County Championship Preview

Thursday sees the long-awaited return of an English institution, the County Championship. Often unfairly maligned and used as a scapegoat in the past for England’s Test problems, its future looks cloudy after the counties rejected Sir Andrew Strauss’s proposed domestic overhaul. The Championship is caught between a rock and a hard place, ensuring the increasingly perilous financial stabilities of the counties while allowing the national side to flourish. Regardless of its structure, the Championship is the nucleus of the English game, and another potentially thrilling season awaits.

The tweaks this season are minimal; the brushes of the high-performance review are light and manageable. Under the carefree axis of Brendan McCullum and Ben Stokes, the national side has revolutionised Test cricket, and the changes reflect England’s entertaining approach. Sides will now only receive five points for a draw rather than eight, encouraging enterprising cricket after a glut of draws during a very dry 2022. Batting bonus points now start at 250, and to achieve the maximum five points team will need to score 450 runs at over four runs an over. The Championship is being gently sexed up, aiming to reward positive, spectator-friendly cricket. Two rounds in June and July will be played using the Kookaburra ball, traditionally used in Australia, in a bid to improve the skillset of bowlers.

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Whether changes will have an impact remains to be seen, but can anyone stop Surrey from defending their title? Gareth Batty’s side showed the depth of their squad last year, and they will have to do so again with injuries to Jamie Overton, Tom Curran, and Will Jacks. Hashim Amla has ridden off into the sunset after a stellar career, and Surrey will hope the incoming Dominic Sibley can replicate his runs. They start their campaign away at Lancashire, their likely closest challengers and the only team to defeat them last season.

Lancashire’s side has a good blend of youth and experience, and they’ll be quietly confident of pipping Surrey. They will be bolstered in the early weeks by the presence of James Anderson, while they’ll hope the demands of captaincy won’t burden last year’s run-machine, Keaton Jennings. Overseas player Colin de Grandhomme represents a shrewd bit of business, and the red rose looks well placed to launch an assault on the title.

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Hampshire will likely lead the chasing pack. They won more games than anyone last year, largely thanks to the efforts of their pace trio Mohammad Abbas, Kyle Abbott, and Keith Barker. But their batting often let them down, and none of their batsmen passed 1,000 runs or averaged over forty. Recruitment in the off-season has been stable, and they’ll hope Abbott’s injury-troubled winter doesn’t catch up with him. Essex are a similar story, with a much-vaunted bowling attack led by the championship’s outstanding performer of the last five years, Simon Harmer. Jamie Porter’s return to fitness is a boost, providing support to the impressive Shane Snater, Sam Cook, and overseas player Doug Bracewell. It surprised me that Essex didn’t go into the market for an overseas batsman considering only the evergreen Alistair Cook topped 1,000 runs last year. Dan Lawrence will hope to have a better year and remind McCullum of his talents.

Somerset have strengthened their batting over the winter with the signings of Sean Dickson and Tom Kohler-Cadmore. Captain Tom Abell is touch and go for the opening game, but they’ve smartly snapped up Australian opener Cameron Bancroft for a four-game stint. Experienced paceman Peter Siddle re-signed after a brief spell last year, but it’s the batting where the improvement is needed. Kent could slide into a relegation battle; they struggled to bowl sides out last year, though they have added the experience of Michael Hogan. Zak Crawley will look to lay down a marker after an indifferent winter ahead of the Ashes, while Darren Stevens has finally departed after a tremendous, age-defying career. On paper, they boast an impressive batting line-up, but their lack of a frontline spinner concerns me, with a lot of pressure falling on Hamidullah Qadri.

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Warwickshire only survived relegation on a dramatic last day thanks to seamer Liam Norwell’s nine-wicket heroic spell, but they should fare better this year. The signing of the ever-dependable Chris Rushworth will strengthen their bowling attack, but the departure of Dom Sibley is a blow, and they’ll hope Sam Hain can replicate the excellent form he demonstrated last year. Northamptonshire did excellently to stay up last year, and they will have to fight similarly hard this season. David Willey has returned, while Aussie seamers Chris Tremain and Lance Morris will share pace bowling duties in the early months. They join compatriot Sam Whiteman, who could be a good signing if he can reproduce his Sheffield Shield form. Last year’s leading run scorer, Luke Procter, a determined figure who epitomises the county’s approach, has stepped up to captain the side.

