The new County Championship season is almost upon us and after another disastrous winter for England overseas there is likely to be even more attention and scrutiny on the domestic red ball competition than ever before.
Warwickshire won the title last season and they will attempt to make a successful defence of their crown with the format returning back to the one we enjoyed prior to the pandemic rather than the two stages offering of last term.
2021 – Warwickshire
2020 – Essex (Bob Willis Trophy)
2019 – Essex
2018 – Surrey
2017 – Essex
2016 – Middlesex
2015 – Yorkshire
2014 – Yorkshire
2013 – Durham
2012 – Warwickshire
We go back to the two division format for this season but unlike the last time this schedule was used we have 10 teams in Division One. Each team in the league will play the others once and then they will all play a second team twice to make 14 matches for each side. The points system is 16 for a win, eight for a draw or tie and nothing for losing. There is no second phase to this season so the team who has the most points after 14 matches wins the title.
The bonus system is the same as last year though. As ever there are first innings bonus points too with points scored for getting 200, 250, 300, 350 and 400 in the first 110 overs. Bonus points are also available for 3, 6 and 9 wickets, providing a maximum of eight possible bonus points in total. In keeping with Test cricket the new ball is available to teams after 80 overs as it was last season rather than the 90 overs it was prior to the pandemic.
Last Season: 1st in Division 2
Captain: Tom Westley
Meet Twice: Somerset, Kent, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Northamptonshire
Overseas Player(s): Simon Harmer & Mark Steketee
Key Players: Simon Harmer & Dan Lawrence
One to Watch: Josh Rymell – Opened up alongside Alastair Cook in the Royal London One Day Cup last season and averaged over 50. Could be a regular alongside him in the four-day game at some point this season.
Title Odds: 9/2 favourites
Essex have been the benchmark team over the last four seasons when it comes to red ball cricket but there have been plenty of off-field issues in the winter and you wonder if they are going to have an impact on the side. They have signed well with Matt Critchley and got the bonus of picking up Adam Rossington late on ahead of the season. It would still be a surprise if they are out of the top three this term even with everything they have going on.
Essex have one of the best bowling attacks in the country, if not the best. Simon Harmer has been a regular wicket taker for as long as he has played in England and Mark Steketee has been on the fringes of the Australia red ball squad in the past. Those two when put alongside Sam Cook and Jamie Porter are going to make Essex pretty tough to face and hard to beat.
They will need to make sure that the off field troubles don’t navigate their way into affecting things on the pitch but if that doesn’t happen then Essex look strong. One potential issue could arise should Simon Harmer get a call up for South Africa who tour England in the second part of the summer while Dan Lawrence might not be as available as he has been in the past. They also need to replace the now retired Ryan ten Doeschate.
As a result of the English winter it would be fair to assume that Dan Lawrence isn’t going to be at the County Ground while the Test matches are taking place this summer. If England have dumped James Anderson and Stuart Broad for good then they could come calling for Sam Cook at some point this summer.
Predicted Finishing Position: 3rd
Last Season: 2nd in Division 2
Captain: Graeme van Buuren
Meet Twice: Hampshire, Somerset, Yorkshire, Northamptonshire and Lancashire
Overseas Player(s): Marcus Harris, Naseem Shah, Zahar Gohar
Key Players: Chris Dent & Ryan Higgins
One to Watch: Naseem Shah – The Pakistan youngster has serious heat and if he can add control to that he is likely to fire out some county batters during his spell with Gloucestershire.
Title Odds: 20/1
Gloucestershire have had to wait a while for their chance in Division One but they were here on merit. Michael Klinger was involved with them when they were promoted to this level prior to the pandemic and they will be hoping that Marcus Harris can churn out the number of runs he did at Leicestershire. Gloucestershire have invested well in overseas players this season and have spent the last two years blooding enough youngsters to have some good depth in their squad. They might need it though.
Gloucestershire have a top three that can rival anything in the competition with Chris Dent and Marcus Harris potentially full of runs and James Bracey an absolute run machine in county cricket. Of course their runs have all come in Division Two and now they will need to prove themselves in the top flight but there is nothing to suggest they won’t be able to cope with the elevation in level.
