John's Journal of the 2024 season

(with a look back to 1968 )

In this section, you will be able to follow the HCH Website Editor's Journal for the 2024 season. It is based loosely on the format of The Cricketer Magazine's weekly record of past summers in their Autumn Annual. It will include a weekly summary of Hampshire's matches, general cricketing observations for the 2024 summer, as well as occasional comparisons, contrasts and parallels with the history making 1968 season for the County Championship. That was the year before the creation of the John Player League, but one which saw the arrival of a number of world stars arriving for the whole season around the counties. 


Please note in the following Journal - featuring predominantly Hampshire in 2024 - the gold colour text will relate to the 1968 season (with quotes in bold). 

The latest weekly edition of the Journal will appear first and then below that the Journal will then be arranged in chronological order for the season.


Week Four: Tuesday 16th April 2024


Viewing live cricket from the Shane Warne Stand this week, it was hard not to lionise a current Australia top-class Test bowler, wheeling away for his new county, Lancashire. He did after all bowl the lion’s share of all the first innings overs. He was neither rampant nor caged, but just a menacing and captivating presence all day. Tellingly just after lunch on Day One, he removed both Gubbins (50) and Vince (56) who had earlier come together at 26-2. This was significant in the case of Gubbins because he had scored a century in each innings in the last home fixture against Lancashire just under two years ago. As for Vince, anyone who has followed his illustrious career will recall it was Nathan Lyon’s direct hit that ran him out at the Gabba in November 2017 in the first Ashes Test, just when he looked set to make a real breakthrough England first Test hundred. Lyon’s value to Australia since then has assumed Warne proportions; he really is that good. In last year’s Ashes series, Lyon helped Australia to a 2-0 lead at Lord’s, but his calf injury sustained there then meant, not just that he missed the rest of the series, but from then on England held the upper hand. Only the weather at Old Trafford prevented England completing the first ever 3-2 comeback in an Ashes series. When studying Lyon close up again this week, you can’t help but be impressed by the energy that goes into his action, how much late dip he is able to generate in the flight, how much he is clearly admired by his new teammates and how quickly he is able to get through his overs. Most were completed in less than 3 minutes, with virtually no let up for the batsman facing. He owns the stage, regularly interacts with the non-striking batsman and is a worthy successor to that Victorian genius and Hampshire legend, who so sadly passed away now over two years ago. Deliberately going round the wicket to the right handers in the first innings generated the patches of rough that he was then able to exploit from the other end in the second. A battle-hardened campaigner and a superb signing for Lancashire, unless you are Tom Hartley.  

A few Lancashire members, making the long trip down and sitting nearby, were quick to seize on his non-selection at the toss, quipping that "this was their 'B Team' - with Bohannon, Balderson, Blatherwick, Bailey and Bruce all in the side. The 'A Team' of Anderson and 'Artley were still back home up north!" Their mood - like many England fans and the team management who are desperate to see Hartley and Bashir playing as much red ball cricket as possible for their respective counties this summer - will not have improved after just 13 overs of Hampshire's second innings. Tom Bailey, instead of bowling seam up, ceremoniously changed his boots and reverted to bowling off spin. He was the fourth part time spinner used in the match by this point, after Wells, Gubbins and Prest had all turned their arms over in the two first innings. How do you explain this, especially when champions Surrey are seemingly perfecting the art of using part time spin? In last season’s County Championship they took just 17 wickets with spin, whereas 232 were shared evenly between a seven-strong battery of frontline pace bowlers — five of whom often appeared in the same XI. Deep fast-bowling strength was their championship winning formula too the year before. In this embryonic campaign so far, Lawrence and Steel have already taken 18 of the 26 wickets Surrey have claimed.

Vis-a-vis run outs and early season rustiness, the biggest negative for Hampshire before lunch on Day One was the seemingly needless demise of Fletcha Middleton. The first thing to say was the "Lyonesque" direct hit from Balderson at the keeper’s end meant I could immediately give it out from a superb vantage point at the top of the Shane Warne stand. The second thing is maybe a plea for clemency for both batsmen in that they are not used to batting together - with Orr on debut. They were finding life so tough against the new ball that they were absolutely right to try and maximise the left-hand and right-hand opening batting combination, by looking to pinch quick singles in the ring and keep the board moving. After that, it is just those obvious questions surrounding culpability in a mix-up which make this game so fascinating, challenging and cruel. Was there a single there? Did Middleton call early enough? Should Orr have responded immediately by sprinting through and diving to make it? Should Orr have sent him back earlier? Could Middleton have turned to get back quicker? Do coaches ever specifically practise with players (and particularly where there are new partnerships), during pre-season square practices, calling and running between the wickets? Those were the short term questions; longer term, and far more tellingly after both innings in which they both failed, can Orr and Middleton develop an understanding which creates a truly effective opening partnership, thus solving Hampshire’s biggest problem of the last 5 years? For Lancashire poor George Bell evened it up, but his disappointment could not have been more painful or different. Looking for his maiden ton, and 99 not out in only his fifteenth first-class innings, he tried to run on a misfield. Holland's direct hit at the same end as the earlier run out of Middleton produced the same result. Whilst on the subject of young and emerging talent, it was very evident again that Hampshire's Tom Prest can truly shine at this level. His reverse sweeps against Lyon to put pressure back on Australia’s third highest ever wicket-taker in Test Cricket, followed by a slog sweep six, were among his highlights in a very attacking and attractive first innings 85 made off just 119 balls. He followed that up in the second innings with an unbeaten and untroubled 47 off 70 balls. 

