Countdown to the 2021 County Championship – a close look at Hampshire and their Group B rivals

Hampshire lift the curtain on a new-look County Championship season next Thursday.

Saturday, 3rd April 2021, 10:18 am
Joe Weatherley was Hampshire's leading runscorer in last year's Bob Willis Trophy campaign. Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images.

Due to the pandemic, a remodelled four-day structure will see the 18 first class counties compete in three groups of six.

After home and away games against each other, the top two teams from each group will progress to Division 1. The third and fourth best will go into Division 2 and the fifth and sixth teams into Division 3.

Each county will then play a further four matches with the top two in Division 1 progressing to the Bob Willis Trophy final at Lord’s in late September.

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Hashim Amla is just one reason why Surrey's squad looks strong all round in 2021. Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images.

Hampshire are in a tough Group B, having been placed alongside two counties who have won the Championship in recent times - Middlesex (2016) and Surrey (2018).

They have also been grouped with Somerset, runners-up in the Championship in 2016, 2018 and 2019 as well as in the Bob Willis Trophy last year.

Leicestershire and Gloucestershire - who, along with Middlesex, played in Division 2 of the four-day league in 2019 - complete the group.

Here, The News takes a close look at Hampshire and their five group rivals ...

Australian Peter Handscomb will skipper Middlesex in 2021. Picture: Jason O'Brien/PA Wire.

GROUP 2

GLOUCESTERSHIRE

Coach: Ian Harvey (interim)

Captain: Chris Dent

Colin Ackermann will skipper Leicestershire in 2021. Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images.

Last 5 years: 2020 - 5th (of 6) (Central Group); 2019 - 3rd (Div 2); 2018 - 5th (Div 2); 2017 - 6th (Div 2); 2016 - 6th (Div 2).

2020 Leading Runscorer: Graeme van Buuren (244 @ 30.5)

2020 Leading Wicket Taker: Ryan Higgins (17 @ 23)

Overseas players: Dan Worrall (Australia - full season), Kraigg Brathwaite (West Indies - April 8–June 6)

Tom Lammonby underlined his potential with three Bob Willis Trophy hundreds for Somerset in 2021. Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images.

Key man: Chris Dent has scored consistent runs over the past five seasons and will need to do so again if Gloucestershire are to be competitive.

Flies under the radar: Tom Lace could be one to watch having followed Higgins - once of Bashley Rydal in the Southern Premier League - and George Scott down the M4 from Middlesex. A highly-rated 22-year-old batsman.

Best Player Under 24: James Bracey’s talent has been obvious for some time and he’s been involved in senior England squads over the past 12 months. Signed a new three-year deal this winter.

The Season Ahead: Gloucestershire face a daunting start to the season, hosting Surrey before trips to Somerset and Hampshire. Their first-choice bowling attack is capable of taking 20 wickets regularly but their challenge is to find enough runs to be competitive against the stronger sides.

They have also had to battle some quite unresponsive pitches at Bristol in recent years with results hard to come by at Nevil Road. The increased reward for draws this season - eight for a winning draw - could help build their points tally.

Qualifying for Division Two in September would perhaps represent a good red-ball summer.

Skipper Chris Dent has been a key man in Gloucestershire's top order in recent years. Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images.

HAMPSHIRE

Coach: Adrian Birrell

Captain: James Vince

Last 5 years: 2020 - 4th (6) (South Group); 2019 - 3rd (Div 1): 2018 - 5th (Div 1) ; 2017 - 5th (Div 1); 2016 - 8th (Div 1, reprieved from relegation due to Durham’s financial problems).

2020 Leading runscorer: Joe Weatherley (263 @ 43.83)

2020 Leading wicket taker: Ian Holland (17 @ 17.47)

Overseas players: Mohammad Abbas (Pakistan 8 April-30 May), Kyle Abbott (South Africa, full season)

Key man: Kyle Abbott - The big fast bowler is back after missing last season and looking to repeat his superb 2019 campaign where he took 71 Championship wickets at 16.19, including 17-86 against Somerset.

Flies under the radar: Joe Weatherley - Made his breakthrough in last season’s Bob Willis Trophy, the 24-year-old is primed for a big summer after putting himself through a gruelling winter fitness programme.

Best player under 24: Felix Organ - At 21, the Sydney-born all-rounder already has a County Championship century and a five-wicket haul to his name.

The Season Ahead: After a third-place Division One finish in 2019, hopes were high for the 2020 season. However, Covid-19 kept overseas stars Abbott and Fidel Edwards away, skipper James Vince missed all of the Bob Willis Trophy campaign, and all-rounder Liam Dawson suffered a ruptured Achilles sustained in his first BWT appearance against Middlesex. As a result, a young-ish team found runs hard to come by, though they still defeated Middlesex and Surrey. Abbott and the newly-signed Abbas will pose plenty of problems for opposing batsmen. But the pressure will be on Vince, Sam Northeast and the highly-rated Weatherley to provide the runs to steer the club to a first County Championship title since 1973.

LEICESTERSHIRE

Coach: Paul Nixon

Captain: Colin Ackermann

Last 5 years: 2020 - 5th (6) (North Group); 2019 - 10th (Div 2, bottom); 2018 - 6th (Div 2); 2017 - 10th (Div 2, bottom): 2016 - 7th (Div 2).

2020 Leading Runscorer: Colin Ackermann (379 @ 54.1)

2020 Leading Wicket Taker: Ben Mike (9 @ 31.0), Dieter Klein (9 @ 36.9)

Overseas players: Marcus Harris (Australia)

Key man: Colin Ackermann - The captain is also Leicestershire’s most valuable asset, a reliable source of middle-order runs who averaged 54 in the Bob Willis Trophy, a fine fielder and a handy off-spin bowler.

Flies under the radar: Hassan Azad - The buzz around the left-handed opener faded a little after modest returns in the Bob Willis Trophy, but if he can recapture his outstanding 2019 form (1,189 Div 2 runs at 54.04) he will frustrate many an opposition bowler.

Best Player Under 24: Harry Swindells - A young wicketkeeper-batsman of potential who has displaced Lewis Hill in the side and follows in a long line of home-grown talent to attract the interest of wealthier rival counties.

The Season Ahead: With Surrey, Somerset and Hampshire among their opponents, Leicestershire look to be in a tough group. After winning five matches in 2018 their form regressed in 2019 but they pulled off a morale-boosting win over Lancashire last season, albeit on the back of a century by the on-loan Nottinghamshire batsman Ben Slater. Coach Paul Nixon rarely lets his optimistic outlook desert him and he has assembled a squad who will not let him down in terms of attitude and effort. The permanent signing of Rishi Patel from Essex is a boost, as will be the arrival of Australian Test opener Marcus Harris (10 Tests, av 23.77) as overseas player in a line-up that looks capable of building decent scores. They look a little thin on the ground in terms of wicket-taking bowlers, however, which is a concern.

MIDDLESEX

Coach: Stuart Law

Captain: Peter Handscomb

Last 5 years: 2020 - 3rd (6) (South Group); 2019 - 8th (Div 2); 2018 - 4th (Div 2); 2017 - 8th (Div 1, relegated); 2016 - 1st (Div 1, champions).

2020 Leading Runscorer: Nick Gubbins (350 @ 43.75)

2020 Leading Wicket Taker: Tim Murtagh (25 @ 12.72)

Overseas players: Peter Handscomb (Australia – full season)

Key man: In addition to his leadership experience, Middlesex will hope Handscomb can bring some ballast to a batting order that has looked fragile at times.

Flies under the radar: Martin Andersson, who rounded off Middlesex’s Bob Willis Trophy campaign with successive four-wicket hauls last year, is continuing to mature into a genuine all-rounder.

Best Player Under 24: Left-hander Max Holden has added a gritty element to his attacking strokeplay and looks to have cemented his position as Sam Robson’s opening partner.

The Season Ahead: Even after Miguel Cummins’ departure, Middlesex still possess formidable depth to their pool of seamers, with Tim Murtagh, Toby Roland-Jones, Steven Finn, Tom Helm and James Harris all vying for places.

Throw promising youngsters such as Ethan Bamber and Blake Cullen into the mix and the Seaxes should find a way to bowl opponents out twice on a regular basis.

However, the batting line-up – which has been largely unchanged over the past four years – provides greater cause for concern, with Middlesex frequently struggling to put 300-plus totals on the board. Dawid Malan’s departure to Yorkshire hasn’t helped matters there.

But if new skipper Handscomb can ease that headache, both through his own run-scoring contribution and by getting more out of his senior batsmen, the team look at least capable of holding their own.

SOMERSET

Coach: Jason Kerr

Captain: Tom Abell

Last 5 years: 2020 1st (Central Group), Bob Willis Trophy runners-up); 2019 - 2nd (Div 1), 2018 - 2nd (Div 1); 2017 - 6th (Div 1); 2016 - 2nd (Div 1).

2020 Leading Runscorer: Tom Lammonby (459 @ 51)

2020 Leading Wicket Taker: Craig Overton (30 @ 13.43)

Overseas players: Marchant de Lange (South Africa - full season)

Key man: Tom Abell has grown into a confident leader and added an impressive haul of runs to his captaincy last season, proving leadership is not a distraction to his own development.

Flies under the radar: Despite over 13,000 first-class runs, Steven Davies doesn’t attract as many headlines as the younger talent but his experience and ability remain a keystone of the dressing room.

Best Player Under 24: Lammonby made an incredible start to his career with three centuries in six innings and the 20-year-old appears to have a big future.

The Season Ahead: We ask again - ‘will this be Somerset’s season?’ Despite coming so close to that elusive pennant in the past five years, Somerset have found other counties producing a more complete campaign.

They win a lot of tight matches - a good habit - but some that go the other way have been costly and they need to find more runs to control more matches.

That could be tricky if pitches at Taunton continue to be dominated by bowlers, either spin or, last season, seam. The emergence of Lammonby, and Abell’s form last year, will certainly help.

Marchant de Lange, after four years at Glamorgan, has been brought in to shore up the seam bowling after Jamie Overton’s move to Surrey.

Nothing less than qualifying for Division One in September will do.

SURREY

Coach: Vikram Solanki

Captain: Rory Burns

Last 5 years: 2020 - 5th (6) (South Group); 2019 - 6th (Div 1); 2018 - 1st (Div 1, champions); 2017 - 3rd (Div 1): 2016 - 5th (Div 1).

2020 Leading Runscorer: Jamie Smith (274 @ 30.44)

2020 Leading Wicket Taker: Amar Virdi (22 @ 25.90)

Overseas players: Hashim Amla (South Africa – full season), Kemar Roach (West Indies – April & May).

Key man: Jamie Overton - Signed from Somerset on a three-year contract last August, the 6ft 5in tall paceman – capable of 90mph-plus speeds – sees his move as a potential stepping stone to England honours.

Flies under the radar: Jordan Clark - In 52 first-class appearances, the strapping all-rounder averages almost 28 with the bat and 34 with the ball. Expect more still from him this season in all formats.

Best Player Under 24: Ollie Pope - At 23 Pope already has 17 Test caps and averages 50 in first-class cricket. Available for all Surrey’s early-season championship cricket, he will be looking to score big runs at number four.

The Season Ahead: Surrey look strong in all departments and the early-season signing of West Indies fast bowler Kemar Roach, as a second overseas player behind South African batting great Hashim Amla, adds even more firepower to a seam attack also featuring the raw pace of Overton and Conor McKerr, plus the wiles of evergreen Rikki Clarke. The Curran brothers, Sam and Tom, are initially away at the IPL but Surrey’s squad is deep, there is an exciting and significant spin threat from Virdi and Dan Moriarty – the young pair shared 39 Bob Willis Trophy wickets last year – and a guarantee of top-order runs from the likes of Amla, Rory Burns, Pope, Ben Foakes and Mark Stoneman. The experience of Laurie Evans is a further boost to a batting line-up also featuring the youthful talents of Jamie Smith, 20, and Will Jacks, 22.