HE might be new to Hampshire, but Dale Benkenstein has long had an affinity with the county - through all-time greats Robin Smith, Barry Richards and Malcolm Marshall.
Hampshire’s first-team coach has been in his role for less than a month but is indelibly linked to the county, having spent his formative years learning the game in the nets at the home of Robin and Chris Smith in Durban.
Not only that, he began his first-class career for Natal under the captaincy of Malcolm Marshall, a significant early influence.
And his dad was best man to Barry Richards, who remains a close family friend.
“Hampshire’s very new to me but it’s amazing,” he says, as he reflects on his journey to the Ageas Bowl, where Marshall Drive, The Robin Smith Suite and The Richards Suite are part of the ground’s fabric.
“Robin and Chris Smith used to live half a kilometre away from where I was brought up in Durban, they were the only people we knew in the whole country who had a net in their back garden,” laughs the 39 year-old, who was a young boy at the time.
“My dad was involved in Natal cricket as a coach and Robin was coming through as a young player.
“Because of the connection we used to practise in their net. Robin was a teenager then but obviously came over here and became a Hampshire legend.
“He was a brilliant sportsman, he still holds the shot-putt record at his school, which I know because it was also Shaun Pollock’s school and he was always trying to beat Robin’s record!”
Benkenstein’s dad Martin played against Richards’ Natal for Rhodesia in the early Seventies before becoming a close friend when the family emigrated.
“My dad played for Natal B and was part of the coaching for Natal when we moved over from Zim,” he explains.
“We keep in touch with Barry. When he heard I was coming to Hampshire he said to give him a call if I wanted to know of any good pubs.
“I told him I was sure they’d all be closed down from when he was here!”
Benkenstein went on to become a successful batsman himself, scoring 15,962 first-class runs at 44 and playing 23 one-day internationals for South Africa.
But Marshall was his biggest early influence. The late, great Hampshire all-rounder captained Natal during Benkenstein’s first two first-class seasons alongside the like of Jonty Rhodes, Shaun Pollock and Neil Johnson, a future Hampshire all-rounder.
“I started my career with Malcolm Marshall pushing me to play when I came through at Natal and it was he that advised Graham Ford that I should take over the captaincy at 22," he explains. "He played a huge role in my career.”
Benkenstein acknowledges his career has come full circle as he begins a new chapter at Hampshire, whose main rivals this year will be Graham Ford’s Surrey.
“I obviously know Graham very well, he was my first coach at Natal and as one of the most experienced and successful coaches in the world, he knows what it takes to win,” he continued.
“He’ll have done his homework at Surrey and they look pretty formidable on paper with Graeme Smith there for most of the season.”
Kevin Pietersen, who played as an off-spinner under Benkenstein at Natal before seeking fame and fortune as an England batsman, initially at Nottinghamshire, will also be a significant threat to Hampshire’s promotion chances when he returns from the Indian Premier League.
But Benkenstein’s primary concern is Hampshire.
He recognises similarities with Durham, who he captained to the 2008 LV County Championship title before playing his part as new Hampshire signing Will Smith led the newest county to a successful defence.
“It’s a great place to be; the guys really enjoy the job, they play the right way and they’re successful and that fits in with how I like to play cricket,” he said, during a break in Hampshire’s pre-season photoshoot.
“There’s a good balance here, they get on with each other socially which often helps when you get out on the field as you pull together for your mates.
“There’s also been a lot of local talent come through system, mixed with overseas players, which has been the case with Durham.
“But the wicket and the weather conditions are poles apart!”
Benkenstein began his new role with Hampshire during last month’s trip to Barbados.
“At the moment it’s hard to judge and assess things, what counts is when the season starts,” he says, aware that Hampshire struggled to take 20 wickets regularly for most of last season.
“Our challenge will be to find a way of winning matches at home.
“There’s been a lot of talk about bowling sides out here, that’s a major concern and I think having Kyle Abbott arriving in a couple of weeks’ time will definitely help with that.
“But it’s also a mindset. You have to really believe and find a way of getting wickets.
“It’s not about sticking to one game plan, you have to try and create things and that’s something we can try and improve on.”
Hampshire are hoping to have more life in their wickets this year, following last season’s frustrations (five draws in nine home games). But Benkenstein is wary of blaming the conditions.
“The way you play on those surfaces is more important than the surface itself,” he said. “Your best bowlers learn how to bowl on good wickets because Test wickets are generally pretty flat.
“So we don’t want to dwell on the wicket. We got taught a bit of a lesson on Wednesday when we bowled [and Middlesex made 377-5 declared] and everyone said ‘this is the Ageas Bowl’.
“But then we were 204 all out. If you bowl well on any surface there’s always something that causes batters problems.
“You can get your mind to a pretty negative state where you just think it’s too flat. But certain bowlers will always be able to get something out of any wicket.”
The additions of Abbott and Matt Coles have strengthened Hampshire’s four-day attack considerably. Tom Barber, a highly-promising young left-arm fast bowler from Dorset, has also impressed Benkenstein with his wicket-taking potential.
“He’s improved with every game he’s played,” said Benkenstein, who knows a thing or two about talented home-grown fast bowlers, having played at Durham with the likes of Steve Harmison, Graham Onions and Ben Stokes.
“He’s got the ingredients to be a good bowler, a lot of work is needed to put all those things together but he may play at a role at some point. “It’s our job to know when he’s ready for that but mentally and skill wise he’s not far off. If he performs well [in the 2nd XI] he’ll be a contender, but throwing someone in early can result in a big step back.”
Another new face has impressed. “Joe Gatting looks pretty special. Looking at his record he hasn’t really put the numbers together that he should.
“Hampshire have produced some very good batters and there are a few in the team with a very good chance of playing for England.
“[James] Vince and [Liam] Dawson are very promising and learning how to score runs consistently and their aspirations are at the very top.
“Carbs is still in possession, Jimmy Adams is a quality player and Sean Terry looks very good. Then you’ve got the experience of Will Smith and Sean Ervine. Adam Wheater’s a talented kid and Matt Coles can be as explosive with the bat as he is with the ball. Abbott can also bat so there’s real depth there.”
All being well, Benkenstein will not be required to bat himself. But he was being considered for the captaincy of Hampshire’s T20 side before deciding that it would be too much.
“I can understand why Jimmy doesn’t want to do it , we respect that.There was talk when I was coming that I might captain the T20 side, I had a feeling I could still play having kept myself going playing some club cricket,” he said.
“But I can’t see how I could do both jobs properly and I’d be keeping someone out who’s got their career ahead of them."
The decision to go with youth by appointing James Vince as T20 captain was confirmed on Friday.
"Glenn Maxwell was an option, Carbs even, but James seems like a natural choice after being made vice-captain [of Hampshire’s LV County Championship side],” explained Benkenstein.
Published in the 24-page Hampshire Cricket supplement in this week's Sports Pink