Dale Benkenstein is an interesting choice as coach. He did little of note when in charge of a talented Hampshire squad in the past and when you put him with a new captain who is doing the job for the first time you have to wonder how that dynamic will work. I remain to be convinced that either are good appointments so there is plenty to prove there.
James Bracey has already tasted Test cricket and with Ben Foakes not exactly grabbing his chance with both hands in the Caribbean, a big start to the season could see Bracey given another go, especially if England need to find another number three. Ryan Higgins and David Payne are on the fringes of England duty too.
Prediction Finishing Position: 9th
Last Season: 4th in Division 1
Captain: James Vince
Meet Twice: Somerset, Yorkshire, Kent, Warwickshire and Gloucestershire
Overseas Player(s): Mohammad Abbas & Kyle Abbott
Key Players: James Vince & Ben Brown
One to Watch: Tom Prest – led England u19s to the World Cup final over the winter and made a telling contribution to Hampshire’s T20 campaign last term. Huge future ahead of him.
Title Odds: 8/1
Hampshire were a wicket away from potentially winning the County Championship last season but amazingly ended up finishing fourth in what was an epic conclusion to the campaign. They have strengthened their batting core for this season which needed to happen and with the younger players in their ranks with another year of learning behind them Hampshire will expect to lay down another significant title challenge this term.
In Mohammad Abbas and Kyle Abbott, Hampshire could well have the best new ball combination in the competition. Keith Barker is a more than acceptable first change option and then if the likes of Mason Crane and Liam Dawson can get conditions to suit, especially the longer the season goes on, then Hampshire are going to be hard to score big runs against. Keeping those three senior seamers fit will be imperative but if they do wickets should come regularly.
Hampshire are still looking for a decent opening partnership. Ian Holland was in good form in the warm up matches and he is likely to be the partner for Joe Weatherley but they look much weaker than the rest of the Hampshire order, which when you consider they could have an engine room of James Vince, Nick Gubbins, Liam Dawson and Ben Brown is pretty strong. They will still be better served with the new ball being blunted though.
Is there another chance for James Vince coming along? He is certainly a man who could be in the mix if Joe Root is replaced as captain and the new coach chooses a new leader from outside the current team. England still haven’t answered their spin problems so a good start to the season from Mason Crane could see him away from the Ageas Bowl for a while.
Predicted Finishing Position: 4th
Last Season: 1st in Division 3
Captain: Sam Billings
Meet Twice: Surrey, Lancashire, Essex, Hampshire and Northamptonshire
Overseas Player(s): George Linde, Jackson Bird, Matt Henry
Key Players: Daniel Bell-Drummond & Darren Stevens
One to Watch: Tawanda Muyeye – The youngster was spoken highly of as at an even younger age than he is now and his opening taste of First-class cricket last summer was certainly encouraging.
Title Odds: 14/1
Kent blooded a number of good young players last season but the fact they ended up in Division 3 highlights that there is still more needed to come from them in red ball cricket. Kent have been one of the better teams in white ball cricket for a while and culminated that with the T20 Blast title last season. I’m sure they will put plenty into that come the latter end of the summer but having worked so hard to get into Division 1 they won’t want to leave the division at the first time of asking.
Two quality overseas signings with the ball given this Kent bowling attack a good look about it. Jackson Bird looks the perfect bowler to take advantage of the early season conditions and then Matt Henry will replace him to work the second half of the campaign. Matt Milnes and Nathan Gilchrist are able support players while George Linde brings some quality in the spin department if it is a dry summer.
Too many players come and go from this Kent side for my liking. That begins right from the off when Sam Billings will begin the season in the Indian Premier League. He is the captain so that isn’t ideal. The other question mark surrounding Kent is can 45-year-old Darren Stevens dance another great tune or will his star finally fade?
It wasn’t his very best run over the winter but Zak Crawley has surely done enough to be the England opening batter when New Zealand arrive in June. Could Sam Billings be the next England Test captain? The talk of it is beginning to get louder which is often a tell-tale sign that something could be in the pipeline.
