IT might still be April but Hampshire can take another big step towards LV County Championship promotion over the next four days.
Never before have Hampshire entered May having already played four Championship matches, which equates to a quarter of the four-day season.
But that will be the case once the match against pre-season promotion favourites Surrey is over. Hampshire have played a game more than all their rivals but are 12 points clear after a win and two draws from their first three.
And they are already 30 ahead of a Surrey side that began with a ten-wicket defeat at home to Glamorgan before having the worst of a draw with Essex last week.
Now Hampshire are aiming to win a Championship home game against Surrey for the first time in 20 years and in doing so continue their best start to a season since 2005, Shane Warne’s second as captain.
Surrey skipper Graeme Smith is arguably the best captain to grace county cricket since Warne and will be determined not to let Hampshire get too far ahead of his team at this early stage.
So too will their coach Graham Ford, who was Hampshire coach Dale Benkenstein’s mentor for many years at Natal.
But there is no getting away from the contrasting form of the respective counties.
Hampshire’s has been encouraging.
Six of the top seven have all passed fifty at least once and only England captain Alastair Cook has scored more runs than James Vince’s 282 at 94 apiece, which have come at the phenomenally fast rate of 82.9 every 100 balls.
Kyle Abbott makes his home debut tomorrow, having already taken 11 wickets at 21.5 apiece, while James Tomlinson has continued his form of last year. Surrey, meanwhile, have struggled individually and collectively.
A big score is surely not far away for former South Africa captain Smith, who knows more than anyone the positive effect his batting can have on a team.
His duel with Abbott will be a fascinating one. He knew very little of Hampshire’s new signing before seeing him take 7-29 on his Test debut against Pakistan last year. Abbott’s second Test appearance, the third and final match of the series against Australia last month, was Smith’s farewell.
Now they are going to be in opposition. The return of Chris Tremlett is also of interest, but there is no guarantee the former Hampshire star will play after taking just one wicket at a cost of 150 runs in Surrey’s first two games.
If he does play it will be Tremlett’s first LV County Championship match at the Ageas Bowl since moving to Surrey in 2009.
But we should not forget that Tremlett did rather well on his last first-class appearance at the Ageas Bowl – taking 6-48 against Sri Lanka when the ground staged its inaugural Test match three years ago.
Surrey all-rounder Zafar Ansari, who always plays well against Hampshire, is a doubt after colliding with a boundary fence while trying to stop an Alastair Cook four on Easter Monday. Surrey’s director of cricket, Alec Stewart, said: “Zafar aquaplaned and the side of his head hit the fence. He’s lucky he didn’t end up with a broken cheekbone.”
Hampshire (from): Adams, Carberry, Dawson, Vince, Smith, Gatting, Ervine, Abbott, Bates, Coles, Tomlinson, Briggs, Balcombe.