Hampshire 319 (Holland 64, Northeast 63, Abbot 58) and 299 for 4 declared (Holland 146*, Northeast 118) beat Middlesex 79 (Abbas 6-11) and 281 (White 73*, Gubbins 67, Holland 3-19, Abbas 3-28) by 249 runs
Having wrapped up the spoils from this game a minute or two before the scheduled lunch break on day four, Hampshire’s players were able to belt out their victory song in the dressing room and sit back to drink in the moment – perhaps even enjoy a beer in the sunshine, too, given it is practically government-mandated now.
There were no home fans around to enjoy the scene, but the Ageas Bowl nevertheless basked in a summery sense of optimism as James Vince walked down the steps to reflect on a second emphatic victory in a row. Not since 2004 have Hampshire won their opening two games of a Championship season. That year, Shane Warne’s side saw off Durham and Leicestershire in a couple of low-scorers, on their way to promotion from Division Two. The following summer, they finished as runners-up to Nottinghamshire by two-and-a-half points – as close as Hampshire have come in recent times to hoisting the Championship pennant last raised in these parts back in 1973.
Vince, of course, will not be looking that far ahead. Squinting impassively in bright April sunshine, he was happy to praise his players for two dominant displays against Leicestershire and Middlesex, before concluding: “Delighted with the start, but I’ll be boring and say on to the next game.”
That is perfectly reasonable, with the first goal for all of the sides competing in this year’s Championship being to secure a top-two finish in their conference and qualification for Division One. Already Hampshire and Gloucestershire have pulled out in front, and the two will meet here next week for a contest that will give further indication of each team’s relative strength.
There’s no doubting that Hampshire are in rare form, though. Five of their top six have already scored hundreds, while the new-ball pairing of Kyle Abbott and Mohammad Abbas – whose exemplary match showing of was chiefly responsible for cracking open the game against Middlesex – looks as strong as any in the country. Factor in Ian Holland’s all-round utility, and the spin options provided by Liam Dawson and Mason Crane, and the first XI is formidable.
There is also the prospect of Keith Barker, the experienced left-arm seamer, returning to fitness in the next couple of weeks; and while Aneurin Donald has suffered a setback in his recovery from knee surgery, Cameron Steel has signed on loan from Durham for April and May, having impressed with a century for Hampshire’s 2nd XI in a friendly against Surrey.
“It’s good signs. With the ball everyone’s contributing, and with the bat pretty much everyone’s made a contribution now,” Vince said. “We know here the pitches can get flat and we’ve got to work hard, but with the balance of side we’ve got, with two spinners and four very good seamers, we do feel like we’ve got all conditions covered.”
Vince pinpointed his side’s efforts in the first innings as key to victory here, after the batsmen were made to work hard by a strong Middlesex attack. “Making 300 on a pitch that started off pretty tough for batting and got progressively easier as the game went on, that effort on the first day set the whole game up,” he said.
A double-Dutchie breakthrough on the final morning, with Holland’s medium-pace accounting for both overnight batsmen, Robbie White and Martin Andersson, before the arrival of the second new ball, quickly extinguished any faint hopes Middlesex had of dragging out the contest. Abbas could not quite conjure a tenth wicket to cap his home debut, but Abbott accounted for Nos. 8 and 9 before Dawson ended a stubborn last-wicket stand.
“Over the last few years we have built more belief in the side,” Vince said. “Everyone within the group here knows what we’re capable of, but I guess other counties and people around the country might start to see we’ve had two big wins and expect us to do that more often.
“It’s been our goal over a decent period of time, where we’ve not been up there competing in four-day cricket as we’ve wanted to do. The last three or four years there’s been a big push to try to get into a position where we are competing. We’re only two games in, so I don’t want to say too much at the minute, but everyone in the dressing room and at the club is really enthusiastic about doing well in red-ball cricket. It’s been a good start, we’ll see if we can sustain it.”
For Middlesex, who threw away a commanding position in their opening match against Somerset, back-to-back defeats already threaten to stymie their hopes for the season. Stand-in captain Steve Eskinazi, who will hand over the reins to Peter Handscomb for next week’s London derby – pending a negative Covid test for the Australia batsman – said players had been “on the verge of tears” during a team debrief following Friday’s disastrous 79 all out, and called for a response against Surrey.
“We’ve spoken about honesty for a lot of pre-season, spoken about our culture, and just like we were very happy to talk about how well we played on the first day here and last week, we had to sit down and take accountability and responsibility,” he said. “It was unbelievably confronting for the group of players in that room, hugely emotional. It means a lot to everyone in the dressing room, and if anyone out there doesn’t believe that, they’re kidding themselves, because if they were in there they would have seen people on the verge of tears.
“We came out and we showed character in the fourth innings, I was massively proud of the work we put in there. There can be no hangover in county cricket, as we start again in four days’ time. If we can bridge the gap between our good and our poor cricket, I don’t think we’re far off at all.”
Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick