Tense times assured as Hampshire chase only a third County Championship title in 126 years
For only the second time since 1974, Hampshire enter the final match of a County Championship season in with a chance of winning the title.
James Vince’s side hold a three-and-a-half-point lead over Warwickshire heading into their last Division 1 game against Lancashire at Liverpool tomorrow.
Hampshire might have missed out on winning the T20 Blast at the weekend, but they are still in the running for two trophies.
In addition to the Championship, a top two finish in Division 1 would book an appearance at Lord’s in the season-closing Bob Willis Trophy final.
Though Hampshire start the final game in pole position, Warwickshire appear to have the easier game on paper - opponents Somerset have lost all three Division 1 matches heavily (two by an innings and one by 10 wickets).
But considering Hampshire only brought forward eight and half points from their group stage - Warwickshire brought forward 21 - Vince and co have done remarkably well to place themselves firmly in contention for the county’s first title in 48 years.
A dogged batting display saw them hang on for a draw against Yorkshire in their opening Division 1 game before they beat Warwickshire and former leaders Nottinghamshire.
Hampshire have only ever won the Championship twice in 125 years of trying - in 1961 and 1973. Only Derbyshire (1), Somerset (0), Gloucestershire (0) and Northamptonshire (0) have won the title on fewer occasions.
Hampshire near misses have also been rare - the county have only finished runners-up four times, in 1958, 1985, 1974 and 2005.
On two of those occasions, in 1958 and 2005, the destination of the title was already known prior to the last game - Surrey having already won it in the first instance and Nottinghamshire 16 years ago.
In 1985, Middlesex held a one-point lead over Mark Nicholas’ Hampshire going into the final round of games.
Middlesex clinched the title with a day to spare after hammering Warwickshire by an innings inside two days at Edgbaston.
Hampshire, set 280 to beat Yorkshire, finished short on 268-9 - but even a win would not have been enough.
The closest Hampshire have really got to a third title success came just 12 months after they last won county cricket’s blue riband competition.
Richard Gilliat’s men were top for virtually the whole 1974 season and looked odds on to retain the crown when they hammered second-placed Worcestershire by an innings in Portsmouth in early August.
Going into the final two games, Hampshire held an 11-point lead.
Worcestershire won their penultimate game, against Glamorgan, and Hampshire looked on course to win their fixture against Somerset at Bournemouth.
After taking a first innings lead of 136, Hampshire reduced the visitors to 90-4 in their second - only for the last day to be totally rained off. But Hampshire still took a two-point lead into the final fixture.
Cruelly, the whole of Hampshire’s last match - against Yorkshire, also at Bournemouth - was rained off. As a result, they picked up no points.
Worcestershire managed to pick up four points on the first day of their game against Essex, and that was enough as the final two days of their fixture were also rained off.
The forecast for Liverpool this week is mainly cloudy. Unlike 1974, Hampshire shouldn’t be robbed of title glory by the weather – even though it is late September in the north west of England!
Vince admits this week’s experience is ‘uncharted territory’ for almost every member of his squad.
That is certainly true, but Hampshire do possess two players who have won the Championship in the past decade.
Batsman Nick Gubbins was an ever-present when Middlesex were crowned champions in 2016 and four years earlier Keith Barker had only missed one game during Warwickshire’s title-winning campaign.
Barker has come to the fore in Hampshire’s last two games. In the absence of injured leading wicket-taker Kyle Abbott, the 34-year-old has bagged 5-43 (v Warwickshire) and a career best 7-46 (v Nottinghamshire). His 75, at No 9, was also crucial in a remarkable win at Edgbaston after Hampshire had been skittled for 89 in their first innings.
Barker and Mohammad Abbas have both taken 36 Championship wickets in 2021 - 10 fewer than Abbott - while Brad Wheal (32 wickets) has also starred in a seam-dominated bowling attack.
Mason Crane (18) and Liam Dawson (17) are Hampshire’s leading wicket-taking slow bowlers. But only once has a spinner taken a five-for in 2021 - Dawson’s 5-45 in the second innings against Notts last week.
Hampshire have certainly relied on their bowlers to dig them out of trouble since the Division 1 fixtures began at the end of August.
Two of their top order batsmen, Joe Weatherley and Tom Alsop, have struggled for most of the season.
Weatherley, averaging just 17.75, has only passed 50 once in 20 Championship innings while Alsop has a top score of 33 in 18 innings since his second ton of the season, 149, against Gloucestershire in April.
Gubbins has only scored 82 runs in six Division 1 innings and Ian Holland - Hampshire’s leading Championship run-getter with 765 - has compiled just 94 from the same amount of visits to the crease.
At least Vince has been in good form, with scores of 49, 42, 21, 48, 30 and 52 in Division 1 cricket.
In contrast to Hampshire, who have picked up just a single top flight batting bonus point, Lancashire have collected seven in three games.
They boast Josh Bohannon, who with 822 runs is the leading runscorer among the batsmen ending the season in the top flight.
Alex Davies is next highest Red Rose scorer with 604 while Keaton Jennings, skipper Dane Vilas and Luke Wells have all compiled over 500.
Seamer Tom Bailey (41) and England spinner Matt Parkinson (32) are Lancashire’s leading Championship wicket-takers.
Lancashire, meanwhile, are hoping to revive some happy memories at Aigburth, which became their de facto home ground during the title-winning campaign of 2011 due to extensive ground work at Old Trafford.
‘The lads spoke about it the other day, 10 years ago a lot of games were played at Liverpool. Hopefully we can replicate what they did and win it again,’ said Vilas.
‘We have a massive opportunity. It’s going to be a big week for a lot of teams – four still have a chance. To win the Championship is the big one, all the players want to win it.’
History is not on Hampshire’s side this week. They have played 76 first class matches at Lancashire, dating back to the 1870s, and have won just eight of them (losing 34 and drawing 32).
Three of those wins were at Aigburth, with the last a 10-wicket victory in 2009 when Imran Tahir bagged six wickets in the hosts’ second innings.
Before that, Hampshire had claimed a stunning four wicket win in 1985, despite Lancashire piling up 401-6 declared in their first innings. Malcolm Marshall and Raj Marua shared seven wickets when the hosts were rushed out for 115 second time around after Chris Smith’s 121 had allowed Nicholas to declare 70 behind on 331-5.
*21 points will see Hampshire crowned champions - or the equivalent, each time Warwickshire, Yorkshire or Lancashire fail to get a batting or bowling point.
*If Hampshire lose, they cannot win the title.
*If all three games are drawn, then six bonus points – plus eight for the draw - will give Hampshire the title.
With regards to a tie, only Lancashire can finish level with Hampshire – if the game is drawn and the hosts pick up four more bonus points.
In that case, it's most wins and in those circumstances Hampshire would have two wins to Lancashire's 1.5 and would be champions.