Birrell borrowing from Essex blueprint in bid to turn ‘Happy Hampshire’ into Championship winners
Indeed, Hampshire - elected to the Championship in 1895 - have only ever won cricket’s blue riband trophy twice, in 1961 and 1973.
But after ending up third last season, their best finish since 2008, first team coach Birrell believes the county were in a good place to end their four-day woes in 2020 before the pandemic took a stranglehold on world sport.
‘We had a really good plan to win the Championship this year,’ Birrell said.
‘If you look at Essex they have won two of the last three with Harmer taking 80 wickets. We were looking to do a similar thing by bringing in a very good spinner who was available for all 14 matches.
‘Harmer, (Jamie) Porter and (Peter) Siddle is a good bowling attack but if you look at ours we would have had Fidel, Abbott, Barker, Dawson and Lyon – that is quite formidable.
‘Lyon is the best spinner in the world.’
The stats back Birrell’s claim up. Last summer, Abbott was the Championship’s second highest wicket-taker with 71 victims at just 15.73 - only Harmer (83 wickets) took more.
Fidel Edwards claimed 48 wickets and Keith Barker took 37.
Hampshire’s three leading wicket-takers between them took 156 wickets - only nine fewer than Harmer, Porter (48) and Siddle (34). And then you add Nathan Lyon - a man with 390 Test wickets to his name - into the equation ...
‘I would say Hampshire are one of the stronger counties,’ Birrell added.
“We aren’t the strongest but we certainly aren’t the weakest. It’s a good squad. We can be competitive and we should be competitive.’
Birrell took over from Craig White as first-team manager in December 2018. He had previously led Ireland in the 2007 World Cup - where they beat Pakistan - and had been assistant coach of the South African national team.
There was also a stint as head coach of the England under-19s in 2010, when current Test skipper Joe Root was among his squad (as was former Hampshire player Adam Rouse).
One of Birrell’s goals was to bring a new resilient mentality to Hampshire’s Championship performances.
The county had long lived under the moniker ‘Happy Hampshire’ – with s, perhaps unfair, reputation they would roll over in tricky situations.
While a complete overhaul of the club’s DNA is an ongoing process, South African Birrell was pleased with what he saw in his opening campaign.
‘We needed to toughen up a little and not lose in four-day cricket,’ he added.
‘There were a couple of times last year, like Somerset (away), where we lost a bit easy but then there were a couple of times like Yorkshire and Surrey where we showed a lot of guts and fought.
‘Those two matches I was very pleased that we were able to salvage a draw while fighting really hard.’
Both those draws Birrell was talking about came away from The Ageas Bowl.
In May, they claimed a draw at Headingley - ending on 158-5 in their second innings after dipping to 7-2 and 35-3.
At The Oval in August, Hampshire trailed by 212 on first innings after Surrey’s Ollie Pope had struck an undefeated 221. But the visitors held their nerve to earn a draw on 253-5.
‘They gave a lot of satisfaction to all of us to hold off in those matches when things had gone against us,’ Birrell recalled.
‘Those situations where we can fight to salvage a draw when in previous years we might have lost.
‘It is about trying to challenge the players to do that more in four-day cricket.
‘It comes very slowly because you learn from your experiences.
‘There are small wins along the way and we heaped loads of praise on those two matches we saved.
‘It is little by little, it isn’t a huge change overnight.
‘It takes a long time and it comes in small increments by using small bits of praise for small wins.”
Once Ajinkya Rahane’s stint ended in mid-July, Hampshire made the forward-looking decision not to bring in another overseas player.
Instead, the club’s management elected to give academy graduate Felix Organ a run in the 1st XI, and allow the likes of Ian Holland and Tom Alsop time in new roles further up the batting order.
Birrell said: ‘It was really great to beat Somerset at the end and finish well as we didn’t use an overseas pro for those matches to give our players a bit more experience going into this year.
‘We knew we couldn’t win the Championship so we blood in a couple of players instead.
‘We came third and only two sides beat us and for a long time we were in with a chance.’
Hampshire weren’t helped by losing England pair James Vince and Liam Dawson for an extended period during the World Cup.
Vince only ended up playing in six of Hampshire’s 14 Championship games, while Dawson played in eight.
‘It was hard after we lost Vince and Dawson to compete in those matches. We fell off the pace a little bit,’ said Birrell.
Looking back on his first season of county cricket, there was one obvious high - Hampshire reaching a Lord’s final for the sixth time since 2005.
They only lost to Essex on their way to a second successive Royal London Cup final.
But with the spine of their batting line-up ripped out due to World Cup involvement, they were comfortably beaten by Somerset.
Birrell is keen not to tinker with the ingrained winning formula, which has seen seven T20 finals days and five one-day trophies since 2009.
He said: ‘Getting to a final was a high moment last year but there was the disappointment of not being at full strength.
“We basically missed (Aiden) Markram, Vince and Dawson – three of our biggest players out of the final.
“That was a bitter blow but we played good cricket. We only lost one pool game to get there which was a good effort.
‘The white ball stuff has gone really well in the last decade or so, so it is about continuing that history and DNA which is already there.’