coast faithful the full extent of his talents this year.
Player to Watch
Aneurin Donald, one of Hampshire’s three new signings, has plenty to prove. He raised eyebrows in 2016 by equalling Ravi Shastri’s record for the fastest first-class double hundred (123 balls), but has not scored a first-team century since.
Donald featured in just four of Glamorgan’s Championship matches last year before leaving on loan for Hampshire — he is yet to make his full debut — citing Test hopes. No Glamorgan player has donned England whites since Simon Jones; Hampshire have had ten debutants since Jones’ retirement. On the surface, it seems a sensible choice.
But Donald has been pigeonholed slightly as a limited-overs player, given his attacking style, and he will be keen to prove to doubters that he can command an innings in red-ball cricket. Division One will be a much tougher task than anything he’s faced in the Championship so far, but if he can step up to the challenge, Hampshire will be very well placed.
Dimuth Karunaratne had been signed until the start of the Blast — covering ten Championship games, plus the entire One-Day Cup — but subsequent reports that he could captain Sri Lanka during the World Cup left the move in doubt.
Hampshire confirmed a week ahead of their season opener that the Sri Lankan would not be joining and they announced a deal for South African opener Aiden Markram until the end of May.
Beyond that time, the availability of both players will be determined by whether either, or both, are called up to their respective World Cup squads.
Hampshire are yet to sign a T20 specialist — of last year’s signings, Mujeeb Ur Rahman is at Middlesex while Colin Munro remains available — or confirm whether Dale Steyn will return. The South African quick suggested in September that he might return after the World Cup, following a successful south coast spell last season.
How they’ll fare
Division One has proven tough and Hampshire have spent four seasons battling at the wrong end of the table. With only one team suffering the drop this season, they should be comfortably fine on that front and a top-half finish would constitute a positive return.
The bookmakers see Hampshire as second favourites to win the One-Day Cup yet again, but no one has retained their List A crown since Sussex a decade ago, when the Pro40 was a league system. They will certainly expect to be there or thereabouts in that format.
Their T20 dominance has faded of late: after reaching six straight Finals Days from 2010 to 2015, they have failed to escape the South Group twice since 2016. Most fans have probably wiped last year’s campaign, which featured just two wins, from their memory.
Still, it would be foolish to rule them out of contention, especially with Rossouw’s power-hitting and Vince’s all-round talent, although Topley’s white-ball skills will be sorely missed.
SSCC v Essex, Friday 5th April at The Ageas Bowl
Season Odds (SkyBet)
Specsavers County Championship Division One: 8/1
Royal London One-Day Cup: 7/1
Vitality Blast: 9/1