Earlier on Day Two when Lancashire began their reply in response to Hampshire’s 367, this writer was intrigued to see how many their two left-handed openers would muster together. They were unlikely to match what had been busily unfolding at Edgbaston, where poor Durham took their first Warwickshire wicket at 341 and their second at 562. Rob Yates was first to go for 191; his opening partner and former Lancashire batsman/ keeper Alex Davies smashed 256 off 311 balls. First wicket partnerships around the country are either feast or famine currently: none of Hampshire, Notts, Somerset, Worcestershire, Essex, Kent, Yorkshire, Gloucestershire, Derbyshire or Northants reached 25 in their first innings, whereas Surrey didn’t lose their first wicket until 167, which was still less - to be fair - than half of Warwickshire’s 341! Wells and Jennings got through the new ball relatively untroubled against Abbas and Abbott, adding eventually 87, before they were parted. Jennings advanced down the pitch regularly to all three Hampshire seamers, made the most of the two lives offered, and occupied the crease with customary purpose to finish with 172. Seven other players, though, made more even than that in this second round of games. The stand out most promising English left-hand opener on the county circuit - in my opinion - made the highest score. Northants’ Emilio Gay became the third batsman this season to pass 250 before the middle of April, when he was eventually run out for 261 at Wantage Road against the luckless Middlesex; it was they who also suffered last week at the hands of Northeast at Lord’s. Just like Joe Clarke, who scored his 22nd first-class ton this week for Notts, Emilio may just have what it takes to play in the international arena. When Prithvi Shaw finishes at the IPL and rejoins Northants, that is an opening partnership definitely worth keeping an eye on. 

Still on Middlesex, their game saw 1105 runs scored at Northampton for the loss of just 8 wickets. Durham, meanwhile, also amassed 517 and yet still ended up following on at Edgbaston! Going into the last day, all the first and second division matches remained in progress, with the draw the most likely option in nearly all. Dropped catches, run outs and missed run outs are to be avoided at all costs when wickets are proving harder to come by with the Kookaburra ball. Hampshire being docked points for the Essex wicket at home last season - and with a further punishment hanging over them if it recurs - meant this first Utilita Bowl wicket of the season looked particularly flat. Hardly a ball went to a slip on the off side all game. Time taken out of the game at the Oval on the last morning prevented Surrey getting over the line against Somerset, leaving Essex as the only first division side to register a win so far this season. Worcestershire are competing superbly so far in a league where wins are simply going to be scarcer on all the evidence seen so far.

The first and last word this week ends poignantly though back with spin. Firstly, on a happy note, Alex Thomson's 11 wickets in the match for Derbyshire was a triumph for another player I remember well from umpiring his games regularly at school all those years ago for King's Macclesfield and then Denstone College in Staffordshire. Secondly, ahead of the Hampshire v Lancashire game -  and with the exciting prospect of watching a world class Australian off-spinner wheeling away with the aforementioned Kookaburra ball - I gained a proper reality check and reminder about the importance of “carpe diem”, listening to Daniel Norcross on Thursday’s World Parkinson’s Day. He was interviewing former Hampshire and England off- spinner Shaun Udal whose daily nightmare is to trying managing this incredibly cruel disease. As arguably Hampshire’s finest ever off-break bowler, Udal took 1,330 wickets in a senior career lasting 21 years. Having made 10 one-day international appearances for England in the mid-'90s, he only made his Test debut in Multan at the age of 36. His five appearances for England that winter, culminated in him famously taking 4-14 in the final innings in Mumbai, to help his side to a series-equalling victory. "You've got to make the most of every good day. And some days there are bad days, which is really hard to take, but the people around you do suffer as well - you've got to have a strong network and try to have a positive mindset." Sport continues to play a huge part in his life moving forwards. Now aged 55 and five years on from his diagnosis, he remains an inspiration, long after retiring as one of Hampshire’s home grown superstars. A wonderful ambassador for the County game, a great team man, a winner in one-day finals at Lord’s - I have only great memories of watching Warne and Udal make spin bowling seem an art form all of its own. 

That was then followed by the incredibly sad news - during Day Four of these county games - regarding the passing of that true icon of Kent and England cricket, Derek Underwood, aged 78. He was as lethal an opponent as you could imagine in most conditions. He was also an incredibly mild-mannered, friendly and humble man, whose elder brother became a very good personal friend of mine over many years at my local cricket club Elworth, in South Cheshire. Keith, who also very sadly passed away last year was a very decent cricketer in his own right, but he could not have been more proud of Derek, whose record of 297 Test victims in 86 Tests is an England record for a spinner. When he introduced me to Derek on a couple of occasions, I was just struck by his total humility and understated greatness. Caught Knott bowled Underwood was only rivalled by caught Marsh bowled Lillee as a child. In the days well before the use of DRS, he finished with 2,465 first-class wickets at the astounding average of 20.28. He took ten wickets in a first-class match on 47 occasions; five wickets or more on 153 occasions. He was, simply put, a match-winner. He was also a wonderful family man who suffered cruelly with dementia towards the end of his lfe. His remains, though, a unique surname in this great game; it is one which will always conjure up so many special memories of a unique approach to the wicket and rhythmic bowling action which was so often just unplayable, particularly on drying pitches. He was able to alter his pace, bring all forms of dismissals into play and restrict batsmen's scoring options, like only the select few very greatest bowlers of all time have ever been consistently able to do.

