Twelve months on and the smell still lingers. If anything it has become stronger. Hampshire continues to be the Grinch that keeps on grinching. Post copping plenty of scorn for the demotion of Durham and the whole Kolpak farrago little has changed in terms of cause celebres in the intervening period. The club managed to dodge the relegation bullet again at the conclusion of the 2017 summer, reigning champions Middlesex dropping to the second division instead, before a winter of discontent.
Limited overs skipper James Vince was surprisingly included in the Ashes party and for almost four hours and eighty-three glorious runs it appeared as if the West Sussex native was set to fulfil his promising potential and become the mirror image of David Gower. The calamitous run out which followed was arguably a metaphor for England’s chances and Vince regressed back to the norm, each edged drive to the slips provoking further howls of derision. Liam Dawson last winter, James Vince this and Mason Crane’s ignominious debut amid much trumpeting of his abilities seemed to provide further grist to the mill against Hampshire.
Once the England issues had subsided the non-award of an Ashes test to the ‘Bransgrove Bowl’ stirred the pot whilst Reece Topley’s decision to concentrate on white ball cricket (a sensible choice bearing in mind his injury woes) added further fuel to the fire. The club then had the temerity to deny the remainder of the first division in the chase for Sam Northeast’s signature, a boon for the club but most cricket fans will likely be less than enamoured that he has signed for Hampshire. Only signing Morne Morkel as a Kolpak player would make things worse.
On the field of play the season undertook a rather schizophrenic sojourn. Three early Championship victories, with Kyle Abbott to the fore, prompted thoughts of a potential title challenge but as the season ventured though its fragmented median the victories dried up and only a last day ‘they shall not pass’ resistance at Edgbaston maintained the county’s top flight status. The Royal London Cup proved a particularly damp squib but the combination of Shahid Afridi and Mason Crane, a leg-spin student and master scenario, contributed to a seventh Finals Day appearance in eight years, although the almost annual exit at the semi-final stage proved particularly disappointing.
The club, of course, carries on regardless and six weeks prior to the genesis of the new season the announcement of Hashim Amla’s signing proved invigorating. Truly world class performers are few and far between in the modern day County Championship so the prospect of the South African anchoring the batting order proves mouth-watering, if only for three months. Amla’s signing does not bode well for long-time servant Jimmy Adams or promising academy graduate Tom Alsop though. With the likes of Rilee Rossouw, James Vince, Liam Dawson, Sean Ervine, Sam Northeast and Amla forming the top six opportunities look limited for the two batsmen. Alsop may well look for pastures new to further his career but one ponders whether Adams’ long tenure at the club has reached its conclusion, a sad loss whatever the outcome. The club also said goodbye to another long-time servant in Michael Carberry as the stylish left-handed opener moved to Leicestershire to become the club’s captain.
Amla’s three month residence at the Ageas Bowl dictates that Hampshire will need to take advantage of his presence considering the nosedive the four day team undertook once the limited overs play began last summer. If Hampshire can avoid such a scenario again this year then a Championship challenge is not out of the question. Fifty over cricket remains something of an enigma for the team, the club has only progressed from the group stages twice in the last five seasons, but one suspects that the T20 Blast will provide the main white ball focus, such is Hampshire’s success in recent times. Much will depend on whether Mason Crane’s discombobulated cricketing brain can be unscrambled. Post his Ashes baptism of fire the young leg-spinner appeared all at sea during the disastrous Lions tour to the Caribbean as his bowling appeared to be unravelling. No overseas signing has been announced for the Blast and one suspects that the club need to look elsewhere as signing the ageing Afridi again could prove one season too many.
One cannot deny that the general ambience toward Hampshire remains as hostile as ever, and may well have worsened over the winter, but one feels that the club could capture some silverware this summer. Kyle Abbott aside, the bowling attack remains light though and one wonders how long the evergreen Gareth Berg can keep performing at the highest levels in domestic cricket but the presence of a vastly improved batting line-up offers the strongest top six that the club has been able to call upon for many a summer. One hopes that the difficult winters endured by Messrs Vince and Crane can be filed away by the respective players as they will have major parts to play during the summer.