As the County Championship approaches the half way stage, Essex and Hampshire have emerged as surprise contenders for the Division One title. Many pre-season predictions had both counties finishing in the bottom half of the table, but some excellent form along with shocking starts for Somerset and Warwickshire have put relegation concerns at ease. Now, after three wins in six, both Essex and Hampshire are starting to dream of the title come late September. But which of the two Southern counties are better prepared for an all-out title charge?
Hampshire would have feared playing catch up all season when the fixture list was announced during the winter. A daunting first three matches against the 2014, 15’, and 16’ champions did not bode well for a county many thought should not be playing in Division One at all. Nevertheless, Hampshire produced a stunning chase on the final day against Yorkshire to give them an opening round win after conceding a first-innings lead of 132.
Buoyed by their opening performance, Hampshire enjoyed two ‘winning’ draws against Middlesex and Yorkshire to maintain an unbeaten start. Many on the south coast were left annoyed that flat, placid pitches arguably denied their team three wins out of three. James Whitaker was left equally annoyed by the continued non-selection of Mason Crane – might he have proved handy on those final days?
An innings defeat to leaders Essex, a useful win against struggling Somerset and an innings win of their own has ensured a vastly entertaining season thus far. Anyone who thought Hampshire would try and avoid relegation by solely avoiding defeat and picking up the odd win have certainly been proved wrong.
Essex, on the other hand, have enjoyed a much more consistent start. A sequence of draw-win-draw-win-draw-win has ensured an unbeaten start for the promoted side; although they will feel fortunate to have escaped with draws against Lancashire and Middlesex respectively. Still, Essex deserve credit for grinding out draws – especially Dan Lawrence, who denied Lancashire an opening win with 141* on the final day, showing maturity well beyond his tender age of 19.
Essex’s batting has been solid without being spectacular. Tom Westley, Alastair Cook and Lawrence all have over four hundred runs apiece. While Jamie Porter, Neil Wagner and Simon Harmer have seventy wickets between them.
The 2016 division two champions have benefitted greatly from being able to consistently select Alastair Cook – 11,000 Test match runs tends to have that effect. Certainly, their opening win at Taunton might not have been so comfortable without a masterful 110* from the former England captain.
Hampshire’s great start goes further than their overseas signings. Sure, Kyle Abbott has been a revelation, as many thought he would be – 35 wickets at an average of 15.42 will help towards a few wins, to say the least. But Gareth Berg, Mason Crane, Liam Dawson and Brad Wheal have all backed up their leading man brilliantly and perhaps this is where Hampshire’s title challenge will falter. Liam Dawson and Mason Crane have already been called up to England’s T20 squad to play South Africa next week and England may look to rotate against West Indies at the back end of a hectic summer.
A disturbed bowling attack will worry Hampshire fans given their batting is yet to really fire consistently. Top scorers Sean Ervine and Jimmy Adams have under 700 runs between them, and 369 of those came in the win against Warwickshire as they amassed 515. Going forward, Hampshire will expect more runs from Rilee Rossouw and George Bailey.
Essex appear a more settled side moving forward. Of course, they will lose Alastair Cook in less than a month; around the same time that the T20 Blast gets underway – everything seems to be going Essex’s way at the moment. The former England captain will re-join his county after completing seven Test matches in eight weeks. Due to England’s unusual schedule, Cook should be available to play nine Championship matches out of fourteen which is unheard of in the modern era. Varun Chopra and Adam Wheater are ready and waiting to fill the void left by the England opener.
Jamie Porter and Dan Lawrence will be missing for one match after impressive starts to the season have earned them a call up to the Lions. However, given their good squad depth, Essex will be confident of getting a result against a struggling Warwickshire side.
Mohammad Amir will replace Neil Wagner after the conclusion of the Champions Trophy as Essex have been very shrewd in their overseas signings. Amir will produce excellent new ball support for Jamie Porter but will perhaps not provide the same threat as Wagner with the old ball.
Ryan ten Doeschate led from the front during their impressive win against Surrey this week with 168* and Tom Westley has scores of 86*, 110 and 108* this season – both not out scores in winning chases.
The form of Essex and Hampshire have come as a big surprise to county fans across the country over the past few weeks. It is impossible to predict if either side will come out on top come September given the strength of the division but there will certainly be more twists and turns before the season’s conclusion.