Introduction


Back in April 1967, John Arlott began recording a Weekly Diary of that year’s cricket season which was duly published in the Winter Annual of the Cricketer Magazine in November 1967. He repeated this diary for the next two seasons in 1968 and 1969. John was then succeeded over the years by the likes of Alan Gibson, Tony Lewis, Mike Brearley, Peter Roebuck, Scyld Berry, Jonathan Agnew and Mark Butcher in undertaking this task. The Weekly Diary continued to be an annual fixture in the November Cricketer Magazine into the 21st Century. The seasons 1967 - 1985 were also later published in book form entitled "Seasons Past'"; this book comes highly recommended and serves as a fine reminder of how those seasons unfolded ; it also reflects what changed noticeably during an English summer through that period.


Christopher Martin-Jenkins wrote, regarding the format of the Weekly Diary, in the Introduction to "Seasons Past" that Arlott was "strictly observing the rules laid down by EW Swanton (the Cricketer Magazine Editor in 1967) that each week was to be written up as soon as it had passed, with no opportunities for adjustments in hindsight. This is what diaries should be. They prove that no mortal is an infallible judge or observer."



In 2013, while still working full time, I kept my own handwritten diary of an English season loosely based on that format. Now fully retired, though gainfully employed volunteering for HCH, I want to do likewise in 2024. There are some differences this time round, though: firstly, I will be attempting to record it on this site each week as I go along. Secondly, I also intend to include general cricket and specifically Hampshire based references or quotes from  John Arlott's journal for 1968 in some of the weeks' entries. This is to reflect a historical dimension, in addition to shining a light again on his unique and special take on watching and writing about cricket. 


The late sixties was of course a unique time when world class overseas players arrived at all the counties - with the exception of Yorkshire - to light up the county game across the country. 1968 was a watershed in the history of the County Championship and it is a season very much worth recalling. The arrival of  of the likes of Gary Sobers at Notts and Barry Richards at Hampshire marked the start of a brand new era for domestic cricket in England.


Whereas Arlott's deadline was always Friday each week, I need to change that to a Tuesday, because of the scheduling of the County fixtures. Hampshire will be in action infrequently on Tuesdays in 2024. I probably only share two things with Mr Arlott: the same first name and a love of Hampshire cricket going back to our very early school days. Please forgive me therefore for calling this section of the website "John's Journal". 


I hope you enjoy his reflections revisited, and maybe my more personal take on following Hampshire around the country this season. On occasions, I may even delve into my 2013 Diary and include some entries about all things Hampshire eleven seasons ago. The ongoing work in the Archive Room may also be periodically mentioned if rain ruins the cricket. I also want to include references to some of my friends' views on watching Hampshire from the boundary edge, rather than any press box, in this season's personal diary for HCH. 


Being based just south of Manchester, the first day of the season away at newly promoted Durham is just a couple of hours train ride away. It promises to be long sleeve weather at best and hat and scarf at worst. Hope you enjoy following my journey in 2024 with Hampshire, at the same time as revisiting the summer when Hampshire followers first saw a South African superstar, in his debut season, become the first player ever to score 2,000 championship runs for our club. 


John Winter March 14th 2024



Seasons Past is a collection of all the Weekly Diaries of the English Cricket Season published previously in the Cricketer Magazine between 1967 and 1985. The first three years entries were written by John Arlott.


Setting the Scene in 2024 and 1968


Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!


My own preparations for the new cricket season in 2024 are slightly different this year. Owing to my far greater involvement with Hampshire Cricket Heritage - which has had a very successful relaunch this winter - I am certain that I am going to watch my beloved Hampshire with an even greater attachment to placing events on the field, at times, in the context of not just the more recent, but hopefully more distant past. Starting away at Durham is easy and a gentle introduction in terms of time - rather than distance travelled. Our rivalry with the most northern county is by far the shortest in terms of previous fixtures in red ball cricket. The first game of the 2024 season will be our 34th against Durham in the County Championship. I was fortunate enough to attend Hampshire’s first ever Championship match at home to Durham in 1992 and that game is featured on this website under the Scorecards Collection tab. 


Cricket has always been a game where statistics and records have been regularly alluded to during live television or radio coverage. Making comparisons from different eras - whilst trying to understand and take into account relevant context - milestones and breaking records are all part of the game’s DNA for players and spectators alike. English cricket back in 1968 was at a very low ebb and the only way was up for attendances watching cricket live across the country. Norman Preston began his editorial in that year's Wisden, “County Cricket has taken its biggest step forward in recent years by opening the door to Overseas players through the process of immediate registration. This bold move could be the salvation of the three-day County championship and I am only surprised that the plunge was not taken sooner.” Somehow it is extremely comforting and reassuring that existential crises have continually faced the counties since the start of the County Championship in 1890, and yet it continues to defy all the odds and survive; in doing so, it provides great entertainment for the enlightened and dedicated few, whilst remaining the bedrock for producing truly world class players like Anderson, Root, Stokes et al.


