Title-chasing Hants learn final fixtures

Report by Connor Steel / Imagery from Wisden

TITLE-CHASING Hampshire Cricket have just four County Championship matches to decide between glory and failure come October, following the announcement of fixtures and format of the second stage of the competition on Friday morning by England Cricket Board officials.

It follows a summer schedule that has seen the competition split into two phrases, with Hampshire playing 10 games to reach this point since early April.

These games came after the LV= Insurance County Championship was remodelled for this season following a vote of the first-class county chairs in October 2020 to help mitigate against the impact of Covid-19 and potential lockdowns.

The first phrase saw all 18 counties divided into three localised groups of six sides, with phrase two progression decided by points accrued with the top two of each group qualifying for Division One. Teams coming third and fourth would be placed in Division Two, with fifth and sixth sides qualifying for Division Three.

Hampshire completed their 10 games by beating Gloucestershire away at Cheltenham on July 14, with their brilliant seven-wicket victory helping to secure Division One progress with 145 pts, finishing second in their ‘South’ group just three points behind Somerset in first place, although the Cidermen had an eight-point deduction for pitch issues and preparation.

Hampshire won’t be playing Somerset in phrase two, having already encountered the favourites twice this summer. A thrashing at the Ageas Bowl was followed by a hard-fought draw at Taunton in early June to earn a total of 17 points. However only half of these will count in Division One, putting the Hawks in fourth place before the remaining games return after One Day Cup action and a T20 blast quarter final versus Nottingham on August 25 away at Trent Bridge.

The four-day competition will return on Bank Holiday Monday (August 30) with Hampshire hosting Yorkshire at the Ageas Bowl with an 11am start. Super September will begin on the second day of this match with a trip to Edgbaston the following weekend (September 5) to play Warwickshire, who sit top of D1 before a ball is bowled.

September 12 will see the Ageas Bowl host their final match of the summer campaign as Nottinghamshire visit Southampton, before Hampshire travel up north for a final clash against Lancashire in Liverpool starting September 19, Emirates Old Trafford hosting England’s fifth and final test match versus India finishing days earlier.

It should be noted that the final three Hampshire games will follow a 10.30am start due to potential light issues as autumn progresses.

Should Hampshire finish top of Division One after these four matches, they will clinch the County Championship title for the first time in nearly 50 years, last winning the traditional length cricket competition in 1973 to follow success in 1961.

The two top teams will also clash in the final of the Bob Willis Trophy, a new competition won by Essex in 2020 after being introduced as a Covid-19 memorial to the cricketing legend.

This final will last for five days instead of the traditional four, with the showpiece due to be played at Lords starting on September 28.

It means that Hampshire, alongside the remaining five sides in Division One, could win a double of County Championship trophies to cap off a tough two years for the sport. But the Covid-19 pandemic may lead to a reform of county cricket come 2022 with a review planned over the winter close period.

All 18 counties, ECB officials and other stakeholders will host a series of meetings/consultations in this review process, with many clubs displeased with this year’s championship format as it ruins competitive cricket for teams in Divisions Two and Three when the competition returns.

For more information on the competition format and the teams across all three divisions including phrase one tables, BBC Sport have a guide that can be read on County Championship: Six teams who will contest title confirmed.

Ticketing information for Hampshire’s two home Division One fixtures will be announced in due course, but it is expected to be available at full capacity after the easing of lockdown restrictions earlier this week.