Miserly rain rolled in off the Quantocks and slid down into Taunton. The June air was cold and the County Ground was draped in a thick blanket of low-hanging cloud. It rained throughout the match. The outfield was slippery, the ball skipping off it, spraying water as it did so. The pitch quickly churned up. Hampshire's innings was interrupted for half an hour by rain before they were bowled out for 133 - what they might have considered a defendable score in previous years. Now the game had changed. Somerset chased it down in 15.4 overs. Chris Gayle, World Boss and power-hitting trailblazer, muscled 52 from 39 balls. With one win from seven matches in 2016, Hampshire's hopes of reaching a seventh successive finals day were in tatters. Their season was over before it had begun; an era had ended.
Between 2010 and 2015, Hampshire emerged as one of T20's great sides. For six seasons, in the world's longest and largest T20 tournament - with 18 teams and often over 100 matches across a five-month season - Hampshire lifted the trophy twice and reached the semi-finals every year. Within this period their win-loss ratio of 2.18 was comfortably the best in England and over such a span (91 matches) has only been surpassed by one team anywhere: Nottinghamshire, who never sealed their dominance with a trophy.
Hampshire's success was characterised by a consistent but familiar strategy. Arriving before mega-hitters and hybrid allrounders ushered in an evolutionary leap, Hampshire's approach represented the vertex of a specialised strand of tactics adapted, in essence, from 1990s ODI cricket. This is their story.
Do teams start winning because they keep picking the same players or do they pick the same players because they keep winning? "For us it was the former," Hampshire's director of cricket Giles White recalls of their winning side from 2010. "We asked ourselves: what have we got? How are we best going to play with what we've got? And we stuck to it."
"They did not possess the raw and visceral power of a Gayle, Warner or McCullum, but Hampshire's top order became the most feared in county cricket"
What they had were players who spanned formats. "As a county club, you don't have the budget to have white- and red-ball players. You are looking for players that play all formats. In that era we were lucky to have players who did."
What they also had was a potent blend of youth and experience. That season Hampshire's squad contained eight players over 30, six between 27 and 29, and five 20 or younger. This range allowed a method to embed itself and pass on from one side to the next. Over six seasons the method was only reinforced and improved, not changed.
Despite a slow start in 2010, they only made 12 changes to their team across 19 matches, the majority enforced by injury, and just three in their last eight games: so settled was the side, they chose not to select Kevin Pietersen for finals day despite his availability.
Their success was built on a core of players, supported by specialists, overseas signings and fringe squad players. Across the six seasons a spine of seven players appeared in more than half the matches. Three were top-order batsmen: Jimmy Adams (85 matches), James Vince (86) and Michael Carberry (59). Two were middle-order batsmen: Sean Ervine (81) and Neil McKenzie (55). One, Chris Wood (78), was a seam bowler, and one, Danny Briggs (88), a spinner.
Around them were critical contributors: Michael Lumb (19 matches), Owais Shah (22), Dimitri Mascarenhas (40), Shahid Afridi (10), Abdul Razzaq (10), Dan Christian (12), Liam Dawson (41), Glenn Maxwell (20), Will Smith (32), Nic Pothas (26), Michael Bates (29), Adam Wheater (38), Dominic Cork (39), Imran Tahir (16), Yasir Arafat (16), Matt Coles (15).
"We built a pattern of play," explains White. "If we won the toss we were more likely to do X unless conditions told us we must do Y. We had a set structure of how we played and we didn't swap around too much, didn't mess around with orders too much.
"There was role clarity throughout the team. We knew what we were doing and we became very good at it."
Jimmy Adams is not your normal T20 opener. Having made his first-class debut in 2002 alongside Robin Smith, a year before the inaugural Twenty20 Cup, Adams was a red-ball player first and white-ball second.
"I was very wary of being the bloke that was 15 not out off 20 balls after the first six," recalls Adams. "I was more scared of letting the team down and not doing the right thing than I was of getting out.