The first obvious comparison between the cricket seasons in 2024 and 1968 are the start dates for Hampshire’ first championship fixture. Back in 1968, Hampshire sat at Hove in the pavilion all day without a ball bowled. It was the first of May! This season, the first round of County Championship matches start on April 5th and by the 1st May they are scheduled to have played 16 days of red ball cricket. That will be approaching a third of the season completed and (even allowing for climate change!) that is already a very stark contrast with times gone by. The result of the game against champions Surrey at the Oval at the end of April will tell us a lot about whether Hampshire can really challenge again for the title in 2024. Back in May 1968, Yorkshire started the new campaign as champions and Hampshire were looking to improve on 11th place in the 17 team table (without Durham of course). 


Without any cricket to report for those weeks in April 1968 for John Arlott, I intend to use the time in my weekly update - alongside the journal of Hampshire's 2024 campaign - to include a few more details which might help to paint the picture of what county cricket was like back then when the big overseas stars first burst on the scene. This will involve trying to explain the point system change that year for the County Championship! The last word should go to John Arlott of course on that with his journal entry at the start of 1968, “We have, too, a new points-scoring system for the championship - by my reckoning the twenty-ninth system since the competition began, but that could be a considerable under-estimate.”

Hampshire's 1968 season recorded in the 1969 Wisden

The Cover of the 1968 Hampshire Handbook

Hampshire Membership numbers across the county in 1968

John Arlott's Journal for 1968 

Alresford April 2 


"It is not merely the annual optimism of one who likes cricket and sees little wrong with it that makes me confident of a better summer’s cricket in 1968 than 1967, ……."


"Seasons Past" First Entry page 22

Preview of the 2024 Season Part 1

A Long and Winding Road

Week One:  Beginning March 25th 2024


Today Hampshire are in action in their second pre-season friendly against newly promoted Worcestershire at the newly named Utilita Bowl. It will not be a late finish, seeing as the clocks only go forward next weekend.  Checking the scores on the Play-Cricket site, Worcestershire are 23-2 in the 10th over and ex-Cheshire and Lancashire batsmen Rob Jones is just out for 2 caught by Liam Dawson off Ian Holland, having faced 32 balls*. It is the time of year when and where hope springs eternal, both within and beyond the boundary rope. Back in the glorious summer of 1959, Hampshire’s very own John Arlott wrote at the start of that season: ”Every April cricketers are filled anew with that hope that springs – if not eternally at least annually – even in the non bowler who goes in at number eleven for his village – that this season is going to see him reach a new crest of success”. This year, for all longstanding and loyal Hampshire fans, there will once again be a great sense of anticipation and expectation that this particular summer could be truly special. Never quite forgetting the disappointment of that final day of the 2021 season when Hampshire lost by one wicket to Lancashire at Aigburth, this top flight red ball campaign - with a slightly more balanced schedule in June and July - could one again offer the chance finally of the glory that matters most in domestic cricket. It would match the achievement of being at the summit, when it matters most, by the two championship winning teams of 1961 and 1973. Arguably, the Hampshire XI of exactly 50 years ago in 1974, who missed out so narrowly on retaining the title, was the strongest in the club’s history since we first competed in the 1895 championship. Even that team, though, did not get quite as close on the last day of the season to achieving the Holy Grail, as the class of 2021 ultimately did. 


Thrillingly - or maybe even chillingly for a few of us there that late September day in Liverpool (and given how cold it was at the end) the world suddenly stood still: history records that there were actually four balls when the 2021 side were just one wicket away from being crowned English County Champions. A game meandering to a tame, if not unsurprising, last day defeat, suddenly exploded in those last 20 overs into top table sporting drama. The drama and tension, after the hiatus of Covid and a first long rewarding summer again with spectators present, reached fever pitch for all those in the ground or watching on the live stream. Less than a mile or so from the homes of John and Paul in neighbouring Allerton, it definitely felt the end of a long and winding road. With my Winchester friends, Bill and Neil, sitting there with me amongst the Lancashire members on the Liverpool boundary edge, Mason Crane entered stage left at the end of the last scene of the last act. Famously, he took five wickets in no time, as well as enacting a brilliant direct hit run out, to bring Hampshire to the brink of glory. A tricky, tortuous final ascent had become a golden sprint in the autumn sunshine. This team suddenly came within one ball of writing its name indelibly into Hampshire folklore. When the whole red ball county season came down in the end in 2021 to the first two balls of the four, nearly fifty years of being an avid Hampshire fan sent me momentarily into a complete spin. Talking of spin, two leg spinners are the respective batsman and bowler on stage at the centre of this epic theatre. As Mason Crane bowled those two deliveries to Lancashire last man Matt Parkinson the championship from nowhere was suddenly there to win again. Parkinson survived somehow, more by luck than judgement. Two balls into the next over, when the resolute Vilas swept the brilliant Dawson for four, those dreams were shattered. In amongst all those feelings of "what if", I soon felt for poor Neil, who had to sit in the car with Bill all the way back to Hampshire! The lyrics of 'Many times I've been alone, And many times I've cried, Anyway you'll never know, the many ways I've tried." could not be more appropriate for Bill when it comes to which finals and dramatic games he attends in person and which ones he misses out on.


