County cricket 2013 May 4, 2013

Is Bates v Wheater really worth the grumbles?

Hampshire's batting started well this season, but the double collapse Essex raised old concerns and showed why the signing of Adam Wheater is not the damning offence it has been out to be

Well, that was weird. Hampshire play three matches, score bucket-loads of runs and then collapse in a heap against Essex.

Admittedly, Leicestershire, Loughbrough University and Worcestershire aren't exactly the West Indies bowling attack of the 1980s, but all the same, runs are runs and Hampshire have been scoring lots of 'em. Essex's bowling attack, which consisted of the talented Reece Topley, the metronomic David Masters, Graham Napier, Ravi Bopara and Tim Phillips was certainly the best they'd faced all season. But still. Bowled out for under 200 twice in a match by a team who'd won just nine of their previous 50 matches - whatever promise was shown before, that doesn't bode well.

Of course it's too early to make any knee-jerk reactions but the management will be wary - especially considering the events of last season when Hampshire didn't get promoted largely because they were the uncle fluffies of Division Two with the bat; passing 400 once and having just one batsman score 1000 runs. Over the winter Giles White's men didn't make too many adjustments to a talented batting order that appeared to be underperforming as opposed to actually just being rubbish. But there will be a worry that Hampshire's batting lacks that nuggety fight so often demonstrated from the teams who do clamber out of Division Two.

George Bailey, Australia's T20 captain, was brought in as the overseas player for the bulk of the season and his experience should help the young pairing of James Vince and Liam Dawson in the middle order, but it's worth noting that in Australia Bailey is viewed very much as a limited-overs cricketer and whether he can score big and consistent runs, even in Division Two is questionable. The other notable signing in the batting department was Essex wicketkeeper Adam Wheater.

Now even before Hampshire lost to Essex, the members at the Ageas (I just puked a little) Bowl were not happy, and they still aren't. They're crumpling the corners of their newspapers without even realising, they're forgetting their binoculars and have been stuck on 16 across for almost two days now.

It is the presence of Wheater that is getting their knickers in a twist. Wheater was signed from Essex in early March after almost two years of the south-coast side hunting for a wicketkeeper. Wheater, at just 23 years old, is a undoubtedly a talented cricketer. He's been involved with the England Under-19s and already has four first-class centuries and an average of above 40.

But. And yes, there is a but. Wheater is the player who pushed Michael Bates out the Championship starting eleven.

Gasp. Shock. Horror.

Yes, I know it's bad, it really is, and Wheater should be punished for being a talented cricketer in the market for a new club. But it's how it is, and Bates now finds himself carrying drinks, (and not dropping them, many of the members will add.)

You see, the members care so much because Bates has been involved in the Hampshire setup since Under-13 level, he's been team-mates with Danny Briggs for half his life and more importantly, last year established himself as one of the best wicketkeepers in the country and he was making significant improvements to his batting. Having invested almost a decade of coaching into Bates and seen him rise up and up through the junior and Academy ranks, many members have been bitterly disappointed to see a club thoroughbred discarded so swiftly in the Championship starting XI, and so was I, but whether his continued selection was practical considering the clubs circumstances is totally different matter.

As demonstrated by Hampshire's capitulation against Essex, their batting isn't exactly Fort-Knox-Impenetrable, so to sign Wheater, a man with reputable batting ability and select him in place of a man who can most definitely keep well, but whose batting statistics are the wrong side of Ronnie Irani's, is a potentially promotion-sealing move.

Now, the members have been grumbling ever since the signing was made, and I'm sure a lot of that is rooted in genuine disappointment to not see a product of Hampshire's impressive youth system continue his career in the first XI, but at the same time, one feels there's a good deal of posturing going on.

Wheater is an outsider. Not a Hampshire boy. In fact last year he scored 98 runs for Essex against Hampshire! But this is the modern game. Loan deals, trades and swaps are now engrained in the fabric of county cricket. Hampshire profess so often to be a forward-thinking club with their new ground, modern Academies and so on and so forth, so the Hampshire faithful cannot expect to maintain too much romanticism on the pitch if they don't do so off it.

Bates is a good keeper. Very good. He's also young. He's almost certainly going to start for Hampshire in the T20s and although he missed out on selection for the first YB40 of the season, chances are he'll feature at some point in the 40-over format too. So it's not as if he's been dropped entirely. They're the two formats Hampshire are best at as well and the ones on TV, so that'll please the members, and it'll mean he's never too far away from a promotion to the four-day team either.

Hampshire needed to change something after last year, and it happens that that something has touched a nerve with many of the fans, but if you asked them what division they'd prefer Hampshire to be in next year I'm pretty sure they'd all give you the same answer.

Freddie Wilde is a teenage blogger based in Hampshire who first played cricket at the age of seven. He tweets here