"In some ways Neil McKenzie's game was a precursor to the likes of Joe Root and Virat Kohli, minus the power"
"The nice thing about T20 is, almost all the time the right thing to do for the team is to go for the positive option and to take a gamble. I was probably the most non-gambling person in our changing room but I had to think: what does the team need from me at this moment?"
In 2010, David Warner was opening for Middlesex and Brendon McCullum for Sussex, yet Adams still finished as the leading T20 run scorer in the country. He was an unlikely batting leader of a T20 dynasty, but broadly representative of Hampshire's approach to top-order batting, which prioritised classical technique and rarely felt the need to turn to a white-ball renegade. The occasional, sometimes successful, flirtation with Shahid Afridi and Abdul Razzaq aside, Hampshire's top three would usually comprise three of Adams, Michael Lumb, James Vince and Michael Carberry.
Lumb, Vince and Carberry are more natural ball-strikers than Adams, but with games ultimately grounded in orthodoxy. "With a strong base technique you can make the most of bad balls but when you are on good wickets - and Vincey is a classic example of this - you can hit good balls for four as well," says Adams.
"When we got onto wickets that were a bit trickier or when someone was bowling well, we were able to find ways to get through and still post a score that was defendable or put us in a winnable position." Adams nearly won a low-scoring match on a pitch that Hampshire were docked points for. He made 61 when no other team-mate reached double figures, and he ranks it as one of his best.
The quartet was a product of the county system. Their techniques were strong and hand-eye coordination and muscle memory acutely attuned to picking up line and length early. The liberation afforded by T20 intensified all that they already knew. The demands of the format meant it would take just the slightest hint of width, or the faintest scent of an overpitched delivery for them to get quickly into position and, crack, the ball was gone.
Hampshire's advantage was that they had four players who could attack with minimal risk. Vince, for example, hit 4.93 fours per six, which is an unusually high ratio for contemporary T20 batsmen (in T20Is, Gayle hits 1.32 fours per six, and in all T20s, Warner hits 2.40). This risk management meant that the method was important, rather than personnel - there was no disproportionately important player around whom an innings was built or burnt.
"I think as an opener you've got freedom," explained Vince in 2014. "You've got to try and score 45 runs plus in the first six. Losing one wicket in the Powerplay is all right, I think you can accept that. But you don't want to lose more than two."
Across the six seasons the quartet contributed half of all Hampshire's runs. Once Lumb left after 2011, Vince, Carberry and Adams entrenched themselves further. The partnerships between the three were the most prolific during the six years, and each of them top-scored for the county at least one season apiece. Vince still holds the record for the most runs in a season, with Adams not far behind.
"History is unlikely to remember it as such, but Kevin Pietersen, Eoin Morgan and generations of future England will be treading a path Mascarenhas mapped"
Their strike rates over this period hover around 130 - less out of kilter in 2010 than 2015 - but each of them boasted season strike rates north of 140 at least once and all were capable of going around and above 200. Three of Hampshire's five 200-plus scores in the six seasons were scored for three or fewer wickets lost.
They did not possess the raw and visceral power of a Gayle, Warner or McCullum, but Hampshire's top order became the most feared in county cricket. And for the majority of six seasons, across 242 innings and 6364 runs, they were brilliantly, beautifully brutal.
"On some days we didn't even have to call, yes or no, or wait. We just knew. We had an understanding. I dunno, maybe it was a Southern African thing."
Ervine is talking about batting with McKenzie, and it was this understanding, not just between them but all of the batsmen, that White believes was the foundation of Hampshire's success in the middle overs.
"I think there are a lot of sides where when you are batting and times are tough, they can lose patience in you and it affects you," explains McKenzie. "At Hampshire I felt the guys and the coach trusted me. Even though they might be thinking, hey he's a little slow, or I think he's gone too early or whatever, there was that trust and belief."
Hampshire's primary middle-overs batsmen were Ervine and McKenzie, the two highest scorers after Vince, Adams and Carberry. Their partnership average of 45.68 was higher than any other. Ervine played all six seasons, while McKenzie left the club after the 2013 season, but his loss was covered by Shah, who averaged less but at a higher strike rate. Together these three and the top-order trio faced 73% of all deliveries bowled at Hampshire between 2010 and 2016.
Much like the top order, Ervine, McKenzie and Shah brought strong red-ball techniques and their methods and strengths worked well together. Ervine, a barrel-chested, powerful left-hander, was typically strong down the ground, while McKenzie and Shah were cuter, subtler players: McKenzie was strong over cover, Shah between mid-on and square leg. Both were adept against spin and swept neatly.
McKenzie was, in the eyes of many, a defining factor in Hampshire's success, bringing a Zen-like calm to Hampshire's middle; critical in elevating them to defendable totals and excellent at marshalling chases. His finest innings, a match-winning, unbeaten 79 from 49 balls, came in the 2012 quarter-final against Nottinghamshire; he also scored a match-winning 52 in the 2010 final, which included just four boundaries. "[A] classical middle-innings player," according to Tony Middleton, Hampshire's long-term batting coach. McKenzie averaged 40, 37, 23 and 100 in his four seasons, finishing unbeaten on 18 occasions.
"It was the kind of role that a lesser character might have started to worry. 'What happens if I lose this game?'" Adams points out. "But we all started to realise what Mac's strengths were, and if Mac was a run a ball for the first part, everyone had the belief that he was going to get us to the score we needed or get us over the line."
"The nice thing about T20 is, almost all the time the right thing to do for the team is to go for the positive option and to take a gamble" Jimmy Adams
In this part of the innings, Hampshire were defined by the running between the wickets and exploiting big boundaries at the Rose Bowl. But in different ways, Ervine, McKenzie and Shah could still find the boundary when it mattered. Notably there was a difference between Ervine and Shah, who both faced, on average, 23 balls per six hit, and McKenzie who faced 62.
"I'm not the tallest, biggest guy, so sixes didn't come that naturally," McKenzie explains. "Batting in T20 was enjoyable because it highlighted my skill. I had to be smart. I had to be going at a run a ball. I had to go over extra cover, midwicket, the 45 lap. I was always looking to go over the inner ring. Instead of standing there and hitting sixes, it forced my hand to be skilful."
In some ways McKenzie's game was a precursor to the likes of Joe Root and Virat Kohli, minus the power. His use of angles and ability to play 360 degrees was, in the words of White, "ahead of his time".
The work of McKenzie and others was all the more impressive because very often there wasn't much lower-order firepower to come. Razzaq, Afridi, Daniel Christian and Glenn Maxwell played a handful of matches between them, and Cork was capable of big hits. "[We lacked] that someone to come in and win the game that you'd almost lost," says Middleton. "Dimi [Mascarhenas] would do it now and again but not consistently." Across the six seasons Hampshire's Nos. 6, 7 and 8 averaged 16 at a strike rate of 121 - sturdy but unspectacular.
Instead Hampshire's middle-order trio went deep regularly. McKenzie was unbeaten or batted beyond the 17th over in 54% of his innings, Ervine in 50% and Shah in 40% - high proportions for players at four and five.
When batting first, the compulsion to attack recklessly was minimised by this crescendo approach, and a wealth of experience and intelligence that fostered accurate assessments of conditions and par scores. Batting second, drawing on the same attributes, like potters spinning clay, the required rate was expertly handled. Hampshire's batting rarely wreaked havoc but havoc rarely needed to be wreaked; their bats were scalpels not swords.
Hampshire believed the best form of attack with the ball was defence. Slow the scoring enough and wickets will fall. "When we talk about taking wickets," explains Mascarenhas, "it is not about trying to bowl miracle balls or unbelievable yorkers or balls pitching on leg and hitting the top of off."
Mascarenhas was a revolutionary figure in the English game. In 2008 he became the first English player in the IPL - playing for the inaugural champions Rajasthan Royals, who he says bore similarities to Hampshire - before carving out a successful career as a globetrotting T20 freelancer. History is unlikely to remember it as such, but Pietersen, Eoin Morgan, Jos Buttler and generations of England cricketers to come will be treading a path Mascarenhas mapped.
"Risk management batting meant the method was important, rather than personnel - there was no disproportionately important player around whom an innings was built or burnt"
Mascarenhas became something of a godfather in this Hampshire era. Captain in 2009 when Hampshire reached the quarter-finals for the first time, he was supposed to lead in 2010 before an injury ended his season. He returned in 2011 and 2012 under Cork, and his influence on a young team was enormous. He opened the bowling in 37 of his 38 bowling innings until his retirement in 2013, and would usually bowl his four overs straight through. His overall economy was 6.80 - superb, considering he bowled in the Powerplay, where he took 39 of his 49 wickets. His name is strewn through the list of the county's most economical performances.
There was a beautiful simplicity to it. With deep square-leg and deep point or third man outside the ring and the wicketkeeper up, Mascarenhas scurried towards the crease and with a small skip, arms and legs whirring, fizzed the ball down, barely following through, aiming to hit the top of off at around 75mph. Again and again and again.
"Everyone who was playing against me knew where I was going to bowl. They knew. And it was up to them whether they could hit it or not. I didn't really change my style. I bowled very few slower balls, very few bumpers, very few yorkers."
With Mascarenhas injured in 2010, new-ball duties were shared between Cork, Wood and Razzaq. None of them bowled at great pace or looked to take wickets, instead squeezing them out through pressure. That injury accelerated the emergence of Wood, who became a vital player (82 wickets across six years). As a left-armer the angle was different but his method was similar. Unlike Mascarenhas, however, Wood was utilised not just at the beginning but also at the death.
"In the first six overs you are looking to cramp them so you don't give them any width," Wood says. He would keep a third man and deep square leg and if a batsmen got on top, he would bring third man up and put an extra man back on the leg side and bowl an even tighter line into the batsman.
Hampshire's other influential Powerplay bowler was Will Smith, who signed as a first-class batsman in 2013 but whose offspin became integral to T20 plans. He bowled 109 overs across two seasons, 26 of which were the first over of an innings. The tactic was part of a global trend and few came as close to perfecting it as Smith - his economy rate in that first over was just 5.69. His strategy was uncomplicated and predictable but difficult to counter. Bowl flat, on a length "where they couldn't get underneath it and had to check their swing", while the line was "tight, cramping the batsman". He bowled fast, never varying the pace because he did not have the protection to bowl slower.
Hampshire's bowling strategy, by definition, took time to pay dividends. There were occasions when they won matches in their bowling Powerplay but generally they were pressure-building phases. It was more likely that they could lose the match in the Powerplay than win it, but that rarely happened.
Batsman-specific plans were largely formulated with the assistance of Hampshire's analyst, Joe Maiden, who used a software called Feedback Cricket to produce data sheets ahead of matches. The software is fairly basic by modern standards and without Hawk-Eye requires human input of line and length using fixed-camera footage. Counties share data with one another and it is better than nothing, but it also illustrates how far behind the big leagues county cricket is in terms of resources.
Spinners to winners
On spin-friendly home surfaces, with big boundaries, Hampshire deployed various spinners in the middle overs, the phase of the game that truly made them the great team they were.
"Do teams start winning because they keep picking the same players or do they pick the same players because they keep winning?"
Across six seasons spinners bowled 40% of Hampshire's overs at an average of 20.94 and economy of 6.97 runs (compared to 27.49 and 8.00 for seamers). The left-arm spin of Briggs - who played more matches than any Hampshire player in this period - was the core, partnered at different times by the legspin of Afridi and Tahir, and left-arm spin of Dawson and Smith. Between them the quintet took 207 wickets.