Three years on after a winter spent by England blooding three incredibly inexperienced spinners, neither Crane nor Parkinson were in the frame to play in India. Even more poignantly - as the England Captain and Coach pleaded, after a heavy series defeat, for more opportunities in domestic cricket for English spinners to profit on turning wickets - neither will be playing for their parent counties during the 2024 season. It is very much to be hoped both Crane and Parkinson are able to use their respective moves to rediscover their rhythm and form to match their standing of less than three years ago. Despite limited opportunities in County Cricket back then, Test Cricket was still a distinct possibility for both of them. Three years has also been a long time now to process that sense of deflation from that truly memorable last hour at Aigburth and to try and park those dreams of what might have been. One of the greatest - and certainly most celebrated - Lancashire fans Neville Cardus once wrote, “It is because cricket does not always hurry along, a constant hurly burly, every player propelled here and there by the pace of the continuous action, that there is time for character to reveal itself. We remember not the scores and results after years; it is the men who remain in our minds, in our imagination.” This match was one of those games where that was not entirely true. Having Arlott in the commentary for Hampshire and Cardus in the press box for Lancashire, would have been the only thing to make that day more captivating and memorable. 


The important footnote to that day’s events of course is that even though Lancashire celebrated that famous dramatic win, 24 hours later they were to taste totally contrasting emotions. Unlike Hampshire if they had won, Lancashire could still be overhauled in the table by Warwickshire, who still had much work to do to beat Somerset on the very last day of the whole season at Edgbaston. Having been rescued in the first innings by former Hampshire spinner Danny Briggs’ 53* - batting at number nine, the West Midlands county won easily in the end by 118 runs to take the title and shatter all Lancashire’s supporters dreams. Danny was a hugely popular player at Hampshire and part of the James Vince and Liam Dawson golden generation who broke through in or just before 2009. Nobody on the South Coast - and more specifically the Isle of Wight - could feel anything other than pride that this former Hampshire Academy graduate and England International was a County Championship Winner. Meanwhile Lancashire and Warwickshire will be Hampshire’s first two opponents at the newly named Utilita Bowl in the First Division of the County championship in April 2024. Over the past four seasons, Hampshire have finished third, fourth, third and third, with Surrey very much the team to beat in 2022 and 2023. Last season, Hampshire matched Surrey's eight championship victories, but heavy losses against Surrey and Essex meant we were never in contention to win it in September.  For us to finish top of the pile in 2024, with away fixtures at Div 2 Champions Durham and last Year's Division 1 Champions Surrey also in April, Hampshire's extremely talented team will need to be very competitive and consistent from Day One of the season.  Part 2 of this season's preview next week will focus on trying to assess Hampshire's chances, alongside those of their potential rivals in Division One, for the 2024 title. 


*Just as a footnote and having finished this piece, I have checked the Hampshire score again and Worcestershire's innings has closed after 45 overs on 116-11. The last man out is the aforementioned and doubly unfortunate Rob Jones - out this time batting second time round in the same innings for 1. His single came off 43 balls before he was given out lbw to James Fuller. Out twice in the same day for 3 off 75 balls, he could of course argue that time in the middle is all that matters in March!


                            



Preview of the 2024 Season Part 2

Chance to Shine for County Cricket again in 2024

Week Two:  Beginning April 2nd 2024


Last summer's Ashes Series was a brilliant advert for the longer form of the game and every young player in the county game surely has a chance of catching the current England's selectors eyes, if they show the potential to make it at the highest level. Consistent performances over a long period are not necessarily the key currency needed currently; rather, it is showing the range of attacking shots, coupled with a sound method and strong mind as a batsman, or wicket taking ability through genuine pace as a quick bowler, that Key, McCullum and Stokes will be looking for most this summer. The requirement to find a fit and threatening genuine pace attack to go down under to compete in 25/26 must be their number one priority, as far as the next Ashes series is concerned. With reference to the brand of positive and attacking cricket England have been playing for two years now, Vic Marks writes on page 34 of the April 2024 Cricketer Magazine, "The manner in which the national team has been playing should have a significant impact on the championship. Whatever the outcome in India there was still something uplifting about the efforts of Ben Stokes' side. County Cricketers will have made a note. The emphasis on attacking batsmanship will not be deserted by this England set-up so there is not much future in blocking."


With three additional points available for the draw this season in the County Championship, does that fly slightly in the face of what Vic Marks is envisaging? Accepting his point on the individual level about selection for the national side to bat in the top seven, the point surely will be for a County team in 2024 that the draw has to be a vital important option, if victory is out of reach. England currently want to win at all costs, with no thoughts of drawing any five day game. Both James Vince and Adi Birrell talked about  - at the Fans Forum on Wednesday night broadcast on Radio Solent from the Utilita Bowl (available on BBC Sounds) - the need for all Division one sides to avoid costly losses; Hampshire's stated aim for the new season, from both captain and coach, was definitely to take more of the red ball games deeper into the fourth day. Patience and fitness were cited as being key. Hampshire have clearly identified the need for greater fitness from all the players as one of the key components in the renewed quest to try and win the elusive County Championship. 