Predicted Finishing Position: 7th
Last Season: 2nd in Division 1
Meet Twice: Gloucestershire, Kent, Yorkshire, Essex and Warwickshire
Overseas Player(s): Dane Vilas, Hasan Ali
Key Players: Josh Bohannon & Jimmy Anderson
One to Watch: George Bell – had a good campaign in the u19 World Cup over the winter and while Jos Buttler is with England he could be the man to come in with Alex Davies now elsewhere.
Title Odds: 9/2
Lancashire watched on during the final day of the County Championship season in the hope that Warwickshire would slip up but it wasn’t to be. They then had no answer to the Bears in the Bob Willis Trophy Final so they missed out on two pieces of silverware in the space of a couple of weeks at the end of last term. That should fire the Red Rose up to go one better this season and it would be foolish to write them off.
Lancashire have a very good bowling unit, one which the signing of Hasan Ali does no harm to for the opening part of the season. There is an opening for them to bring in more quality for the second part of the season too. That could well be a spinner although that would depend on the availability of Jimmy Anderson ahead of the South Africa series. Tom Bailey, Saqib Mahmood and Matt Parkinson are top class at this level.
I’m not convinced Lancashire are the strongest with the bat but they have a couple of players who if they have big seasons then that won’t be a problem. Those players will soon have England eyes on them if they start the season well though so it could be a double-edged sword for them. They will need those batters to go well to be comfortable over the course of the year.
England’s loss could really be Lancashire’s gain this summer. Jos Buttler will miss the early part of the season while he is at the IPL but when he comes back he doesn’t appear a runner in the Test squad anymore and will there be a place for James Anderson with England? If those two spend the summer at Old Trafford it will do them no harm. On the other side of the coin England will surely appreciate the talents of Matt Parkinson sooner rather than later and Saqib Mahmood should be a regular fixture in the England squad. Josh Bohannon can’t be far away and is there another chance for Keaton Jennings?
Predicted Finishing Position: 2nd
Last Season: 4th in Division 2
Captain: Ricardo Vasconcelos
Meet Twice: Warwickshire, Kent, Gloucestershire, Surrey and Essex
Overseas Player(s): Will Young, Matt Kelly
Key Players: Ricardo Vasconcelos & Ben Sanderson
One to Watch: James Sales – another feature of that England u19 squad in the winter. He has already made his debut for Northamptonshire and will look to press on this season.
Title Odds: 25/1
Northamptonshire are another side who have been kept waiting in their bid to play Division One cricket once again. They could only make it into Division 2 last season but they pushed Lancashire and Yorkshire close in what was a very tight opening group. You just wonder if they have enough quality to be competitive at this level. They certainly haven’t helped themselves in that regard with the captain/coach fallout so close to the start of the season.
Good question! We have seen in the T20 Blast over the last decade that Northamptonshire can use team spirit and the underdog status to their advantage but when that is your strength there is a bit of a problem. They have a good new ball pair and their season might be defined by whether the back ups can keep the wickets coming. A dry summer could bring Simon Kerrigan into play which would be no bad thing.
Much like Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire have a new coach and captain combination. John Sadler has replaced David Ripley as coach and has already stamped his authority on things by installing Ricardo Vasconcelos as captain, a decision which irked Adam Rossington enough that he has scarpered to Essex. Not only is Vasconcelos an inexperienced captain, he is also their best batter and keeper. That’s a tough gig.
While England could do a lot worse than looking down the county pyramid to sort out their woes, they won’t come calling in the direction of Wantage Road unless someone does something unforeseen.
Predicted Finishing Position: 10th
Last Season: 6th in Division 1
Captain: Tom Abell
Meet Twice: Hampshire, Surrey, Essex, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire
Overseas Player(s): Marchant de Lange, Matt Renshaw, Peter Siddle
Key Players: Tom Abell & Craig Overton
One to Watch: George Thomas – yet another member of the England u19 squad. The pace bowler might be needed if there are injuries at Taunton this summer, especially if Craig Overton isn’t around much.
Title Odds: 13/2
Somerset have been knocking on the door for the County Championship title for so long there is no paint left and barely any wood either. They are still waiting to create history though and that will need to happen soon. The positive is their academy keeps on churning out outstanding cricketers but we are getting close to the stage where those youngsters need to step up together which is never an ideal situation.
