Quiet optimism at The Ageas Bowl is not misplaced as Hampshire get ready to lift the curtain on the most competitive elite sporting league in England

The curtain rises once more on the most competitive elite sporting league in England this week.

By Simon Carter
Tuesday, 5th April 2022, 2:03 pm
What might have been. Hampshire captain James Vince leaves the field after losing the LV= Insurance County Championship match at Aigburth last September by just one wicket. Victory would have seen Hampshire crowned champions for the first time since 1973. Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images.
What might have been. Hampshire captain James Vince leaves the field after losing the LV= Insurance County Championship match at Aigburth last September by just one wicket. Victory would have seen Hampshire crowned champions for the first time since 1973. Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images.

The first round of 2022 LV= County Championship matches start on Thursday with Hampshire bidding to add their name to a long roll call of 21st century winners.

Since the dawn of the new millennium, nine of the first class counties - exactly half of them - have won what remains, even in this era of white ball domination, the ultimate prize on the county circuit.

No county has won more than three Championships this century. Compare that to the Premier League, where only six clubs have lifted the title in the same period with Manchester United having won it eight times. Chelsea and Manchester City both have five titles.

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Ben Brown has arrived at Hampshire with a better first class average than all his new colleagues, including skipper James Vince. Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images.

Compare it also to the top flight of English club rugby, where Leicester have won the Premiership seven times. Saracens (5) are next best. In rugby league, eight clubs have been crowned English champions but St Helens (8 wins) and Wigan (4 wins) have finished first or second on 24 occasions.

Additionally, you’ll never find the Premier League champions getting relegated the following season. Unlike in county cricket, where Yorkshire (2002), Nottinghamshire (2006) and Middlesex (2017) all went down 12 months after winning the title. The world ‘competitive’ hardly does it justice.

Hampshire are one of the nine first class counties still waiting for their first Championship win of the current century. Indeed, the last of their two victories came almost half a century ago, in 1973.

Yet no-one at The Ageas Bowl needs reminding just how close the county came to ending that long, long wait last September.

Mohammad Abbas is back for a second season at Hampshire after claiming 41 wickets last year. Picture: Alex Pantling/Getty Images

In one of the most nerve-shredding finales in Championship history - and there have been a few - Hampshire came within one wicket of winning the title.

Lancashire, set 196 for victory at Aigburth, Liverpool, were on course for victory after reaching 177-5. But, dramatically, they had collapsed to 194-9. Last man Matt Parkinson survived two deliveries, before skipper Dane Vilas broke Hampshire hearts by hitting the winning runs off Liam Dawson.

Had they taken that last wicket and won, James Vince would have joined Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie (1961) and Richard Gilliat (1973) as Championship-winning Hampshire skippers. But because they didn’t and lost, the county finished fourth in a six-team Division 1 table. As is so often the case in elite sport, the margins between success and failure, between glory and ‘if only’, were very fine.

‘It was a dejected dressing room because we had come so close,’ recalled Vince this week as Hampshire held their first pre-season press day for three years.

Felix Organ is the youngest member of Hampshire's regular first team squad at 22. Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images

But within weeks, following a ‘bit of reflection’, the mood had changed. From one of heartache, to one of knowing that - finally - Hampshire had a squad good enough to seriously challenge.

Six and a bit months on from their bitter disappointment at Liverpool, a mood of quiet optimism envelops The Ageas Bowl ahead of the new campaign.

Yes, pre-seasons are always a time for optimism; after all, I’ve never interviewed a football manager or cricket captain who cheerfully predicts a relegation battle.

But the optimism at Hampshire does not appear to be misplaced.

Very rarely are county cricket squads taken apart and rebuilt along the lines of footballing ones. It’s always evolution rather than revolution.

In keeping with that, Hampshire’s close-season activity, in terms of new faces, was restricted to just one. But the arrival of ex-Sussex wicketkeeper/batsman Ben Brown could be a very astute signing.

Last season, Hampshire’s red ball ‘success’ was built around their seam attack.

Kyle Abbott (46 wickets), Mohammad Abbas (41), Keith Barker (41) and Brad Wheal (34) were the county’s leading Championship wicket-takers. Hampshire were the only county with three bowlers taking 40 or more wickets. Only two others had two.

In their qualifying group, Hampshire skittled Surrey for 72, Middlesex for 79 and Leicestershire for 84. Then, in their opening Division 1 fixture when the Championship season resumed in September, the bowlers came to the rescue after Hampshire had been routed for 89 on the first day by Warwickshire. Remarkably, Hampshire ended up winning by 60 runs against the eventual champions.

The addition of Brown certainly improves Hampshire’s batting order. Last summer, he ended as the seventh highest scorer in Championship cricket with 976 runs at 51.36. His career first class average of 40.41 is actually better than anyone else in the Hampshire squad, including Vince (39.06). He has scored 22 first class centuries, including four last season (no-one managed more in the Championship).

Though Brown has batted at No 3 for Sussex, he will probably bat at 5 or 6 for his new county.

Following his arrival, Hampshire now possess four batsmen who scored over 750 Championship runs last season (Vince 816, Nick Gubbins 769, Ian Holland 766). Again, no other county can match that.

Vince leads a squad which certainly doesn’t lack in experience, and as the stats show are proven at Championship level. Gubbins and Barker have won the title, with Middlesex (2016) and Warwickshire (2012) respectively.

Barker is 35, Abbott celebrates his 35th birthday in June, and newcomer Brown turned 33 last November. Dawson is 32, Vince 31. But this is hardly an ageing Hampshire squad - Joe Weatherley, Mason Crane and Brad Wheal are all 25 and Felix Organ just 22. Promising seamer Scott Currie turns 21 next month.

Hampshire are confident they have a squad with the right age profile to challenge for four-day honours.

Vince admits going so close last September has given the squad ‘belief’ they can challenge. Confidence, also, is not misplaced. ‘We know we have had the results to back that (confidence) up.’

Hampshire chairman Rod Bransgrove has two long-held ambitions. One is to see The Ageas Bowl hosting an Ashes Test, the other is to see the county win the Championship. The latter currently looks a better bet.

Vince shares that ambition. ‘There’s a massive desire to win it (the Championship). I want to be part of the group that does it.

‘We think we have all bases covered. There’s a good mix of experience, there’s good quality young players coming through, there’s a good age range. We are ready.’

Vince also believes the squad’s continuity is another potential plus in the never-ending search for small margins.

For the second year running, Abbas and Abbott will fill the two overseas roles that each county are allowed.

‘Mo and Abbo are part of our group, it’s great to have them back. It’s nice to have that continuity rather than chopping and changing all the time.

‘That’s massively important for a group when you’re in each others’ pockets the whole time.’

Hampshire’s season starts with a visit from perennial bridesmaids Somerset on Thursday.

The west country side have been one of the most consistent counties in recent years, finishing runners-up in 2010, 2012, 2016, 2018 and 2019. They, more than anyone, will know how Vince and co felt at the end of last season as a new one is about to begin.

Somerset were favourites to win three years ago before Abbott destroyed their dream of a first-ever Championship with a sensational 17-wicket haul in Hampshire’s Ageas Bowl success. It was a win that helped the hosts finish third, their highest placing in the two-division format since 2008. Throw in last season’s near miss, therefore, and you do get a sense of building momentum ...

Somerset are likely to hand a debut to Australian seamer Peter Siddle, whose 34 wickets helped Essex win the Championship in 2019. But their second overseas player - Aussie batsman Matt Renshaw - is not available yet.