The sign of a quality player is the extent to which they are missed when not there.
It was Lord’s, May 2019, the Royal London One Day Cup final, Hampshire v. Somerset. I was sat in the upper Compton stand, enjoying the vista of the Home of Cricket on a sunny day and, full of the joys of spring, fell into conversation with a group of Somerset supporters seated nearby. Talk turned to the madness of the timing of the final that coincided with a raft of World Cup warm-up games – so by depriving Hampshire of the services of two of its key players – and the intransigence of the ICC in denying the ECB its request to release them for the day.
My new Somerset friends nodded in, admittedly limited, sympathy and said that they guessed the absence of skipper James Vince would be a big blow. Yes, I said, but the biggest miss would be Liam Dawson.
That the contention raised an eyebrow was not a surprise. For Dawson, so valuable with bat and ball, is such an unfussy cricketer that outside of the county, his worth is often missed. Yet Hampshire may not have been in the final were it not for him. Dawson was the glue that held the side together, coming on to bowl in the middle overs, restricting the runs and always – always – chipping away with wickets: his 2019 List A campaign offered 18 wickets at a little over 20 and an economy rate of 4.1 (2-30, 2-57, 3-37, 2-32, 2-39, 2-39, 2-42, 2-41, 1-49). A model of consistency. Add to that a batting average of 45, with a century scored from number six. A tenacious and bustling figure on the field, you can see why successive England coaches have liked to have him around the squad.
Yet, there lies the problem. England coaches have liked him around the squad but not often seen fit to have him in the team: three Tests, three ODIs and six T20s is better than most will ever achieve but remains frustrating. No doubt for Dawson himself, who would want more, but also for his county supporters who are warmed by international recognition for one of their own, but then must watch a Dawson-less Hampshire while the man himself carries the drinks for his England colleagues. This was the pattern for the World Cup 2019 and for most of the oddity of the summer of 2020. When Dawson finally appeared for his county in late 2020 his stay was brief: a typically attacking first domestic innings of the year cut short with a season-ending Achilles injury. Such lack of competitive action in the year before must be partly responsible.
One suspects that his inclusion in England squads but exclusion from the team, stems from a Jack-of-all-trades perception of his talents. Handy in all departments but not enough to make a case as specialist bat or primary spinner. Only twice has he been the lone England tweaker, while four times has operated as part of an Ali-Rashid-Dawson trio.
Echoes of his early Hampshire career. At first just whispers of a promising slow left-armer coming through the ranks; capped by England at U19, taking wickets for his country. Eased into the first XI through 2007 and 2008, but with a protective air: bowling behind first Shaun Udal, then Imran Tahir; batting in the lower middle order.
In the bowling department at least, this cautious introduction seemed to do Dawson little favour and, after some initial encouragement, the numbers in the wickets column dwindled. In 2010, just three in all formats and four in 2011; he had fallen behind Danny Briggs to become an occasional third spin option in List A and First-Class, and barely given the ball in a T20 side featuring Tahir, Briggs and Afridi. His batting, however, had developed much more impressively and, by 2011, Dawson had worked himself all the way up the batting ladder to open alongside Jimmy Adams in the County Championship.
The temptation must have been to embrace the role as specialist batsman and focus all energies on cementing the top order spot. Yet in the following years, Dawson worked on his bowling to develop into a genuine all-rounder once more, the experiment as opener ditched in favour of a middle order spot.
It was not all smooth sailing, an early 2015 slump led to a brief loan period at Essex. It was a move that worked and soon Dawson was recalled to Hampshire to begin a rich run of form that would bring him runs and wickets in all formats and draw the attention of the England selectors and various franchises in T20 &T10 leagues around the world.
It is this story that I like most about Liam Dawson. Bags of talent indeed, but it hasn’t come easy. As each setback has come his way, he has found a route through, making his case with one part of his game while never forgetting to work on the other, until reaching point where he has become the player most missed when he’s not around.