The County Championship is almost here. The traditional curtain raiser (in the decidedly non-traditional venue of Abu Dhabi) between the MCC and county champions Lancashire starts Monday morning at a convenient 08.30 CDT. That handily places it an hour or two after the close of play in Sri Lanka, so I’ll get to watch both. (Though unfortunately it also means that I apparently won’t be sleeping at all next week.) The season proper starts the week after, on 5 April, with three matches in Division One and four in Division Two. Before I get to my team-by-team breakdown, here’s a review of last year’s tables/shameless reminder that Lancs won and Yorkshire were relegated:
I have written brief previews for each team, but if you prefer you can also skip to the end where I have my predictions for the final table:
Derbyshire‘s biggest change from last year is the loss of their ‘keeper and captain, Luke Sutton, to an early retirement. This is a major blow for them as he had done an excellent job last year in leading a young side and I expect they will miss him greatly. They have the same overseas players as last year, Martin Guptill until the middle of June and Usman Khawaja from then on, and both are good, but not spectacular and I doubt that will be enough to keep them from slipping a bit from last year.
I think Durham will actually be a bit disappointed with last year’s result. They finished third and competed for the title until the last round of matches, but they did not get the performances from their bowlers that they might have expected. On paper they have possibly the best bowling attack in the country and one which is not disrupted for international duty, but only Graham Onions had a really good season last year. Steven Harmison only bowled 117.4 overs (but took 17 wickets in them) and Liam Plunkett, for the second year in a row, was very poor. They have made very few changes in the off-season and I expect them to be near the top half of the table again, but they will need their big name bowlers to step up if they want a third Championship banner.
Essex have already made headlines this off-season by controversially signing Alviro Petersen for the first part of this season. I don’t have any problem with it (playing in England didn’t help Phil Hughes) and I think Petersen will be a good addition to what is already a reasonably strong batting order. They also acquired Charl Willoughby from Somerset. Willoughby did not have his best season for Somerset last year, but he is a skilled bowler and alongside Ryan ten Doeschate gives Essex a pretty strong attack. I expect them to climb up the table and possibly challenge for promotion this year.
Glamorgan will be boosted this year by the return of former England paceman Simon Jones. Otherwise, however, it’s not great news for the Welsh side: Their top batsman last year was Alviro Petersen and as mentioned above, he is now with Essex. Their primary overseas player this year will instead be Marcus North. The same Marcus North who can’t even get into the Australian side anymore. Glamorgan finished sixth in Division Two last year and will do well to get that high this year.
Gloucestershire are another second division side who may be in for a long season this year. Both their lead run scorer, Chris Taylor, and their lead wicket-taker, Jon Lewis, have left the county. Without those two players they are going to be heavily reliant on the all-round talent of Will Gidman. Gidman had a fantastic season last year, taking 51 wickets and scoring 1006 runs, but it was his first full year at the county level and he may find it hard to maintain that form this year. If he does, Gloucestershire may still finish mid-table. Otherwise, however, I expect them to be very close to the bottom.
Hampshire finished at the bottom of the first division last year, but ended the season in the best way possible (for me). By clinging on for a draw against Warwickshire they sent the title to Old Trafford and have my thanks. They will be without Imran Tahir for this year’s campaign, but Danny Briggs was actually their lead wicket taker last year and barring the possibility of international duty there is a good chance that he can cover for the gaps. The biggest blow for them is that Neil McKenzie, who scored 1120 runs at 43.07 last year, will only be available for the T20 this year. That leaves a hole in their batting, but they have signed Simon Katich as their overseas player. Katich would probably be in the West Indies right now were it not for the very public falling-out with Cricket Australia, so that is probably a good signing. If Michael Carberry and new captain Jimmy Adams can build on good seasons last year then Hampshire should be fighting for promotion come September.