We have come so close in recent recent seasons, matching Surrey's tally of eight wins last season for example, but losing the key battles - at the Oval in particular - has been an area to address for those in charge. James and Adi also highlighted the fact that the Kookaburra ball being used in more four day games this season had come into their pre-season planning and thinking. Neither thought life would be easier for any opening batsmen on the circuit with the Kookaburra ball. However, the less pronounced seam meant that after the first twenty overs of an innings wickets were likely to be even harder to get. All the top teams bat far deeper in the 1st Division and this has been a great strength for Hampshire with James Fuller, Keith Barker and Kyle Abbott all capable of taking quick runs off flagging attacks late on a hot day. Assessing Hampshire's chances of ultimate success in the Title race will come at the end of this piece, after looking at all the other nine teams' squads in the order that we play them during the season in the County Championship.


First up is Durham and we play them both away and at home before the middle of May. They are also the opponent I am looking forward most to seeing live in Hampshire Championship matches this season. They took the Second Division by storm last season, playing an attacking form of cricket which mirrored most that of the England side. Can they be successful trying to replicate that in the top flight this campaign? Their first innings run rate was above four on 11 occasions last summer, when they accumulated an incredible 54 batting points. Alex Lees, Graham Clark, David Bedingham and Ollie Robinson all scored quickly and heavily, while Ben McKinney looks a top prospect. Brydon Carse and Matthew Potts have not looked out of place in the international arena, while the addition of Scot Boland to partner Ben Raine looks a very astute signing. They promise to be tough opponents and a good watch in 2024.


We play Lancashire in the first home game at the newly named Utilita Bowl in April, but have to wait until the end of August for the return fixture in Manchester. As a result, we are likely to face Australia's Nathan Lyon in April and England's Tom Hartley in August when Lancashire opt for any spin.  Winning both those two games would be a major step forward towards winning the title for Hampshire. In 153 Championship games since 1895, we have won a mere 19. It is now sixteen four day games since our last victory against Lancashire in the Championship in 2009. Last April, rain ruled out the last day in the home game, with Hampshire well placed and Lancashire facing a tough last day chase. In 2023 Lancashire only lost one game (to Essex) in the whole season and with more points now available for the draw should be even more in the Title race this summer. Keaton Jennings, Luke Wells, Phil Salt and Josh Bohannon are a very impressive English top four; they have very promising emerging talent in George Balderson, George Bell, Matty Hurst and George Lavelle; their seam attack with Tom Bailey, Saqib Mahmood, Will Williams, Luke Wood and a certain James Anderson promise heaps of wickets, while the spin department has international class in abundance. 


Warwickshire are our next opponents at home in April and they will be captained by somebody familiar to all Southern Brave fans, Alex Davies. Having first seen him in a Lancashire Under 11 game, I always felt he would have been a good signing for Hampshire, as an attacking top order batsman and chirpy gloveman, once things began to go sour for him at Old Trafford. The attack at Alex's disposal, picked out of Chris Rushworth, Oliver Hannon-Dalby, Hassan Ali, Chris Woakes, Richard Gleeson, Craig Miles, Liam Norwell, George Garton, Ed Barnard, Moeen Ali and Danny Briggs, looks incredibly strong in terms of both quality and depth. Like a number of other top tier sides, getting runs on the board may be the biggest challenge. Sam Hain remains, though, a quality act with the bat in all formats.


The end of this first month sees a trip to defending Champions and title favourites to land a third championship triumph in a row, Surrey. The signing of Dan Lawrence strengthens that claim because, if they have had a weaker area over the past two seasons when they have won the CC, it has been the loss of early wickets that have made winning games harder. Their overseas signings and resilient lower order have all too often saved the day in the past two summers, before their excellent bowling attack has got to work with the ball. Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes will be available form the start of the season. Jamie Smith looks an England player in waiting and Surrey's depth in the seam department even eclipses Lancashire and Warwickshire. They certainly remain the team to beat in Alec Stewart's final season in charge this summer. We again play Surrey away and at home before any white white ball cricket starts this summer. The lop sided nature of the fixture list, where we will have played two teams at home and away in the first eight games, but then don't play two of the remaining teams until late September (and then just once each anyway as the last two games of the season), is just crazy and amateurish on a number of levels. 


Our only other opponents in the first eight games are Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge. They have raided Worcestershire for much of their attack with the acquisition of Dillon Pennington and Josh Tongue to back up Dane Patterson, Olly Stone, Brett Hutton, Luke Fletcher and Liam Patterson-White. Joe Clarke still has time to play for England and Jack Haynes looks another very canny additional signing from poor Worcestershire. After the first set of June T20 fixtures, the next new red ball opponents are Kent at home. Like Nottinghamshire, I just don't see them challenging in the top half this season. Daniel Bell-Drummond is captain in all three formats, Zak Crawley will light up any game he now plays, while the wicket keeping duties may well fall to Harry Finch. A number of significant recent departures, including the superb keeper/batsmen Ollie Robinson (left for Durham) and Jordan Cox (left for Essex), leaves their squad looking thin. Ben Compton, Joe Denly and the captain will surely need very good seasons with the bat for them to survive in the top flight for another season. Their attack looks much less threatening than all the other Division One sides - save for Worcestershire's after their crucial personnel losses. 


