Can Hampshire be cricket’s Man Utd?

By Ben Bloom

Can Hampshire be cricket’s Man Utd?

When Kabir Ali finally made his long-awaited move from Worcestershire to Hampshire last week he was quoted as saying: “I believe they are the next Manchester United of cricket.”

Clearly it would be unnecessary and fairly pointless to take such a comment literally — money, profile and public interest are totally incomparable between football and cricket.

But Kabir’s comment does reflect the potential for a shift towards the wealthy in English club cricket, most notably from Hampshire and Surrey.

While it is unlikely that domestic cricket in England will ever have its own equivalent of Manchester United, the two counties — among the richest in the English game — are eager to use their financial weight to try and achieve such an aim.

There have been numerous periods of dominance in the domestic game throughout the ages with counties prospering for periods much the same as United have done in the Premier League for the past 15 years or so.

Most notably in the modern era it is the Surrey side of the late 1990s-early 2000s that sticks in the memory. With household names including Graham Thorpe, Alec Stewart, Mark Butcher, Adam and Ben Hollioake, and Saqlain Mushtaq, the south London side picked up nine trophies in an eight-year period.

However, while Surrey then experienced a slump in the form of relegation, the club has been extremely busy in recent months attempting to bring — or should that be buy — back the glory years.

No fewer than nine players have left the Oval with high-profile replacements in the form of Steven Davies, Gareth Batty, Piyush Chawla, Chris Tremlett and new captain Rory Hamilton-Brown.

But Surrey aren’t alone in flashing the cash. Hampshire have seen almost as big a turnover with Kabir joined by Simon Jones, Neil McKenzie, Ajantha Mendis and Shahid Afridi at the Rose Bowl.

Coupled with the playing talent the club already possesses in Kevin Pietersen, Dimitri Mascarenhas and Dominic Cork amongst others, it seems Kabir’s aspirations for his new club may be fulfilled in the coming season. The glamour that comes with playing for such traditionally big teams has also certainly helped the search for new recruits.

But while Hampshire and Surrey attempt to use money to achieve success it is a club with a very different outlook that they must dispossess.

Durham, victorious in the county championship for the past two seasons, have achieved their triumphs with a predominantly home-grown squad.

A pace attack of local lads Steve Harmison, Liam Plunkett, Graham Onions and Mark Davies show the talent that the North-East can produce and provide a marked contrast to the strategy of the two Southern-based clubs.

Whether Hampshire or Surrey achieve their success or not, one thing is certain and becoming more apparent as certain counties get wealthier and the two division system (introduced in 2000) settles in. The divide between the top and the bottom grows larger each year.

Team such as Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Glamorgan and Northamptonshire have lay floundering in the county championship second division for many years now.

Much like in the world of football, the importance of money has seen the wealthy clubs grow richer and the poor clubs get poorer.

County cricket finances are a million miles away from the excesses of professional football but relative wealth could prove to be just as important.

Furthermore Hampshire’s aspirations seem to surpass purely victory on the pitch. Commenting on Kabir’s arrival, Hampshire chairman Rod Bransgrove moved seamlessly in the same sentence from new players to structural developments at the Rose Bowl. Indeed the front page of Hampshire’s official website is not purely cricket-related but instead it provides four options – cricket, the Rose Bowl, events and catering, and golf.

Perhaps Hampshire’s plans genuinely are greater than simply winning trophies.

Maybe the time for a cricketing version of Manchester United may be on the cards. They wouldn’t pull in 75,000 strong crowds to watch on a weekly basis, but money can certainly bring a lot of benefits to a club.

Hampshire will certainly be hoping so.

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