Kent have had a very busy off-season. They are another second division county who lost their lead run scorer to the top-tier, in this case Joe Denly to Middlesex. They’ve brought in a handful of players, however: Charlie Shreck has come in from Notts, Ben Harmison from Durham and Mike Powell from Glamorgan, plus a few from their youth team. Most importantly though, they have signed Brendan Nash as an overseas player. Despite the relatively poor statistics, he does bring some stability to the batting and it is always nice to have someone with Test experience. I think it is a good move. I don’t know that Kent have done enough to make a move up the table this year (though Lancs demonstrated last year that it is not impossible to do so with young players), however they look like they are in a good position to potentially profit from other counties slipping.
Lancashire won the title last year on the back of an unbelievable bowling unit. Gary Keedy took the most wickets with 61 at an average of 23.63, but Glen Chapple took 55 at 19.81 and Kyle Hogg took 50 at 18.80. Chapple and Hogg were the only two bowlers in the first division to bowl at least 200 overs and still have an average under 20. Simon Kerrigan only played four matches and still took 24 wickets at 18.20. Somewhat incredibly, our worst regular bowler last year still took 35 wickets at an average under 30. The questions for this year are a) can we at least come close to repeating that performance and b) can we improve on last year’s pretty dismal batting? The first one is the harder one to answer. We were helped last year by playing home matches at the bowler friendly Aigburth Cricket Club, but we will return to Old Trafford in the second half of this year and we really don’t know how the rotated surface will play. The bowling attack has not been depleted over the winter, however, so there is every chance of another good performance. The second question is more clear cut and we have signed what should be a solid batsman in Ashwell Prince. All told, Lancashire look like a better team than we were last year and are well placed to compete for the title again.
For Leicestershire, the only way to go is up. Only 88 points in the Championship last year left them a distant last in the second division. To make matters worse, James Taylor left in the off-season for the greener pastures of Trent Bridge. On the one hand, it’s hard to see Leicestershire perform as badly this year as they did last year. On the other, they have lost Taylor and made no measurable improvements. I think they will do better this year then they did last year, if for no other reason than the law of averages. Unless they make some sort of change, however, they will not rise up the table.
Middlesex find themselves in the first division this year after a very strong all-round season last year. They were supported then by 1286 runs from their overseas player, Chris Rogers, and an incredible eighty wickets from Tim Murtagh. Both will certainly find it harder in the first division, as will Joe Denly arriving from Kent, however. A player who will be unfazed by the first division is Steven Finn, who should have the first part of the season in which to push for a place against the West Indies. The more he plays for Middlesex, the better they will do. It’s hard to say how they will fare in the top flight, but I would be surprised if they went back down this season.
Northamptonshire can probably consider themselves desperately unlucky to still be in the second division after missing out on promotion by a single point at the end of last season. Their batting will be slightly improved this year with the addition of Kyle Coetzer and Chaminda Vaas returns as their overseas player after taking 70 wickets last season. Most of the team is the same as last year, however, and can challenge for promotion again with another good performance.
On paper, Nottinghamshire look like the team to beat in the Championship this year. After winning the title in 2010, they were not really in the race last year, but have made improvements in the off-season. The biggest was the acquisition of James Taylor from Leicestershire, but they have also brought in Michael Lumb from Hampshire. Their biggest loss is probably Charlie Shreck who has gone to Kent. Overall they look a very strong side, but ironically might be a bit too strong. Taylor will certainly have commitments with the Lions and there is still a reasonable chance that he will bat at six against the West Indies. They face a similar problem with Alex Hales, their lead run scorer last year, and even Samit Patel. They will be a good side no matter what, but how much of a title challenge they can make will depend a lot on how many of their players they lose to England/Lions duty.
