If the money men at the ECB had their way, the English domestic season would begin in January and end in November; with December reserved for a new indoor T20 Premier League (funded by some dodgy Texan no doubt). Therefore, although much of the country is currently under snow, you will not be surprised to hear that the start of the English county season is almost upon us. That means it’s time for cricket fans to take off their woolly gloves and balaclavas, put down their Easter eggs, and start thinking about what the summer has in store. To help you get into the spirit, we’ve compiled an inaugural The Fulltoss County Championship preview … which should make happy reading for Durham supporters, but might have Essex and Warwickshire fans reaching for the Prozac.
After dismantling a scratch MCC side in Dubai last week, the current champions look in awesome shape coming into the season. With Steve Harmison’s England career looking all but over, their battery of seam bowlers is full of thoroughbreds … so who would bet against them retaining their title? Mark Davies, Liam Plunkett, and Graham Onions should get them plenty of wickets, whilst the batting contains a number of consistent performers such as Michael Di Venuto, Dale Benkenstein and Kyle Coetzer. Meanwhile, Ian Blackwell and Phil Mustard will deliver quick runs when required. Durham will be a match for anyone; however, from a journalist’s point of view it would be nice if they could find more players named after foodstuffs. I wonder if Sussex’s Will Beer fancies a move up north?
Strengths: All round strength in depth in both batting and bowling
Weaknesses: Maybe their spin bowling options … although Wiseman is no mug.
Talisman: Michael ‘the Italian Stallion’ Di Venuto (shame he’s Australian)
One to watch: Mark Davies (consistent performer hoping for an England call up)
Prediction: 1st champions elect methinks.
There is one glaring flaw in Essex’s plan: their bowling is almost totally reliant on Danish Kaneria – and unfortunately he’s leaving after the first three months of the season! Ravi Bopara will be hungry for runs, and will most likely be outstanding in all forms of the game, but otherwise the Essex squad looks short of quality. Captain Mark Pettini, James Foster and Ryan Ten Doeschate will make useful contributions, but it’s hard to see them making an impact in the championship (although they will be competitive in limited overs cricket).
Strengths: Danish Kaneria
Weaknesses: The seam bowling looks ineffectual on paper. The likes of Masters and Palladino will not intimidate too many batting line ups.
Talisman: Ravi Bopara. Yet to make it at test level, but brilliant on the county stage.
One to Watch: Tom Westley. Highly promising England U-19 batsman.
Prediction: 8th (going down faster than you can say ‘Graham Gooch’ and ‘hairpiece’)
Have made plenty of impressive signings, including professional model and part-time cricketer, Kabir Ali, and full-time crock, Simon Jones. However, the most astute signing could well prove to be Neil McKenzie, who has usually looked solid in the test arena. Overall, the batting is slowly improving, with the likes of Michael ‘quicksilver’ Carberry and Michael ‘not another South African’ Lumb receiving international recognition in recent weeks. The acquisition of Ajanta Mendis is also intriguing. How will he fare in English conditions? Hampshire should do pretty well in the championship, and look favourites for the T20 crown, having recruited both Afridi and Razzaq on short term contracts.
Strengths: Have assembled a solid all round squad
Weaknesses: The seam bowling looks a bit injury prone
Talisman: Dimi Mascarenhas (and his lovely ear-ring)
One to watch: Liam Dawson. Very promising young off spinner and batsman.
It was quite a shock when Kent got relegated at the end of 2008. Now they are back where they probably belong. They are a useful all round team with a number of highly experienced cricketers such as Rob Key, Geraint Jones, Justin Kemp, and Martin Van Jaarsveld. Runs should not be a problem, but they might find wickets harder to come by. The likes of Azhar Mahmood, Robbie Joseph and Simon Cook are solid pros, but there could be a lack of penetration – especially if Amjad Khan gets injured again.
Strengths: The batting looks good. Key and Denley are a prolific opening pair.
Weaknesses: Taking twenty wickets may not be easy when the pitches flatten out in July
Talisman: Rob Key
One to watch: I’m going to go for Sam Northeast, who is an impressive young batsman
The addition of Stephen Moore (poached cruelly from my team, Worcestershire) will add some much needed class to the Lancashire batting, whilst the seam bowling looks tidy if unspectacular. Peter Moores did a reasonable job in his first season at Old Trafford, but it’s hard to see them challenging at the top end of the table. Much will depend on the form of their foreign imports (Ashwell Prince and the outstanding Kumar Sangakarra) and whether Saj Mahmood and Darren Powell can find consistency. Could be an up and down season for the men from Manchester.