Somerset have some really good young batters and while most of them have made their name in white ball cricket such as Tom Banton, Will Smeed and Tom Lammonby, if they can do it in red ball cricket then Somerset are going to be strong because Matt Renshaw should be a run machine this summer and the one thing they don’t lack for is batting depth with a number of good all-rounders deep in their order.
If Australia force Somerset to use Matt Renshaw in the middle order then they are going to need to patch together an opening pairing. Tom Lammonby has been used in that position but his red ball form fell off a cliff last season. The other options aren’t overly inspiring so the middle order could get exposed to the new ball which is not what anyone would want this term.
Somerset are a side who England will have an eye on throughout the summer. Jack Leach appears to have established himself as the spinner while Craig Overton is likely to be in a number of squads even if he isn’t selected. Will Smeed, Tom Lammonby, Tom Abell, Lewis Gregory and Tom Banton could all be seen in England kit at various points this summer.
Predicted Finishing Position: 5th
Last Season: 5th in Division 2
Captain: Rory Burns
Meet Twice: Somerset, Kent, Warwickshire, Northamptonshire and Yorkshire
Overseas Player(s): Kemar Roach, Hashim Amla
Key Players: Hashim Amla & Ollie Pope
One to Watch: Nathan Barnwell – went to the u19 World Cup and will be hoping that he can force his way into the ranks but stocks at deep at The Oval.
Title Odds: 8/1
There is always pressure on Surrey to deliver silverware so last season was a real failure for them in that regard. There always seems to be an inability to get a settled side on the pitch throughout the season and that is never a good thing. Man for man though this Surrey squad matches up to pretty much anything in the competition but how often they can get their best XI on the park might determine success or more failure.
Surrey have a top six to admire and be jealous of and if England leave players alone then runs are certainly not going to be an issue at The Oval. Players who have been away previously might not be missing for as long this season. They have world class players at their disposal which should make them a very strong outfit if they can come together as one unit.
Can they find a way to get positive results at home? There is certainly the bowling talent to do it but the flat pitches at The Oval make it so hard for them to win enough games to be challenging for the title. If the extra pace they have in their attack this season helps with that they will be fine but forcing results has been an issue for too long south of the river.
Surrey were going to get to see more of Jason Roy with him ducking out of the IPL but then he got injured which isn’t ideal. It looks as though England are done with Rory Burns and Ollie Pope for now but they are class acts who will surely come again. Just how much they see of Chris Jordan remains to be seen while Ben Foakes is likely to get the New Zealand series with the gloves at the very least.
Predicted Finishing Position: 6th
Last Season: 1st in Division 1
Captain: Will Rhodes
Meet Twice: Lancashire, Northamptonshire, Surrey, Somerset and Hampshire
Overseas Player(s): Nathan McAndrew
Key Players: Dominic Sibley & Liam Norwell
One to Watch: Jacob Bethell – another member of the England u19 squad and he had a brilliant tournament. Has already got into the white ball side and red ball cricket is the next port of call for this talented youngster
Title Odds: 6/1
Warwickshire didn’t just win the County Championship title last season and then doubled down on that to win the Bob Willis Trophy. They now set about looking to defend that title. There aren’t many counties who are settled and improving all the time but under the super guidance of Paul Farbrace the Bears are going from strength to strength. Some teams win the Championship at the end of their shelf life but that certainly isn’t the case with this Warwickshire team. They’ll now look to extend their form to all three competitions.
Warwickshire were good with the bat last season and might be even stronger in that department this term with Dom Sibley likely to be around a lot more and Alex Davies joining from Lancashire. They are a side who know how to put big runs on the board and dominate matches from there and look even better equipped to do that this season, especially with some youngsters with more experience to call upon.
Bowlers. Or more importantly injured bowlers. Olly Stone is already out for the first half of the season and Oliver Hannon-Dalby will miss the beginning of the campaign. Henry Brookes has already missed a chunk of his career with injury as well so there is going to be a lot on the likes of Craig Miles, Liam Norwell and Nathan McAndrew. If they break down the resources might not be as deep as perhaps they would like.