Hampshire play Essex for the only time in red ball cricket at home in late August. Dean Elgar has been brought in to replace Sir Alastair Cook.  The home grown attack of Sam Cook, Jamie Porter, Aaron Beard, Paul Walter and Shane Snater, to add to the overseas brilliance of Simon Harmer, should ensure that they are always capable of taking twenty wickets.  September's opponents, Worcestershire look both the weakest squad and first choice eleven in the division on paper. It is very much to be hoped that the likes of Jake Libby and Gareth Roderick can build on last season's success in their promotion campaign. Worcestershire remain very much a popular club which faces great challenges on and off the field just to stay afloat. A keen fan and close friend assures me the arrival of Ashley Giles is making a big difference already in helping his favourite club navigate these currently very difficult waters at New Road. Fifty years on from denying Hampshire the County Championship title in 1974, they will do unbelievably well this year to stay out of the bottom two in the final reckoning. Somerset at Taunton is the final game of the season and the first time we play them in the 2024 County Championship! Last season, they were the best T20 Team bar none.  James Rew was their stand out run maker in 2023 in red ball cricket; he will face a challenging second season - like all promising starlets on the circuit -  to match his tally of 1,086 at 57.15. Tom Abell has relinquished the captaincy and could be a heavy run scorer this year as a result. Both may yet have England careers post Root, Foakes and Stokes - when that dreaded time comes!


That just leaves one team left to preview for 2024. Hampshire's pace trio of Kyle Abbott, Mohammed Abbas and Keith Barker - along with Captain James Vince and top all-rounder Liam Dawson - all definitely deserve to be in a Championship winning side. For that to be the case in 2024, it feels as if all hopefully need to stay fit and be available for nearly every CC game. Nick Gubbins, Tom Prest, Fletcha Middleton, Ben Brown and Ali Orr also all need to take run scoring as a collective unit to the next level in Division One cricket. They are all more than capable of doing just that. Others like James Fuller, Ian Holland, Toby Albert, Felix Organ, Joe Weatherley, Brad Wheal, John Turner, Eddie Jack and Dom Kelly will hopefully grab the limelight, if and when opportunities occur during the season. The true arrival of Orr, Middleton and Prest as automatic picks by the end of August feels crucial to a title challenging campaign. If Tom Prest begins to emulate the run scoring of his former England Under 19 teammate James Rew this summer, we are all going to be in for a treat.  


Whatever happens, the spirit of the club and the desire to win the championship by this group of players is beyond any doubt. The coach exudes calmness and class, just like the captain. It is clear from what they have both said publicly recently that the attack wants to bowl even straighter this season, presumably to bring lbw and bowled even more into play with the Kookaburra ball. The slip cordon has been a real strength of the side to watch in recent seasons and hopefully Liam can be in his usual place from game one after last season's injuries.  A preview of this amazing Hampshire squad's chances in the T20 and 50 Over competitions will follow nearer the start of both competitions. In the meantime, let's hope for some wonderful sunny days watching Hampshire at home and away, spent basking in the drama of numerous twists and turns of great County Championship cricket, with the icing on any cake - locking away another first class JMV ton (or five or six) in the memory bank and being able to say yet again "I was there to see him make it all look so classy and effortless" in years to come. April is nothing else, if not the month to start dreaming again as a devoted Hampshire fan, watching this vastly experienced and highly skilled squad, brilliantly led by a captain going into his ninth full season in charge. Luck, the weather, fitness and form, coming out on the right side in tight finishes and breakthrough seasons for young players will all need to play their part, if we are to break that 51 year wait for The County Championship Title. At this time of year, I always cling on to the hope and genuine belief that this current team's chances are far, far better than those rated as 66-1 outsiders in 1973, who were the last Hampshire side to reach the summit. In fact, apart from Surrey, I genuinely give us as good a chance as anyone to finish top of the pile. The performances against key potential rivals in April will, though, quickly tell us a good deal about whether those Championship hopes and dreams are justified. Train ticket to Chester-le-Street on Friday has been booked for weeks and now it is just in the lap of the gods for the weather to play ball in the North East. 





Week Three: Tuesday 9th April 2024


Never could the beginning of a County Championship season have started with such a wonderful blend and juxtaposition of predictability and unpredictability in its first round of matches. The predictability was the lack of play with the weather in the North East, the unpredictability was the number of Northeast runs in the South East. Make your own mind up about which category the following achievements and happenings also fall into: Essex stole a march on all the other Division One teams with a Cook very much in the headlines; a former Bedfordshire batsman last season made a hundred in each innings for Worcestershire; 1151 runs were scored at Lord’s before the tenth wicket of the game fell; Surrey’s four seamers of Roach, Lawes, Clark and Overton managed to claim one Lancashire wicket in their 35 overs - in contrast to the nine taken in 37 by their two part time spinners Steel and Lawrence; a very kind Lord’s steward showed tact and kindness, by letting my three year old grandson in for free to witness history in the making in St John’s Wood. 


