It’s not a great time to be a Hampshire fan at the moment. Indeed, the club has managed to achieve the status of persona non grata in the English domestic game courtesy of the Kolpak controversy whilst supporters feel as welcome in the cricketing community at large as a bad smell in a small lift. Best not mention Durham or First Division cricket in the same sentence. Sotto voce utterings and an almost traditional Hampshire slow start to the summer is all but obligatory to the point where one almost hopes that the season doesn’t start too well.
Time was when Hampshire was known as ‘Happy Hampshire’ and were one of those clubs that supporters from elsewhere liked to see do well. Now the club lives in the hideous carbuncle currently known as the Ageas Bowl and, one feels, is viewed as Oscar Wilde’s cynic: price of everything, value of nothing.
Not all is doom and gloom though. Despite the headline grabbing signings of Kyle Abbott and Rilee Russouw dominating the winter column inches Hampshire’s squad has quietly enjoyed impressive progress. Left-handed opening batsman Tom Alsop performed reasonably well with the England Lions whilst leg-spinner Mason Crane ripped through Australian grade cricket line-ups before earning a most surprising call-up to the New South Wales Sheffield Shield team. Alsop is likely to receive plenty of game time as he appears a natural successor to the evergreen Jimmy Adams but questions remain as to whether Crane will be marginalised by English cricket’s distrust of spin bowlers and its penchant for producing unfriendly wickets.
James Vince will once again captain the team and, after a brief, yet unsuccessful spell with the England test team, is likely to play much of the season. Adams and Alsop are likely to fill two of the top three slots with the third hopefully occupied by the recovered Michael Carberry; a welcome and pleasing return for the erstwhile England batsman post fighting off a cancerous tumour. Russouw and Australian George Bailey are likely to challenge for the final spots in the batting line-up with crowd favourite Sean Ervine.
Another player enjoying stellar progress is wicket-keeper Lewis McManus, now the number one gloveman after Adam Wheater’s return to Essex. The former Dorset player impressed during the final weeks of the 2016 summer after establishing himself in the Second XI team.
Bowlers will once again be an issue for Hampshire, particularly with regard to fitness. Recent times have not been favourable to Hampshire’s attack as rarely have the club been able to regularly field their strongest line-up. Left-armers Chris Wood and Reece Topley both return from long-term injuries to join the precocious Crane, another evergreen performer in former Middlesex seamer Gareth Berg, Kolpak signing Kyle Abbott, veteran Barbadian Fidel Edwards and the rapidly developing Brad Wheal. Somewhere in amongst that line-up there is a place for all-rounder Liam Dawson. As ever, much will depend on players remaining fit.
Such an advent is very much a case of if’s and buts and pots and pans though. Should new coach Craig White be able to call upon his strongest side for much of the season then Hampshire should possess more than enough to avoid relegation. (again) Perhaps the biggest conundrum is whether Hampshire can rediscover their T20 mojo though. Finals Day incumbents for half a dozen consecutive summers, the short format squad bombed during the 2016 campaign and never remotely troubled the knock-out stages for a seventh season. The absence of Carberry, Vince and Wood for much or all of the campaign certainly affected the club’s chances but the likes of Alsop, McManus and Wheal enjoyed plenty of match time in the competition and appear to be the next batch of players from the Hampshire Academy to make the step up to the first team.
Times may well be a little uncomfortable for Hampshire supporters at the moment but once the business of playing begins there could be more happier times than the deflating disappointment of twelve months previous.