Dominic Sibley has fallen out of favour with England but he has the sort of style that a new coach might soon have him back in the side. He has already been in the runs in the lead up to the season. Chris Woakes didn’t do his Test career many favours in the Caribbean so he might be around a little more than expected. Liam Norwell might be the next cab off the rank in the England seam department though.
Predicted Finishing Position: 1st
Last Season: 5th in Division 1
Captain: Steve Patterson
Meet Twice: Surrey, Lancashire, Hampshire, Gloucestershire and Essex
Overseas Player(s): Haris Rauf, Dimuth Karunaratne
Best Players: Dawid Malan & Harry Brook
One to Watch: Will Luxton – another player who announced himself to the world at the u19 World Cup and he’ll be looking to push his way into this Yorkshire outfit over the course of the season
Title Odds: 8/1
You will have needed to be in a cave to have been able to ignore the off field problems that Yorkshire have had since the end of last season. Somehow they have escaped punishment for everything that went on and will begin this term on a level footing with everyone else. Now they will hope to do their talking on the field under a new director and coaching setup but you just wonder if any more ghosts are in the closet to hold them back.
Yorkshire look very strong with the bat and will only be stronger if England leave certain players alone. They were strong enough anyway but the addition of Dimuth Karunaratne at the top of the order for half the season makes it an even more daunting prospect for bowlers to face. Headingley is starting to flatten right out so runs are going to be needed there so this formidable top order should have conditions to suit.
Apart from the off field problems which might make people think twice about sponsoring or supporting Yorkshire, the pretty late fallout with Duanne Olivier has left their bowling unit short of a top class operator. England think a lot of Matthew Fisher but whether he is ready to lead a Yorkshire attack remains to be seen. Dom Bess isn’t my idea of a top class spinner either.
Dawid Malan never got onto the tour of the Caribbean so if England are done with him it will do Yorkshire no harm at all. How much they’ll see of Jonny Bairstow is open to debate while a good start to the season could soon see England come calling for Harry Brook and Matthew Fisher once more.
Predicited Finishing Position: 8th
I think Warwickshire are equipped to make a really strong tilt at successfully defending their title. I have Lancashire and Essex down as their chief rivals but I think England could hinder those two sides a lot more than they may Warwickshire. It is only really Dom Sibley that England would come after to begin with this summer and they haven’t had him around for a while anyway. While he is at Edgbaston though he and Rob Yates will form a great opening pairing and then the Bears have a solid middle order.
The only doubt there is with Warwickshire is the depth of their seamers if injuries hit but you would imagine they will know how to manage them now. If they do keep the likes of Henry Brookes, Craig Miles and Liam Norwell fit and with Nathan McAndrew as well batters won’t get a lot of peace. Chris Woakes will still be a solid operator at this level when he is around as well. Warwickshire bat with depth and have a couple of batters who are useful enough with the ball. I think they put up a massive defence of their title.
BetVictor have gone to the lengths and depths to price up a top batsman market and it would be wrong not to have a dabble in it. There isn’t a huge way of separating the field this season but one way is by looking at the teams that sides play twice and working out if one has an easier schedule on paper than the others. That does appear to be the case actually with Hampshire meeting Kent and Gloucestershire twice as well as Yorkshire who have a huge hole to fill in their bowling department. I actually have those three in the bottom four in the league in my table.
That leads me to take a Hampshire batter to follow this season. James Vince is the obvious choice but I still think there is an England career to be had for him. As it is only two players in this division this season scored more runs than Ben Brown last season and with the wicket-keeper batter moving to the Ageas Bowl to play top flight cricket and prove himself I expect another decent showing from him. He is going to have plenty of batting below him in the Hampshire line up and batting at five he is in a great position to get after an old ball. Playing against weaker attacks for half of the matches and on a good Ageas Bowl wicket for half of them too I think the 33/1 on him top scoring this season is just too big.
Back Warwickshire to win Division One (e/w) for a 3/10 stake at 7.00 with BetVictor (1/2 1-2)
Back B.Brown Top Division One Batter (e/w) for a 1/10 stake at 34.00 with BetVictor (1/4 1-4)
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