By Alex Smith
Adi Birrell is planning to use the Essex blueprint to turn ‘Happy Hampshire’ into regular county champions.
Hampshire haven’t won a County Championship for 47 years, with only Derbyshire, Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire and Somerset having to wait longer to claim red ball silverware.
But after ending up third last season, their best finish since 2008, Birrell believes the county would have been in a good place to end their four-day woes in 2020, before the coronavirus hit.
Those plans revolved around a strong bowling attack, led by Australia Test star Nathan Lyon, in a similar design which has seen Simon Harmer spin Essex to two titles in three years.
“We had a really good plan to win the Championship this year,” Birrell said.
“If you look at Essex they have won two of the last three with Harmer taking 80 wickets. We were looking to do a similar thing by bringing in a very good spinner who was available for all 14 matches.
“Harmer, Porter and Siddle is a good bowling attack but if you look at ours we would have had Fidel, Abbott, Barker, Dawson and Lyon – that is quite formidable.
“Lyon is the best spinner in the world.
“I would say Hampshire are one of the stronger counties.
“We aren’t strongest but we certainly aren’t the weakest. It’s a good squad and we can be competitive and we should be competitive.”
Birrell took over from Craig White as first-team manager at the beginning of last year with his goal to bring a new resilient mentality to Hampshire in the Championship.
The county had long lived under the moniker ‘Happy Hampshire’ – with the, perhaps unfair,
reputation they would roll over in tricky situations.
While a complete overhaul of the club’s DNA is an ongoing process, South African Birrell was pleased with what he saw in his opening campaign.
“We needed to toughen up a little and not lose in four-day cricket,” Birrell added.
“There were a couple of times last year like Somerset where we lost a bit easy but then there were a couple of times like Yorkshire and Surrey where we showed a lot of guts and fought.
“Those two matches I was very pleased that we were able to salvage a draw while fighting really hard.
“They gave a lot of satisfaction to all of us to hold off in those matches when things had gone against us.
“Those situations where we can fight to salvage a draw when in previous years we might have lost.
“It is about trying the challenge the players to do that more in four-day cricket.
“It comes very slowly because you learn from your experiences.
“There are small wins along the way and we heaped loads of praise on those two matches we saved.
“It is little by little, it isn’t a huge change overnight.
“It takes a long time and it comes in small increments by using small bits of praise for small wins.”
Once Ajinkya Rahane’s stint ended in mid-July, Hampshire made the forward-looking decision not to bring in another overseas.
Instead, the club’s management elected to give academy graduate Felix Organ game time, and allow the likes of Ian Holland and Tom Alsop time in new roles further up the batting order.
Birrell said: “It was really great to beat Somerset at the end and finish well as we didn’t use an overseas pro for those matches to give our players a bit more experience going into this year. “We knew we couldn’t win the Championship so we blood in a couple of players instead. “We came third and only two sides beat us and for a long time we were in with a chance. “It was hard after we lost Vince and Dawson to compete in those matches. We fell off the pace a little bit.”
Looking back on his first season of county cricket there is one obvious high for Birrell; reaching a Lord’s final.
Hampshire only lost to Essex on their way to the Royal London Cup climax, but with the spine of their batting line-up ripped out due to World Cup involvement, they were comfortably beaten by Somerset.
Birrell is keen not to tinker with the ingrained winning formula, which saw seven T20 finals days and five one-day trophies since 2009.
He said: “Getting to a final was a high moment last year but there was the disappointment of not being at full strength.
“We basically missed Markram, Vince and Dawson – three of our biggest players out of the final.
“That was a bitter blow but we played good cricket. We only lost one pool game to get there which was a good effort.
“The white ball stuff has gone really well in the last decade or so, so it is about continuing that history and DNA which is already there.”