The first time Shane Warne was too big for Hampshire's boots. By his second coming the fit with their ambition was perfect. Will Kendall reports from the dressing room
From the first moment he cruised into a post-practice lunch and presented us each with a firm handshake, engaging eye contact and an unnecessary "Hi, I'm Shane Warne", we were transfixed. The greatest spinner, perhaps the finest bowler of them all, and certainly one of the game's largest personalities was in our dressing room. We were a young side in transition and simply unable to deal with it. He did not let anyone down - he took 70 first-class wickets and 109 in all cricket (perhaps the only thing missing was the odd trademark fourthday match-winning spell) - but the team failed to respond and we bombed in a grim summer.
Warne returned in 2004. Where four years earlier his friendship with the then captain Robin Smith and a sizeable purse attracted him to Hampshire, this time the motivation was different. `The Judge' had retired and Warne took a pay cut. He puts a high price on loyalty but he clearly saw unfinished business. Warne does not do losing - not for long. A born winner, driven by immense pride and an insatiable desire to achieve, he took the reins and inspired Hampshire to comfortably their best season for more than a decade.
Though Warne's influence was immense, there are other major factors that have paved the way for this overdue success. Importantly the club now has that size 11 ambition and capability to accommodate Warne's formidable presence. As an entity, from the boardroom to the kitchens, Hampshire is better equipped to cope than in 2000, though it has been a long and difficult path.
In 2001 Hampshire swapped the cosy city centre venue of Northlands Road for the grand and expansive Rose Bowl site on the edge of Southampton. The move was not only about a venue; it meant an upscaling of the entire business. It was a courageous change, one designed to launch the county into the new millennium and to put down a stake for cricket in the south of England. The plans were ambitious, incorporating two cricket grounds, an indoor school, health club and a nine-hole golf course, and a desire to host international cricket in the future.
But such projects are rarely without their problems and these arrived by the bucket-load. Despite support from Sport England and the sale of the old ground for housing, funding was tight. After many nervy moments the chairman Rod Bransgrove stepped in to back the site and the financial future of the club. Bransgrove has a passion for Hampshire cricket but the money he put into the county, a small fortune, was not a donation but an investment that needed a business structure to safeguard it. Rose Bowl plc emerged, an umbrella body that enveloped Hampshire Cricket, attracting other shareholders, and the business is now run with them in mind. This meant an end to the traditional committees, resolving a sensitive transition period; there was no option.
Of course these changes in themselves do not make for a successful club but they created a focus. Hampshire is now driven by a responsibility to its shareholders, not simply a need to cover the costs of the operation. Naturally there were complications and drawbacks - cricket was no longer everything and had to sit as part of a business rather than the business itself - but the adjustment was made.
Certain areas are flourishing - on-site conference and banqueting is booming and Wise Catering, part of Rose Bowl plc, is taking contracts at venues from Twickenham rugby internationals to the Paris Air Show - but development plans for a golf driving range, an indoor sports centre and a media stand will go ahead only as and when the finance is available.
Cricket, though, remains and will remain a fundamental part of the business. A Golden Share scheme ensures that, whoever owns the club, the Rose Bowl will always stage cricket, which hopes to offer a regular diet of international fixtures in the future. The ground co-hosted the recent ICC Champions Trophy and Test cricket is a realistic dream. But, although the venue has now seen several one-day internationals and will host the inaugural Twenty20 international between England and Australia next summer, there are clearly areas to improve. Road access, the park-and-ride scheme that failed spectacularly during the Champions Trophy and the unpredictable pitch are all areas for address. Teething problems are inevitable but Bransgrove's drive for perfection will not miss a detail. Despite these hiccups Hampshire is now a long way from Northlands Road.
Though county cricket might not be the only part of the business, it is inextricably linked to its overall success. In past years the team has often let down the club when good results would have made marketing, sponsorship and investment opportunities so much easier. At last the team might be starting to repay a debt. The ambition of the chairman and board has taken a while to seep into the dressing room but the players are now well aware of the need to deliver. Combined with a distinct and increasing Australian influence among the players and support staff, the upshot is an infinitely more accommodating environment for Shane Warne's style and personality. In essence the conditions for a successful relationship this time round were in place.
The final cog was Warne himself and, crucially, his positioning in the piece. Whereas the Warne of 2000 came along to help, the Warne of 2004 came along to lead.
Overseas players almost invariably do well in county cricket but the most successful are those whose influence goes beyond the weight of their performance. Warne has a natural ability to bowl magical leg-spin but he also has a born gift for directing, inspiring and motivating the people around him. As a captain he sweeps players up and they follow his lead. Combine this with his instinctive and insatiable appetite for success and you have a winning formula.
His influence is tangible. Of course, his wicket-taking ability is a key factor but his reputation means that cricketers want to play with him. Kevin Pietersen signed from Nottinghamshire in October, clearly prepared to take a chance on pressing for an England batting spot on the most bowler-friendly pitch in the country so he could play alongside Warne.
His overall impact is immeasurable as it goes beyond statistics. He is both the captain and the star turn. He galvanises the troops but also provides the cutting edge on the field. His presence intimidates many opposing players, making them wary and hesitant. He has the mouth on the pitch and the trousers to go with it. He makes his team push their shoulders back and believe that they are greater than the sum of their parts. It is impossible to quantify his worth in runs, wickets or match-winning performances. You cannot put a price on it. No team, not even Australia, would be the same without him.
But, if this upturn in fortunes is purely down to the influence of Warne, then it can all unravel as quickly as it has come together. The 2004 squad had not changed significantly from the one that flopped a year earlier and perhaps his presence only papered over the cracks. Recent signings will undoubtedly provide extra strength and depth but Warne will always remain the key man. If Cricket Australia do not grant him leave before next summer's Ashes, can the team reproduce the goods without him?
If he is not around, a residue of this influence will surely remain. At Hampshire we saw it last summer: without him we reached the quarter-final of Twenty20 Cup and won three Championship matches out of three. The side had the habit - nine Championship victories in a season is more than double the county's return from 2002 and 2003 combined - and confidence from this is bound to carry over. But ultimately someone else will have to stand up to the plate and provide the inspiration, the cutting edge and the drive.
And there are encouraging signs here for Hampshire. In terms of statistics Warne is not irreplaceable. Though he may be the bowler the opposition fear most, three others - Dimitri Mascarenhas, Chris Tremlett and Shaun Udal - were above him in the 2004 averages, though each would admit to profiting from bowling with him. Leadership and tactical nous are apparent in the experience of Udal, John Crawley and Nic Pothas and instinct and flair lie in the capable hands of Mascarenhas and Pietersen. There is also plenty of young talent in the squad, the product of a regularly successful 2nd XI and youth system, who are champing at the bit for opportunities. There is no reason to feel that success in Division One is beyond them - the standard is not so different - but can it be done without Warne at the helm?
It will be hard because fundamentally the great leg-spinner is the ace in Hampshire's pack, the card that enticed Pietersen, the magnetism that gels the players and the irresistible force behind the county's revival. As long as Warne remains, the county is heading for good times.
There is a feeling about the Rose Bowl that 2004 has been a watershed year, that the club is finally making the strides on the pitch to catch up with advancement it has made off it.
Will Kendall played for Hampshire from 1996-2004.
This article was first published in the January issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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