In 2011, with Afridi and Tahir partnering Briggs, Hampshire were arguably at their strongest. They eventually lost in the semi-finals in a Super Over but they only lost two games during the 16-match group stage. "It was probably the biggest belief in a squad that I've ever been involved in," Briggs remembers. "Whatever score our batters could get, and 130 or 140 would often be enough, our bowlers knew their role, had such clear plans that we believed we would defend [it].
"The good thing was, we were all different. Tahir was a huge spinner and Afridi was very quick and skidded off the pitch. I was more conventional. We all spun the ball different amounts. Tahir was more of a wicket-taker than Afridi and I, but that suited the way we bowled."
Watching Hampshire during these years, but particularly in 2011, there was an unmistakable sense that whatever the match situation they would end the middle overs in charge. All it would take was a string of dot balls, a couple of mistimed shots or a wicket. When a new batsman arrived Hampshire would squeeze him.
"We would take a gamble and bring five fielders in," says Ervine. "If two people were still going and the partnership was building, we would still have fielders in… a lot of people would have the fielders on the ring trying to stop boundaries but we would create the pressure by denying them singles."
It was a brave tactic, requiring plenty of confidence, and one that was hugely successful; in 2010 and 2011 in particular, it induced a glut of collapses: 6 for 67, 7 for 38, 6 for 13, 7 for 64, 8 for 40, 6 for 54 and 7 for 75 in 2010; 7 for 64, 8 for 53, 5 for 39, 8 for 55 and 8 for 39 in 2011, as well as 7 for 66, 6 for 54, 7 for 60, 8 for 66, 6 for 44, 6 for 52 and 5 for 35 in later seasons.
"We were a very well-drilled machine," says Adams. "You knew exactly where you were going, you knew exactly what field people wanted, and if there was a change you pretty much knew who had moved and where."
Afridi and Tahir brought international quality in 2011. But Briggs was Hampshire's leading wicket-taker, with 23 wickets, and alongside McKenzie, he was the county's most important player.
"I tried to keep it really simple," says Briggs. "Most of the time I would probably only bowl one or two different balls in four overs. And then it is just changing when you are going to bowl them.
"Everyone who was playing against me knew where I was going to bowl. They knew. And it was up to them whether they could hit it or not" Dimitri Mascarenhas
"I just tried to bowl straight. Anything that wasn't hitting the stumps I counted as width, so I wanted to hit the stumps every ball and bowl a length that would hit the top of the stumps. That is probably the most difficult ball to hit. From there all I had was a decent yorker and then it was about just mixing those two balls together."
Briggs bowled almost entirely from round the wicket, especially to left-handers to cramp them. His standard field was a deep square leg, deep midwicket, long-on, long-off and deep cover. Fielders would be up at fine leg, backward point, extra cover and midwicket, but if the batsman liked to cut and reverse-sweep or if the pitch was turning, he would move midwicket to a second point. Briggs' influence extended into the death overs, where he, like Smith, helped redefine the expectations on spinners bowling in a tough phase.
"My yorker was the biggest thing," explains Briggs. "I would bowl flatter and quicker and the yorker was very hard to get away. I knew if I got it right, I shouldn't be getting hit for that many."
Such was Hampshire's brilliance during the middle overs that the difficulty of death bowling was somewhat mitigated. White actually believes that death bowling was Hampshire's weakest facet, but that their shortcomings were masked by the strength of the preceding overs. "If you have two players on 20 it is so difficult to bowl at the death… fortunately for us we often had two new batsmen. Teams didn't recognise that taking innings deep and having players in at the death was the way to beat us."
Going over and round the wicket, changing angles on the crease, slower balls, yorkers and slower bouncers are all things Wood and Hampshire's other bowlers would turn to. The intelligence required at the death was perhaps best illustrated by the success of Cork, who despite his age and decreasing pace remained frugal in the closing overs until his retirement in 2011. In later seasons Hampshire were left with more to do, and although they got by with the likes of Yasir Arafat, Sohail Tanvir, Kyle Abbott, Matt Coles and Fidel Edwards, they were not nearly as successful. By 2015 their economy rate in the last five overs was 10.28.