Strengths: Loyal, boisterous (and usually drunk) fans
Weaknesses: Weight of expectation from said fans
Talisman: It’s still Wasim Akram I’m afraid (they haven’t found a new one)
One to watch: Tom Smith. Promising swing bowler who suddenly discovered how to bat last season.
Had a good season in 2009 and there’s no reason why they can’t do the same again. The batting in particular looks strong: Alex Hales is an exciting young prospect, whilst Mike Hussey always scores heavily (although he will miss the first seven weeks of the season, Hashim Amla has been lined up to deputise). The bowling also looks fairly strong, with the likes of Charlie Shreck, Darren Pattinson and Andre Adams expected to take wickets on a consistent basis. Although they will probably lose Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann to England, and Ryan Sidebottom to the physio, Notts have the strength in depth to cope.
Strengths: Boast a number of consistent county players (Chris Read and Mark Wagh spring to mind)
Weaknesses: It’s a minor point, but Trent Bridge is sometimes a hard place to take 20 wickets
Talisman: Bilal Shafayat (superb beard – will enjoy exchanging tips with Hashim Amla)
One to watch: Alex Hales. Showed he has real talent last season.
The retirement of Justin Langer may hurt their chances, but Somerset still have an intimidating batting line up without him. Marcus Trescothick will lead from the front, whilst Craig Kieswetter, Zander De Bruyn and James Hildreth can also be explosive at times. The bowling looks weaker, however. Although Peter Trego got picked for the England Performance squad over the winter, he is unlikely to run through sides, whilst the support bowling of Charl Willoughby and Alfonso Thomas is great at keeping the runs down, but not so adept at taking wickets. Unless they add more firepower to the seam bowling, a mid-table season beckons.
Strengths: Aggressive batting line up.
Weaknesses: A bowling attack more suited to one-day cricket than the championship
Talisman: It’s got to be Trescothick
One to watch: Max Waller. Interesting young leg spinner who has had tuition from Shane Warne.
Tetley bitter, Hovis bread, chip butties … these are the things we love about Yorkshire. Their batting looks rather tasty too (the likes of Jacques Rudolf, Anthony McGrath, and Andrew Gale should score them enough runs). However, there are more question marks about the seam bowling – especially if, as expected after his performances in Bangladesh, Tim Bresnan is away with England for the lion’s share of the season. Ajmal Shahzad will lead the attack in his absence, alongside the New Zealander, Daryl Tuffey, in the first half of the season, and the Australian, Ryan Harris, in the second half. Yorkshire will need big performances from their overseas bowlers if they are to finish better than mid-table in the championship. However, much could depend on the form of Adil Rashid, who England fans will be monitoring closely.
Strengths: Wholesome food and real ale.
Weaknesses: Bresnan and McGrath eat / drink it all.
Talisman: Jacques Rudolf. You have to admire a man prepared to sacrifice the sun/sea/sand of South Africa for a life living in Leeds.
One to watch: David Wainwright. Orthodox spinner who came on leaps and bounds in 2009.
As a Worcestershire fan myself, I can recognise the warning signs when I see them – and there are plenty when it comes to Ashley Giles’ Warwickshire. The batting looks woefully short on quality (Bell and Trott will be on England duty for long spells, whilst Westwood and Troughton will find life tougher in Division One). Meanwhile, the seam bowling looks paper thin: Chris Woakes is an excellent prospect, but he cannot be expected to carry the attack on his own. Giles has made a shrewd signing in Imran Tahir, the Pakistani / South African leg spinner, but he will have to have an amazing season to keep Warwickshire in the top flight.
Strengths: Hard to see any I’m afraid
Weaknesses: Hard to see beyond them
Talisman: Neil Carter. Swashbuckling all-rounder, but more than a tad erratic.
One to watch: Chris Woakes. Promising seam bowler who took the new ball for the England Performance squad in the winter
Prediction: 9th. Going down faster than you can say ‘Ashley Giles’ and ‘wheelie bin’.