June 18, 2013

Hampshire wrestle with mediocrity

Competitive but struggling to put wins on the board in the Championship, Hampshire have sold themselves short so far this season

"Winning is a habit. Unfortunately so is losing" - Vince Lombardi.

Lombardi could have said "unfortunately so is not winning", but it wouldn't have had the same ring to it as his immortal words, yet for Hampshire's season so far it would've been brilliantly appropriate, for in 2013 Hampshire aren't losing matches, they just aren't winning them, and not winning them is becoming a habit.

There's a very fine line between winning and not winning in cricket. It can be an umpiring decision there, a rain-shower here, a boundary saved there and in a bitter struggle for promotion, winning is, as Lombardi also once said, "everything".

Hampshire have now played eight matches in the County Championship winning just one, and that was their second match of the season almost fifty days ago. Since then they have proceeded to draw four and lose two - leaving them 58 points adrift of the high-flying Northamptonshire in first place and are festering at fifth in the table.

Thus far Jimmy Adams' men have just seemed to be missing something. It's difficult to put your finger on exactly what that something is, perhaps an extra fast-bowler, an experienced middle-order batsman, or perhaps it isn't even a player at all, maybe it's a psyche, a thought-process, a mentality; whatever it is, Hampshire are lacking a cutting edge in 2013, and unless they discover that little bit extra in the coming weeks their hopes of promotion to Division One will slide quickly and painfully away. Perhaps the arrival of Sohail Tanvir, who five years after first being denied by the Pakistan cricket authorities, will give them the fillip they so need.

The squad isn't any less talented than say, Worcestershire's (who are fourth, and are incidentally, the team that Hampshire recorded their only, and very heavy, victory over) or even Lancashire's (second), and in fact there aren't many points between all those teams, but they've all won more matches than Hampshire. - who are drawing them, not winning them and that is a concern.

It's strange being a Hampshire fan these days. Off-pitch ambitions insinuate that on the pitch, Hampshire should be bossing the cricket with the big-boys. Hampshire have a high-profile Chairman, a brash and arrogant redeveloped ground, official ties to an IPL franchise, and have signed star overseas players for more than a decade; all of these factors do not at all relate to on-pitch success in the Championship, but the problem for Hampshire fans is that they think they should.

For a squad of Hampshire's quality and a county of their ambition, Hampshire's position in Division Two isn't good enough. But despite this, it's difficult to be too critical of Hampshire right now, and that's why being a fan is so difficult.

The county aren't really doing much wrong. They've got a highly productive academy set-up and are filtering a lot of that talent into the first teams regularly and appropriately, they've got a nice mix between youth and experience, have an impressive captain and some stellar overseas names in the setup, not to mention the fact that in limited overs cricket they are arguably the best team in the country - and with some of the best facilities going, things appear to bode well for the future (but it's worth noting that things have been boding well for the future for an eternity on the south-coast!)

The signing of Adam Wheater this winter was a statement of intent that suggested a mindset shift demonstrating Hampshire are keen to get going - they've had enough of waiting on potential and aren't prepared to live much longer with the "could've, should've, would've" mentality - they want to start winning and progressing and they want to start now.

But Hampshire have stuttered and faltered in the Championship so far this season, admittedly they've been hindered enormously by rain, but batting collapses and defensive declarations have inhibited them too. George Bailey, Australia's T20 captain and a man whose stock is rising down-under, was Hampshire's overseas player for the first third of the season, but just this week while on Champions Trophy duty he was released after a series of performances that if texting a friend would be described as "meh".

Surrey are perhaps the ultimate example comparison - you could maybe even call them Hampshire's big brother. Surrey, like Hampshire, are enriched in history, tradition and expectation and in an effort to regain the glory-days they, much to the disapproval of some, splashed the cash on star names from around the world and were two years ago rewarded with promotion to Division One and have continued an aggressive transfer method ever-since. Hampshire meanwhile, albeit with not quite the same financial clout as Surrey are in a similar mindset, they too want to laud it up with the big-boys in Division One and have tentatively dipped their toe in the waters of Surrey's much maligned transfer policy, signing Tanvir and Saeed Ajmal, but it seems that something is shackling them, something is holding them back - they seem almost reluctant to be truly bold in their quest for success. Hampshire seem afraid of what they know they could become.

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