Mark Nicholas

Bravo, Hants

In praise of a champion county side

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
Liam Dawson, Chris Wood, James Vince and Michael Bates pose with the CB40 trophy, Hampshire v Warwickshire, CB40 Final, Lord's, September 15, 2012

Hampshire's Liam Dawson, Chris Wood, James Vince and star keeper Michael Bates  •  Getty Images

For 18 summers Hampshire cricket was my life - six as a player, the best part of 12 as captain. I was often told, "Get a wife!" in a plea from the team to end the intense affair I was having with the club and its fortunes. I lived half a mile from the old ground in Northlands Road and spent more time in meetings, at practice or on the park than some thought healthy. We won Cup finals at Lord's in 1988, 1991 and 1992. These were a Kingdom of Days.
Previously the club had a selection of fabulous cricketers oddly unable to take the leap of faith that wins a crucial knockout match. Barry Richards and Gordon Greenidge, Andy Roberts, Trevor Jesty, and Peter Sainsbury to name a few. In 1988, Robin Smith played an exceptional innings in the quarter-final to get us past the very strong Worcestershire side of the moment, and Paul Terry made a composed run-chase hundred to secure the semi-final. After that, the process became a whole lot easier.
A couple of days before the 1991 NatWest final against Surrey, Waqar Younis broke my hand in the first-class game coincidentally scheduled between the two counties. I was unbeaten overnight and while on my way to the middle with the nightwatchman, Rajesh Maru, for the start of the third day's play, we were passed by Waqar, late out of the Surrey dressing room. He put his arm round me and said how he was looking forward to the big day out at Lord's on Saturday. We had a laugh and I said we didn't want any last-minute hiccups so he'd better pitch it up and look after me. Two balls later the knuckle and little finger on my left hand were crushed and bust by as vicious a ball as I ever faced. As it happened, this was handy. We had spent much of the week figuring out how to fit a second spinner into the side for the final. Maru got a game, David Gower captained the side and Hampshire won a nail-biter in the September gloaming at about 7.45pm.
Watching that match from the dressing-room balcony, arm in a sling, was excruciating. A non-smoker, I did a packet of Marlboro Lights. I kept off the fags last Saturday but watching the CB40 final was barely easier than it had been 21 years ago. I know only a few of the current players but marvel at their resilience and various skills from afar.
Hampshire's chairman, Rod Bransgrove, is a close friend. His energy, committment and emotional investment are matched in extremis by his financial support of a club brave enough to sell up in the late 1990s and start over. The Rose/Ageas Bowl might not be standing were Rod not a man of his word. Unreasonably, the ECB has been suspicious of his motives, and at various stages of the club's transition from quaint county outpost to state-of-the-art international venue, made life damned difficult for him.
There have been suggestions he is in it for himself, which one hopes is true, because it would a daft thing to own and run if he were not. Given he is one of the least selfish people you will meet, I say with certainty that his true motivation is a passion for Hampshire cricket that few people could understand and therefore mistrust. I have been down this road and know that it leads to elation and despair in brutally unequal measure. When you feel alone, it is an abyss. When you triumph, it is the party to end all parties. But it is quickly over. Far from mistrusting Rod and continually chipping away at the remarkable achievement that is the ground on which Hampshire play and the facilities it offers, the governing body should embrace, applaud and reward him for the gift he has brought the game.
Back to the match and a young cricketer called Michael Bates. In the age of the smash and grab wicketkeeper-batsman, Bates spent last Saturday afternoon reminding us of the beauty in an endangered art. So brilliant was his work at the stumps - standing up to all the bowlers bar David Griffiths, who is an 85mph man - that he might have been Godfrey Evans or - more recently, and Bates will have heard of this one - Jack Russell.
The facts about the final ball of the match are that, with 1 to win, Kabir Ali bowled a very full length and Neil Carter missed it. Even the slightest fumble would have allowed a sprinted single, but the ball, delivered at about 80mph, hit the gloves dead centre and the bails were whipped off for good measure. Another take in the previous over, down the leg side off the left-armer Chris Wood, bowling swingers and cutters from around the wicket, was utterly mesmerising.
I think this was the best stumper's performance I have seen, but of course I am horribly one-eyed about it. And not that I saw it ball by ball. There were periods during the final ten overs of the match when I could not even watch, instead going for little walks, muttering away to myself like some nutcase with nothing left to plead for.
Would this Hampshire team have beaten our side of 1992? We had Malcolm Marshall, of course, and Gower and Smith and Terry. I think they would. Six times out of ten, maybe seven
I hurled silent abuse at my favourite batsman in England, Ian Bell, simply because he was still at the wicket for Warwickshire. When he hit Wood miraculously inside-out over backward point for four, I told my step-father, "We are doomed!"
Actually, I did not so much fire at Bell as the England selectors. Please. With due respect to Alex Hales and Michael Lumb, the chosen openers alongside Craig Kieswetter in England's T20 World Cup squad, Bell bats their socks and shoes off. If Danny Briggs couldn't play for Hampshire because he was in Sri Lanka, how the blazes was Belly on the paddock for the Bears?
To continue for a minute on that one, did it really make any smidgeon of sense that Briggs was not allowed to play? The 21-year-old boy is a product of Hampshire's junior system. He is everything that English cricket strives for - homespun, talented, sound of mind and modest. He has never before played at Lord's, which is an experience in itself. He has played every limited-overs match for the county this season, and learned in each of them. He is a centrepiece of the team's gutsy and compelling style. There is a freshness about him and a sense of calm optimism that sells the sport well to the young who have aspiration.
And the ECB told him he couldn't play because the England team must travel together. That's nonsense. Fine if England had a match that day or even the next but they didn't, not till Monday and that a practice game. Hampshire had him booked to fly Saturday night, arriving Sunday afternoon anyway. But the board said no. Not fair. Probably the Pietersen issue did not help. It was a bad time for the England management to be making allowances for anybody. There are, though, sensible exceptions to rules and this should have been one.
Still, somehow they won without him. And without Dimitri Mascarenhas, their talisman. Perhaps the great man up above really does work in mysterious ways. "Hampshire, undisputed kings of one-day cricket," said Michael Atherton to Jimmy Adams at the presentation. That was a bit much for Jimmy, who is almost as low-key as Athers is.
Would they have beaten our side of 1992? We had Malcolm Marshall, of course, and Gower and Smith and Terry. I think they would. Six times out of ten, maybe seven. They are a very hard bunch to shake off, and use the contemporary skills of one-day cricket to exceptional effect. Bravo, Jimmy, bravo!

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK