Northeast coup leaves Hampshire scenting success

Sam Northeast gets forward to drive Getty Images

The dawning of a new county season is always something to savour, even when the rays of anticipation and optimism are struggling to break through the gun-metal skies of one of the chilliest, dampest springs in recent memory. Traditional rhythms are increasingly beset by the disruptive innovations of modern life, and the casual fan might be surprised to discover the first round of Championship begins on Friday - barely ten days since England concluded their winter touring obligations in the antipodes.

At this time of year, football still leaves muddy stud marks across the back pages; a Commonwealth Games is also competing for space in the bulletins. Then there is the gravitational pull of the IPL, further distorting cricket's universe. It is not unreasonable to feel discombobulated.

You would certainly forgive Sam Northeast for wanting to get his bearings. The former Kent captain, whose departure for Hampshire was one of the county game's biggest close-season moves, has only had a few days to start acclimatising to his new surroundings at the Ageas Bowl. He spent most of March playing in the Caribbean with England Lions and, after one innings in a sodden university game, must adapt quickly to the demands of English conditions in April, as well as Division One attacks.

That step up in quality is why Northeast is here, having left the club that he grew up with after finally concluding that his personal ambitions would be better served elsewhere. And it is perhaps that anticipation of the challenge ahead that keeps him smiling warmly, even in the bitter cold, as he is asked to pose for just one more picture with his new Hampshire shirt, do one more interview even as all the rest of his new team-mates have fled.

"It was an easy decision to come here in the end," Northeast says. "Giles White and Rod Bransgrove made it very easy for me, their ambition is there for everyone to see. My personal ambition is to keep scoring runs and make sure I do that in Div One, and contribute to Hampshire having success.

"It's a step up, a bigger club, and I was at the age now, 28, where I wanted to play Division One and challenge for trophies. No disrespect to Kent, I'm sure at some stage - they have a great opportunity to go up and play Div One next year. But I really wanted to challenge myself against the very best and this seemed like the right club to do that."

So long has Northeast been talked up as a future England talent, it is surprising to realise that he only made his Lions debut in Antigua a matter of weeks ago. At Hampshire, he is set to bat alongside James Vince, England's incumbent No. 3 and a man capped in all three formats despite being a year younger. Given the uncertainties around England's Test middle-order, it is not inconceivable the two could soon be competing for a spot.

His new environment will also offer the chance to draw on the considerable expertise of Hashim Amla, whose signing, for the first half of the season, alongside that of Northeast has sharped expectations of a possible title challenge from Hampshire.

Having shouldered a heavy burden at Kent, taking on the captaincy after Rob Key's retirement and then leading the way with the bat (he passed 1000 first-class runs in each of the last three seasons), the club narrowly missing out on promotion in 2016, Northeast concedes that he had to think of his own future, and fulfilling ambitions of an international career, when making the decision to leave Canterbury.

"When I sat down with Kent and realised we weren't on the same page, it was a little bit of a selfish move to say 'I need to look after myself here'. It's never easy when you leave a club which was home really, and I really want Kent to do well. In the end we just didn't agree on where we wanted to go as a club. But that's in the past, I'm really looking forward to the season, I've signed here for four years and I'm looking forward to building something."

There is something of Key in Northeast - the twinkle in the eye, the soft Kentish burr - though the latter is unlikely to face as many questions about his commitment to fitness, another fact of modern life even for cricketers, should he reach the England set-up. Key was a cult county cricketer, beloved by many, though he was never quite able to carve out the England career that perhaps his talent deserved; Northeast's goal, starting with the Lions and now life in Division One with Hampshire, is to ensure that he is not left wondering himself.

"The Lions tour was fantastic, it was a great opportunity, great to be around the coaches and the next crop of England players," he says. "It wasn't an easy trip, playing on tough pitches against some good spinners, so that was a challenge and something I might have to look at going forward, playing in different conditions, if ever I was to get the call-up for England, you're going to have to make sure you compete when you go away from home.

"Hopefully some stage in the future, international honours does come about. But the most important thing now is to get runs for Hampshire and try and win games for Hampshire, and learn as much as possible from these guys, hopefully improve my game here - that's why I made the move, to try and better myself as a cricketer."