What about the new boys? Nottinghamshire could be a sly outside bet for the title, though they will miss Ben Duckett’s runs later in the summer. An already impressive battalion of fast bowlers is bolstered by the arrival of paceman Olly Stone, who will be keen to force his way into the Ashes reckoning. Haseeb Hameed will be similarly eager to back up an excellent 2022 and put pressure on Zak Crawley’s place. I fancy Middlesex will stay up; their run scoring was shared evenly last year, with wicket-keeper John Simpson particularly impressive. Nobody took more red ball wickets than Toby Roland-Jones last season, and hopefully, the captaincy doesn’t overburden him. South African Keshav Maharaj’s injury-inforced absence is a blow but is tempered by the arrival of talented all-rounder Ryan Higgins.

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The big story in Division Two surrounds Yorkshire. Can they bounce back from relegation? The county has been under a cloud for some time, mired in problems of its own making, and the off-field issues seemed to affect them last year as the wheels fell off spectacularly. A solitary win represented a dismal campaign; anything but promotion would be a major disappointment this year. Aside from Harry Brook’s heroics, their batting was poor, and they’ll hope to see more of Dawid Malan, who delivered in his limited appearances, while they might benefit from the presence of Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow in the early season. Shan Masood will captain the side after his international commitments, and if he can repeat his performances for Derbyshire last year, they’ll get a good platform at the top of the order. Neil Wagner is a similarly excellent signing, and Matt Fisher’s return from injury is an equally big boost to the bowling department.

Gloucestershire face a taller order if they want to bounce straight back up. The departure of Ryan Higgins is a real blow, while seamer David Payne will miss the start of the season through injury. Runs proved a stumbling block last year as they lost a division high eight games, but they have retained the services of Australian Marcus Harris, who scored three centuries in his nine appearances in 2022. Pakistani slow left-armer Zafar Gohar also returns after an impressive year, and it will be interesting to see how talented young all-rounder Tom Price develops.

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Glamorgan were the best of the rest last year and look well poised to go one further this time round. Recruitment has been limited, but they’ve kept hold of key players, with Marnus Labuschagne returning for another stint ahead of the Ashes. Colin Ingram enjoyed a red-ball renaissance last year, but the key will be how they handle the loss of Michael Hogan, their top wicket-taker in 2022. Worcestershire will also be pushing hard with a new Head Coach in ex-bowler Alan Richardson. The departure of all-rounder Ed Barnard is a loss, but they have a decent clutch of batsmen, though they need more consistency from Jake Libby and Ed Pollock at the top of the order. They boast an array of talented young seamers, and if they can turn last year’s draws into wins, I’d expect them to be in the promotion picture.

Derbyshire have lost Shan Masood, who, alongside Wayne Madsen, provided a glut of runs last year. Batting generally wasn’t a problem last year, but rather the inconsistency of their bowlers. Youngster Sam Connors bowled excellently, taking 50 wickets, but he had little support. If the rest of the seamers can support Connors and all-rounder Anuj Dal can continue his impressive development, they could be dark horses for promotion. Durham have a new Head Coach in Ryan Campbell, but the loss of stalwart Chris Rushworth is a significant blow. However, there’s enough talent in their squad to make a case for promotion, and Matt Potts will be chomping at the bit to impress after being left out of England’s winter plans.

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Sussex also have a new Head Coach in ex-Warwickshire man Paul Farbrace after a tough 2022. Farbrace is ambitiously targeting promotion and is aided by the return of Cheteshwar Pujara, who was in prolific run-scoring form last year. Sussex have a young side with plenty of promise, with two eye-catching openers in Tom Haines and Alistair Orr, who impressed last year. Their Achilles heel last season was their bowling, with Sean Hunt topping the charts with a paltry 18 wickets. Injuries hampered the consistency of their bowling lineup, and Farbrace will hope the likes of George Garton, Fynn Hudson-Prentice, and Jack Carson can stay fit. Steve Smith’s three-match stint during May should energise the club, while compatriot Nathan McAndrew will bolster their seam attack.

Can Leicestershire prise themselves off the bottom of the championship? 2022 was a dismal year for Paul Nixon’s men, not winning a single red-ball match, with runs being a major issue, something he’ll be hoping the arrival of Ajinkya Rahane and Peter Handscomb can rectify. Despite last year’s woes, there’s a sense of optimism around the county buoyed by the Test debut of Rehan Ahmed and ambitious off-field plans, including a £60 million ground development. They’ll hope to see more of Ahmed as bowling sides out proved problematic last season.

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