Somerset will, of course, be finishing second in some competition this year, probably losing a limited overs final. This is a preview of the Championship, however, and in that they have far and away the best batsman in either division in Marcus Trescothick. He scored a mind-boggling 1673 runs last year at an average of almost eighty. Eighty! He is not the only batsmen at Taunton either: Nick Compton averaged 56 last year. The problem for Somerset has been their bowling, however, and that has got worse with the departure of Charl Willoughby. Last year only Alfonso Thomas averaged under 30 with the ball and only Willoughby and Steven Kirby took more than 40 wickets. They will be better for the first half of this season, having signed Vernon Philander through May, but I don’t think it will be enough. I think they will play well this year without really challenging for the title.
Surrey are the other team newly promoted to the first division this year. Jade Dernbach will reportedly be using the first part of the season to try to establish his Test credentials. (He’s going to fail, but the fact that he will be trying will be a good thing for Surrey certainly.) If fit, Chris Tremlett will be trying to do the same thing as he competes with Tim Bresnan and Steven Finn for the role of England’s third seamer. Jon Lewis also joins from Gloucestershire, making for a very strong looking attack. Jacques Rudolph will be the overseas player for the first part of the year and should provide good support in a batting order short on Division One experience. Like their neighbours, they should avoid going back down.
Sussex have had a very quiet off-season. They have made no really big moves and at least so far signed no overseas players. To an extent they don’t need to. They have a pretty good side already, finishing solidly in the middle of the table last year. Murray Goodwin and Ed Joyce are both skilled batsmen who had good seasons last year and Monty Panesar and James Anyon have had consistently bowled well. With most of the other first division sides having improved, however, I think Sussex will be moving the wrong direction on the table and likely face a battle to avoid relegation.
The biggest thing on which Warwickshire need to work this year is the breaking of stubborn middle order partnerships on the last day of the season. Apart from that little hiccup, they have a very good bowling attack: Chris Woakes and Boyd Rankin both represent their countries in some form and both took more than fifty wickets last year with averages in the low and mid-twenties. In an ideal scenario, there would be no reason why both should not do the same this year as well. Unfortunately for Warwickshire, Woakes injured his ankle in the pre-season and will miss the first six weeks. That will be at least a quarter of the season and that will hurt. On the bright side, they will have Jeetan Patel all season this year. Their batting is rather weaker; Varun Chopra was their standout performer last year with an average in the forties. That was comfortably the best year of Chopra’s career, however, and there is no guarantee that he can replicate that form next year. Warwickshire might finish near the top of the table again, but I don’t see them winning.
Worcestershire are probably a bit lucky to still be in the top flight. They had a poor season last year and were really only saved by that memorable two-day win against Lancashire. (I can laugh about it now.) They have a pair of good bowlers in Alan Richardson and Gareth Andrew, but not a lot of support for them. Their batting begins and ends with Vikram Solanki. They are trying to shore it up this year with the addition of Phil Hughes (from late May) as an overseas player but if one is desperate enough to sign Phil Hughes, well… I would expect them to be relegated this year.
Yorkshire are in the second division this year. I like to repeat that as often as possible and almost as often as I like to repeat that Lancashire are County Champions: Yorkshire are in the second division. Unfortunately (but not too unfortunately since I do like having Roses matches) I think it will only be for this one season. Whilst they played hilariously badly last year it was very much a surprise. They still can’t afford an overseas player, but Phil Jaques will play with a UK passport and there is plenty of talent in the side regardless. Only Ryan Sidebottom really stood out last year, but Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow are both very good and if they are not playing for England they should fill their boots in the second division.
Given all of the above, this is my prediction for the table come September:
I think the title race will be very close again. Notts are the stronger team on paper, but they have some pretty big vulnerabilities if they lose players to international duty. Lancashire, meanwhile, are almost certainly a better team than the one which won ten matches and the title last season, but the players all turned in unusually good performances last year, and it’s hard to think they can fully replicate them this year. There is also the uncertainty of the new surface at Old Trafford. Ultimately, I’m a bit of an optimist (especially at the start of the season) and I’ve tipped Lancs to repeat.