‘THE best coaching job in England, bar none’.

That is what new Hampshire team manager Adi Birrell was told by Dale Benkenstein, one of his recent predecessors, before taking on the task of succeeding Craig White.

“The more I looked at the squad and spoke to people about the job the more attractive it became,” he said.

“Dale’s a friend of mine and he said it’s the best coaching job in England, bar none. Neil McKenzie’s another very good friend of mine who absolutely loved this place. He kept telling me he was so good here that there’s a stand named after him.

“So when I arrived here I took of a picture of the Ingleby-Mackenzie stand and sent it to him! Mac’s a very funny man.”

Daily Echo: Dale BenkensteinDale Benkenstein

Birrell’s knowledge of Hampshire Cricket stretches back nearly as far as the Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie era, to when he was a schoolboy following the exploits of the great Barry Richards.

“I can list Hampshire’s South Africans going right back to Richards,” smiles the 58-year-old. “I followed county cricket closely and while I wouldn’t say I was a Hampshire fan I have always followed what happened here.

“Growing up during that [apartheid] era meant no international cricket so as a young fanatic growing up in South Africa you followed Richards, Peter Kirsten (Sussex and Derbyshire), Kenny McEwan (Essex), Mike Procter (Gloucestershire), Clive Rice (Nottinghamshire), Stephen Jefferies (Hampshire’s 1988 B & H Cup final hero) and Garth Le Roux (Sussex).

“Even though they were either playing domestic cricket in South Africa or county cricket, you followed their progress.

“There’s always been a very heavy connection with Hampshire; from Richards and the Smith brothers to Jimmy Cook, who made 2,000 runs twice for Somerset before coaching here for three years. He’s a fantastic cricket coach who I also know and I’m also friendly with his sons.

“More recently there’s been [Nic] Pothas as well as Mac and Dale. So Hampshire has always been there with me.”

Daily Echo: Barry Richards in his Hampshire heydayBarry Richards in his Hampshire heyday

While preparing for his new role, Birrell also spoke to the two Proteas legends who played at the Ageas Bowl last year.

“Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla were both very complimentary about the standard of county cricket,” continued Birrell, who was South Africa’s assistant coach to Russell Domingo from 2013-17.

“Both said it’s a very, very good standard. It’s tough.

“I would think division one compares very favourably with domestic cricket in South Africa. There will be no easy games.”

Birrell will be using Robin Smith as an example of the sort of player he wants to help develop at Hampshire, both in terms of ability but particularly character.

“Judgie is my age and won’t remember me as I hardly played against him but I always followed him as he was such a fantastic player.

“I’m trying to instil playing the game a bit harder and he’s an example I’m using to the players.

“He was a really tough guy who made his name against the famous West Indies fast-bowling quartet.

“Happy Hampshire could also play tough cricket and he’s an example of that. I know how good he was so he’s a really good connection.”

Daily Echo: Robin SmithRobin Smith

Birrell does not need to be reminded of the strong South African connection in the current Hampshire squad.

“Rilee [Rossouw] and Kyle [Abbott] I know particularly well from my time with the Proteas, I’ve gone on a journey with those players before,” he continued.

That journey was interrupted when both ended their international careers to sign Kolpak deals with Hampshire.

Abbott left after tearful press conference, while Rossouw’s decision provoked more consternation given that he was only 27.

“Both Rilee and Kyle were big losses,” says Birrell.

“I was in the national set-up at the time and it was hard to take because we were losing two quality players.

“But while I don’t understand all Kolpak players, I can understand some, including them.”

Birrell believes both Abbott and Rossouw have their best years ahead of them.

“Kyle has done particularly well for Hampshire from the start and Rilee is now accustomed to the conditions and how things play.

“I know what he’s capable of, if he runs into good form he can be very destructive. He scores very fast.

“Rilee’s done particularly well around the world in the off season and I know him from South Africa where he’s very highly regarded.”

Rossouw also excelled during the recent pre-season friendly against Sussex at Hove, scoring 104 out of Hampshire’s 133 before retiring.

Now Birrell and his squad are focused on their final warm-up match before Hampshire’s opening Specsavers County Championship match against Essex from April 5.

Hampshire’s game against Oxford MCCU, a three-dayer starting on Sunday, will not be Birrell’s first visit to The Parks.

He went there at the request of his late father, Harry Birrell, who scored first-class centuries for Oxford University against Yorkshire and Worcestershire in 1953.

“He also played rugby and was an Oxford double blue - I throw that in when people don’t think I’m posh enough!” laughs Birrell.

“He also took 5-20 in the Varsity match against Cambridge.

“So when I came over in 1984 to play for a club in Essex, the only thing my dad asked me to do was to get the train to Oxford to get a picture of his name on the honours board in The Parks.

“So I’ve seen his name up there and it will be very nice to go back with Hampshire.”