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COMMENT: Why Hampshire are pregnant with expectation
HAMPSHIRE are enjoying a baby boom off the field, but on it you sense this is the year a promotion-winning side will also be born.
Captain Jimmy Adams is dad to 11 week-old Jonah, James Tomlinson fathered a son last season, Will Smith's partner is expecting their second later this month and Danny Briggs and Joe Gatting will both be changing nappies come June.
“We’ll be like Simon Katich when he was here; he always looked very excited before away trips because he’d be able to go straight to his hotel room and sleep!” laughs Adams, who is captain of a happy side in the second trimester of its development.
The likes of James Vince, Matt Coles, Adam Wheater, Danny Briggs, Liam Dawson, Chris Wood and Michael Bates are all in the 23-24 age bracket, forming the nucleus of a squad that is still several years from its peak, one that can be successful for a long time to come.
No wonder Hampshire fans are pregnant with expectation.
The optimism at the county’s pre-season press day this week was almost tangible and, dare I say it, reminiscent of the feel-good factor that came with Shane Warne’s return as captain a decade ago, albeit without the fanfare.
On that occasion, there were ten times as many reporters at the Ageas Bowl, where Warne’s press conference saw him gush about Hampshire’s other overseas player, a lad called Michael Clarke who we were told was Australia’s best young batsman since Ricky Ponting.
Hampshire’s biggest name at this year’s photocall was more taciturn. Michael Carberry’s decision not to talk was all that dampened the mood, at least amongst the local press.
Perhaps he was regretting his decision to effectively end his England career with his explosive, warts-and-all revelations earlier in the week.
It was difficult not to sympathise with Carberry while he was surplus to requirements during the limited-overs leg of England’s tour and even more so when reading the quotes elicited by the Guardian journalist Donald McRae.
Carberry’s damning criticism of England’s management, particularly limited-overs coach Ashley Giles, was in direct contrast, to the praise that his Hampshire teammates had for the county's new-look management team on Thursday afternoon.
These days, the first team is very much the baby of new coach Dale Benkenstein following his arrival and Giles White’s more widespread responsibility as Director of Cricket.
A fresh outlook will bring new ideas and that can only be a good thing. But what differences will there be to Hampshire’s team this year?
It is Hampshire’s T20 XI, so successful for so long, where changes are most obvious. Neil McKenzie and Dimi Mascarenhas are a big loss but Hampshire’s recruitment has been particularly shrewd this year and should compensate more than adequately.
Two quality all-rounders, Coles and Kyle Abbott, have replaced Mascarenhas and Sohail Tanvir, who disappointed as an overseas player last year.
Then there is the re-signing of Glenn Maxwell, who will return to the Ageas Bowl a global superstar next month.
Credit also for bestowing the T20 captaincy on the youngest candidate.
It will be fascinating to see how James Vince handles being Mascarenhas’s successor and Adams’ vice-captain in the Championship and 50-over teams.
Vince only turned 23 last month so it is a brave move to give him the extra responsibility, but he will grow into the role so it is also the right one.
With Adams, Carberry, Will Smith and Sean Ervine alongside him, Vince will not be on his own.
Liam Dawson may also have been a captaincy contender, had he been less reluctant.
But he may have enough to concentrate on should he be promoted to No.4 to take on McKenzie’s role as Hampshire’s one-day ‘finisher’, with Smith providing depth to the batting.
Smith is also a very able replacement for McKenzie in the Championship side, which will probably see Vince move up to No.4 with the new man next in.
Carberry can now focus on opening the batting with Adams in the Championship and with Vince, whose England debut is surely not too far ahead of him, in the limited-overs formats.
Coles and Abbott could be just as electrifying a combination as Carberry and Vince when they share the new ball.
No doubt young Tom Barber will also play at some stage. It is always exciting when a teenage strike bowler comes on the scene and Barber cannot be too far away at the moment, with Abbott not expected until later this month, Chris Wood injured and conditions favouring an all-seam attack.
Personally, I am looking forward to seeing former Sussex batsman Joe Gatting play, even if it will make me feel considerably older (I confess to being a Brighton & Hove Albion fan who first saw his dad Steve play for the Seagulls in November 1989 – on Joe’s second birthday).
Now 26, former Brighton striker Joe is by no means a youngster but he has made a good impression on Benkenstein during pre-season, most notably with a knock of 62 against his former Sussex teammates at Hove last week.
Given the quality of the additions, we should not be surprised that Hampshire are favourites to win both limited-overs competitions; the new-look Natwest T20 Blast and the Royal London One-Day Cup (the domestic competition is now a 50-over format for the first time since Hampshire won the 2009 Friends Provident Trophy).
There is no reason why Hampshire should not enjoy good runs to the knockout stages of each, both of which begin with a quarter-final round this year.
Anything can happen from there, but it is in the Championship that Hampshire look most well equipped for improvement, which is why this should be the county’s first promotion-winning campaign since that unforgettable first season under Warne in 2004.
That would be a fine way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Hampshire’s first game (the visit of Gloucestershire in July has been earmarked by Dave Allen, the club’s honorary archivist, as the right time for the official sesquicentennial celebrations).
In the meantime, Hampshire will be taking baby steps, starting with the first ball against Worcestershire today.
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