Much like their batting, if Hampshire's bowling appeared to lack depth that's because it did. Ervine was Hampshire's sixth, and sometimes fifth, bowler, and Vince a very occasional seventh. They got by with five bowlers in 42 matches, six bowlers in 42 and seven in just four. Far from being a weakness, however, Hampshire's scarcity of options revealed a settled set of primary bowlers.
Time catches up with everyone. In 2016, Hampshire's dominance finally ended as they finished second from bottom in the South Group. In their final match, at home to Somerset, seven of the starting XI had not been part of their first-choice XI at the start of the season. It had taken 14 matches for a dynasty to crumble.
"Jimmy Adams was an unlikely batting leader of a T20 dynasty, broadly representative of Hampshire's approach to top-order batting, which prioritised classical technique"
Management and players pointed to injuries and international call-ups as the primary reason, but it is possible, if you look closely, to see a wider-reaching reason. In 2016 there was an overwhelming sense that the format was leaving Hampshire behind.
"We have to adapt our method because the game has changed," Middleton said, following Hampshire's exit. White admitted as much before the season had even begun: "The game is moving on," he said in May. "We are beginning to see the middle-over phase contract, and teams are treating 12 overs onwards as the death overs. Last year we identified that we didn't have a lot of depth in terms of hitters."
In response to this perceived shortcoming, Hampshire signed Afridi and Darren Sammy (after missing out on Andre Russell) and decided to initiate attacks earlier than before. This was Hampshire's most significant strategic shift in six years. In 2016 their power-hitters were being asked to do too much after the top order had either subsided, not scored enough runs fast enough, or both. Hampshire players made just one appearance in the highest strike rates in an innings for the season - a list otherwise well populated by lower-order hitters.
There was fragility and confusion at the top; Vince's England call-up and Carberry's injuries and illness upset the balance and with them consistency. Perhaps more significantly, even when they and Adams played, they looked like batsmen from another era. Strike rates hovering around 120 were fine in 2010 but not good enough in 2016. Middleton now believes Hampshire are in danger of being left behind in the Powerplay too as power-hitting - "hitting over rather than through the ring" - continues to take hold.
Briggs, who joined Sussex after 2015, admits their bowling strategy was coming under pressure even before he left. "[Bowling a consistent line and length] worked for a long time but as the game evolved, it has got harder," he says. "Even in the last couple of years T20 has got so much better, you would not be able to get away with that nowadays. You've got to have more variations and more mix-ups."
It could be argued more broadly that Hampshire's struggles shed light on the divergence between red-ball and white-ball cricket. In 2010, White felt having players who spanned formats was critical to their success; by 2016 it could be argued it was critical to their failure (eventual champions Northamptonshire said they prioritised T20).
There is something symbolically appropriate about Hampshire's demise. The disjointed, cross-format domestic schedule, with T20 games fit in between first-class matches, means that focused periods of training are rare if not impossible. Until 2014 the T20 tournament was staged in one single block in the calendar, largely or entirely separate from other formats. But in a move to increase attendances by spreading matches more thinly, the block was scrapped for a season-long competition.
So in 2016, Hampshire were able to have just three T20-specific training sessions, one of which was forced indoors by rain, and a handful of one-on-one sessions. It hardly felt like the front line of a revolution. Batsmen and bowlers were split into scenario groups. There was some range-hitting, ramping and scooping from the batsmen; some cone-targeting, drills and variations from the bowlers; and as impressive as the skills were, there was an air of casual experimentation about it, a far cry from the breeding grounds of innovation that training sessions in the IPL, BBL and CPL are.
But it is an apposite time for eras to end because T20 in England are potentially on the cusp of seminal change. By 2018, there could be a city-based, BBL-style T20 tournament, played in one block in the calendar. Although the plan has had its opponents among counties, Hampshire, led by their ambitious chairman Rod Bransgrove, were one of the earliest proponents. Whatever comes now, however, it should not obscure the legacy of Hampshire as one of T20s first great sides.