Former Kent and Hampshire batsman, Sam Northeast declared in his first game as Glamorgan captain at Lord’s with his side on 620 for 3. The single he clipped into the leg side off Henry Brookes to take him to 334 was acknowledged with a standing ovation, as he had surpassed Graham Gooch’s unforgettable 333 against India in 1990 and become the highest ever individual scorer in a first-class innings at the Home of Cricket. His score (335*) was the highest ever made in April in the history of the County Championship and meant he was already over a third of the way towards a thousand runs by the end of May! The previous highest Championship score against Middlesex at Lord’s had stood since 1926; this was when Jack Hobbs, aged 43, made 316 not out for Surrey.



Up in the North East, the prospects of watching a ball bowled on the opening day of the “summer” at Durham Emirates ICG felt minimal, with the dual threat of train strikes and poor weather looming large before 11 o’clock on Friday April 5th. While the vast majority of the day’s trains in the country were sitting idly in sidings, the 08.32 TransPennine Express from Manchester Victoria ran amazingly to time, pulling in at Chester-le-Street at 11.01. According to my phone, play was, however, underway in only two fixtures in Division One around the country: Worcestershire were put in at Edgbaston and Essex were inserted at Trent Bridge. Inside the ground the covers were off, but there wasn’t any activity from either ground staff mopping up or players eagerly warming up. The writing was soon on the wall despite the blue sky overhead. An announcement came through after the cursory Umpires Inspection that play was not going to take place that day. Sadly, Days Two,Three and Four all followed suit. It was the back end of that wet summer of 1974 all over again - with just a touch less at stake! The blank Durham scorecards on sale for £1 will forever remain blank, given that the teams were only due to be announced at a toss which never happened. 



On the eve of that first day of the season last Friday, I had the pleasure of reading an article entitled “A Memorable Day” by Dave Allen (which has been posted on this site under the History / Dave Allen tabs. In it, Dave celebrates 65 years of watching Hampshire and reflects that he has seen almost exactly half of the total number of years the club has played first class cricket. He acknowledges gratefully, in his conclusion, that the first 65 years from 1895-1958 are ones he has always enjoyed researching, but were, nevertheless, successive eras where Hampshire remained trophyless throughout. In stark contrast, since 1959 - when he spent his first day at the cricket, as a 10 year-old, at the United Services Ground in Portsmouth - the Club has won everything there is to win. Somehow it is just so reassuring to read that others first bitten by the County Championship watching bug in early childhood, just can’t shake it off 65 years later! There was a healthy gathering of dedicated Durham members who stoically accepted the news with resignation on Day One. My heart really went out, though, to the visiting Hampshire fans who had made the long trek north and were staying over for all four days. Having been thanked cordially for coming by the coach Adi Birrell, they discussed plans to visit Beamish Museum and nearby Durham. 

 

The season’s first hat-trick came on Day Two of the new season at Trent Bridge. Sam Cook turned the game round with Notts handily placed on 259-4 and Joe Clarke in full flow and a hundred to his name. 6 wickets then fell for 34 runs. Sam Cook finished with 4-59; he soon made that a ten for in the match for very few more. His stand out figures of 14-10-14-6, in Notts’s second innings demise for just 80, gave Essex victory by the huge margin of 254 runs in what had been quite a tight game until Day Four. The Essex win, though, might just turn out to be particularly important in their ambitions for the season; there is a possible points deduction awaiting, if the bat that opener Feroze Khushi was ordered to change after an on-field check on Day Two is confirmed to have exceeded the maximum permitted size.


The final word on Hampshire’s false start with Durham is the start made by another ex-player who had previously been released by both clubs. Cameron Steel made 29 in his only County Championship match for Hampshire in 2021. At Durham, Cameron Steel had four years earlier become the youngest double-centurion in Durham's history, when he struck 224 against Leicestershire at Grace Road, aged just 21. In 2021, he moved down to Surrey on a two-year mid-season deal, where he has been operating primarily as a squad player in all three formats. Along with high profile new signing Dan Laurence - surely signed from Essex for his batting - Steel came on to take the first five wicket haul of the season in Division One at Old Trafford. From 150-2, Lancashire totally collapsed to part time spin and were 202 all out. Nathan Lyon and Tom Hartley were soon introduced into the attack when Surrey batted. It felt like we were watching Test cricket in India all over again, with spinners in tandem after less than 10 overs, even though it was still a wet, damp day under leaden skies in April in Manchester. 


The apogee of unpredictability came probably though at Edgbaston. Kashif Ali has a cricketing CV which includes Bedfordshire, Essex 2nd XI, Kent 2nd XI, Northants 2nd XI, Notts 2nd XI, Leicestershire 2nd XI and Worcestershire 2nd XI. Batting at three for Worcestershire against a strong Warwickshire attack, he made 110 first time round off 188 balls; not content with one ton, he made 133 off 128 balls (with 5 sixes) in the second innings. Let’s hope Ali Orr can do likewise at the Utilita Bowl on Friday against Lancashire, if he finally gets to bat against this Kookaburra ball, Only eight Hampshire players have ever made a hundred on debut for the club; unsurprisingly, nobody has made two in their first game. To learn more, read Dave Allen’s article on Hampshire batting debuts under the History / Dave Allen / Batting Debuts tab on this site.