Early spring. It’s chilly, there’s sleet in the air, you’re still wearing your scarf to the local pub, and the never ending football season is entering its overhyped ‘run in’. It can only mean one thing: the county championship season is upon us. And it will be with us until the end of September – except for that inconvenient hiatus in the warmest months when white ball cricket takes over like a plague of locusts and consumes everything that’s wholesome and beautiful.
This year’s championship is particularly interesting because (in division one at least) I have absolutely no idea who’s going to win. All the teams look pretty evenly matched. And by George there are some pretty tasty outfits on the circuit.
With the possible exception of Paul Farbrace’s Warwickshire, who have lost Jonathan Trott to retirement, Keith Barker to Hants, every side is oozing with talent. Warwickshire are a good side (they obviously still boast Ian Bell and Jeetan Patel) but I just don’t think they have the strength in depth of the other teams. So now I’ve tipped them for relegation feel free to make them your favourites.
Surrey are the team to beat, of course. Their squad is stupidly strong. And it’s not strong because they’ve cynically poached smaller counties’ best talent < cough, Nottinghamshire, cough > it’s because their youth system is absolutely outstanding. Sprinkle in the carefully selected (and I assume very well paid) senior players like Morne Morkel, Dean Elgar, and new signing Liam Plunkett, and you’ve got a recipe for success.
Surrey will be one of the best teams to watch this year because they have so many talented youngsters to follow: Ollie Pope, Will Jacks, the Currans, and Amar Virdi. Then there’s more experienced players keen to catch the national selectors’ eye like Ben Foakes and Mark Stoneman. Have I just mentioned their whole XI?
The other team I quite fancy this year is Somerset. Their young bowling attack will be a year more experienced and I doubt they’ll lose too many players to England duty. Just ask James Hildreth. With the impressive and still young Tom Abell leading the way, Pakistan’s Azhar Ali available all year, Hildreth, and some unknown youngster called Marcus Trescothick leading the way, runs shouldn’t be a problem.
Somerset’s bowling covers all bases: there’s pace from Jamie Overton, energy from Craig Overton, accuracy and persistence from Lewis Gregory, right arm spin from Dom Bess, and left arm orthodox from Jack Leach. Throw in the prolific Jack Brooks, freshly imported from oooop north, and taking twenty wickets should be as simple as quaffing a pint of cider on a hot day.
Essex are fancied by many to do well this year too, simply because their batting is absolutely stacked and Jamie Porter and Simon Harmer are dead certs to take heaps of wickets.
I’ll be keeping a close eye on Dan Lawrence this summer because he’s supremely talented and could be ready to take the next step in his career. The batting is completed by the likes of Nick Browne, Ravi Bopara, Tom Westley, and Ryan Ten Doeschate – fine county players all of them.
Oh, and there’s also a certain Sir Alastair Cook back in the ranks. I expect Cook to score runs for fun, thus sustaining a never ending story of “will he, won’t he, make an England comeback”. The press will completely ignore the fact, of course, that Cookie has never scored an Ashes hundred at home.
Then again, perhaps this odd statistic will actually get picked up, add to the drama, and persuade Sir Alastair to make one last, definitely his last (but never say never), test appearance at The Oval. No doubt he’ll finally reach three figures and win England the decisive Ashes test in the process. The nation will then erupt in a collective orgasm and make Cook England’s first living Patron Saint.
Next up in this preview is Nottinghamshire. Don’t all boo at once. But whatever you think of their recruitment strategy the lads from Trent Bridge have a superb side on paper and there’s no reason why they can’t go all the way.
Slater and Duckett (poached from Derby) have the makings of a decent opening combo, Chris Nash is a handy 3, the human tripod Joe Clarke (poached from Worcester) will be hungry for runs at 4 (that’s when he’s not texting his mates about his latest sexual conquest), and Fat Sam and Steve Mullaney, aka ‘the least likely Lion’, form a solid middle-order. Oh, and then there’s the very talented Paul Coughlin (poached from Durham) and the highly promising Zak Chappell (poached from Lancs) to consider too.
Notts’ bowling is also pretty formidable. They’ll have Stuart Broad available until August (because the Ashes are so late this summer), the superb James Pattinson will be pressing for a call up to Australia’s Ashes team, Jake Ball isn’t good enough for England but most definitely good enough for the championship, and then there’s lovable Luke Fletcher too. It’s almost not fair on the batsmen.
Let’s talk about Hampshire now. And that means it’s time for yet another James Vince conversation. The master of the pretty thirty or forty has decided to open the batting this year to press his claims for an England recall. Smart idea. Vince has all the talent in the world and he just needs to put it all together. Maybe opening will sharpen his focus?
Like many of the other counties, Hants’ batting looks really good. They’ve got Sam Northeast, Rilee ‘Rene Russo’ Rossouw, Liam Dawson, and last minute signing of the year Aiden Markram. The bowling also looks useful with the aforementioned Keith Barker, always a solid performer at county level, joining quality local talent blockers Kyle Abbott and Fidel Edwards.
Yorkshire are usually pretty strong and this year looks no different. There was a time when Jack Leaning was their great white hope, but now they’ve got Tom Kohler Cadmore and Harry Brook too. Colin Graves’ finest have a nice blend of youth and experience in the batting lineup, with Adam Lyth and Gary ‘the crab’ Ballance bound to score loads of runs.
The bowling might not be as strong as it once was (they’ll miss Brooks like I miss my youth and freedom) but there’s still some talent. Ben Coad is a fine young prospect, Tim Bresnan is still around, and Duanne Olivier could prove to be an inspired albeit highly controversial and somewhat disturbing signing.
Last but not least there’s Kent. I won’t talk about them too much today because Marco is writing a more in-depth preview. What’s more, as I’m exiled down in Kent these days, I’m going to find it hard to be completely honest for fear of being disemboweled in an oast-house by irate locals.
Basically I expect Kent to struggle. They’ve got some good young players like Zak Crawley, Daniel Bell Drummond, and the Australian Matt Renshaw, but they’ll be missing Joe Denly and Sam Billings early in the season (who will be wearing garish Bollywood IPL outfits rather than whites), whilst Matt Henry will be a big loss in general. But then again they’ve still got perennial superman and evergreen talisman Darren Stevens, so maybe everything will be alright after all.
So there ends the TFT roundup. If you’ve got any sense you’ll ignore all the above, put money on Kent and Warwickshire for the title, and tell all your mates than Surrey are doomed.
What are your predictions?