One-day kings seek Championship laurels
If you're looking for a county for the T20 age, look no further than Hampshire.
Over the past couple of years, Hampshire have established themselves as one of the most modern and progressive teams in the country. The south-coast side have become part of a worldwide franchise brand, signed T20 stars such as Shahid Afridi, Abdul Razzaq and Glenn Maxwell, competed in the Caribbean T20, the Champions League T20 and are now close to possessing the only model ground in the entire country, as defined by the ECB. Pretty impressive eh?
However, after winning both limited-overs competitions last year, the all-conquering kings of one-day cricket in 2012 must surely have promotion back to County Championship Division One as top of their 2013 priorities. Rod Bransgrove, Hampshire's chairman, clearly knows which formats reward financially, but the Championship remains domestic cricket's most revered prize and a county of Hampshire's stature will be desperate to emerge from Division Two as soon as possible.
Failure to gain promotion last season was understandable, albeit disappointing. Hampshire are a young side with an average age of just 26 and many players are finding their feet in the first team. For the majority of the season, Hampshire threatened promotion, but results tailed away so badly that they finished 41 points adrift of second place.
The big announcement this winter has been the signing of the world's leading spin bowler, Saeed Ajmal. The Pakistani offspinner will play for Hampshire in the latter stages of this year's campaign; a period when Hampshire's other overseas signing, George Bailey, and star spin bowler Danny Briggs could well be absent on international duty. Ajmal's presence at the end of the season, when pitches will be drier, could prove to be crucial in Hampshire's promotion chase. Ajmal has troubled even the finest international players and will pose Division Two batsmen an unprecedented challenge.
Surprisingly, bowling was not the problem area last year. Despite an attack boasting few star names, Hampshire collected more bowling points (40) than batting points (28) and David Balcombe finished with 64 wickets in the Championship, although it is worth noting heavy early season rainfall across the country did aid the seam bowlers.
A batting order jam-packed with talent such as Jimmy Adams, Neil McKenzie and James Vince passed 400 just once last season and only the captain, Adams, finished with more than 1000 runs to his name. Hampshire will be hoping that a fully fit Michael Carberry and Australia T20 captain Bailey can boost the team's batting capabilities. Indeed, runs could well be the key to unlock the door to promotion.
Wicketkeeper Michael Bates, who is a skilled and highly regarded gloveman, scored his debut first-class century last year. However, Hampshire retain doubts over his ability with the bat, which led to the signing of Adam Wheater from Essex. If Wheater starts over Bates, some members will be angry.
Hampshire will have expectations of finding their way back to Division One this year. Hopes remain high in the shorter formats, where the wise heads of McKenzie and Adams, the athleticism of Carberry and Bates and a wave of youth render the Royals one of the most formidable teams on the county circuit. Club stalwart Dimitri Mascarenhas is increasingly becoming a limited-overs cricketer but he has a wealth of experience in foreign T20 leagues and is one of the most underrated T20 bowlers in the world.
Likely Championship side
What I love Ambition. Both on and off the pitch Hampshire are one of the most ambitious clubs in the country. Bransgrove's vision and goals have been consistently high and consistently met.
What I'd change The ten-year development. Although the Ageas Bowl, once completed, will be an incredible ground, it has taken an agonisingly long time. For too long, fans have gawped at scaffolding and been battered by the whirling wind.
Freddie Wilde is a teenage blogger based in Hampshire who first played cricket at the age of seven. He tweets here