Will Essex retain the title? And who is in danger of sinking into Division Two? We look at the runners and riders ahead of Friday’s Specsavers County Championship kick off…
Read our preview of Division Two here!
2018 prediction: Champions
Sky Bet odds: 3/1f
Having claimed their first Championship title in 25 years in their maiden season back in the top flight, the Eagles will attempt to retain the crown with principally the same squad, albeit with a different coach. All bases look covered and it will take a big effort from Lancashire et al to stop them.
Not a lot on the playing side. All-rounder Matt Coles has joined from Kent to bolster the seam bowling and lower-order batting, while Australia’s Peter Siddle will look to exploit any early-season nibble having signed up for the first five games of the campaign before New Zealand left-armer Neil Wagner returns later on. Batsman Kishen Velani is the only departure.
The major changes have come in the coaching department, with Anthony McGrath stepping up from assistant to the top job following Chris Silverwood’s decision to become England bowling coach, and former Hampshire all-rounder Dimitri Mascarenhas joining as McGrath’s number two. The switches should not disrupt Essex too much, with Ryan ten Doeschate remaining as skipper.
Seamer Jamie Porter (75) and spinner Simon Harmer (72) scooped 147 wickets between them in 2017 – maximum impact, you could say – and they will be the chief threats with the ball again. South African Harmer, as a Kolpak, will have no international commitments, while Porter, despite all his success, looks a way down the England pecking order at present due to his less-than-express speed. Not that he agrees with that sentiment!
Alastair Cook plundered three tons in his seven games last year and will expect to rack up the runs again in between his England commitments. An international call-up could beckon for Dan Lawrence, too, with England still uncertain about their batting line-up. The 20-year-old scored three centuries and 761 runs in 2017 – he’s targeting 1,000 this time around.
2018 prediction: Second
Sky Bet odds: 7/2
Lancashire were the best of the rest in 2017, finishing 72 points behind unbeaten, runaway winners Essex. With some shrewd signings and glimpses of a return to form for Haseeb Hameed, the Red Rose county seem the Chelmsford side’s most likely rivals.
The skipper for starters, with Liam Livingstone, an unused member of England’s Test party in New Zealand, succeeding Steven Croft. Lancashire also beat off competition to snare Keaton Jennings – the opener endured a tough 2017, losing his England place and struggling for runs with Durham, but possesses undoubted class and will add to a potent batting cabal.
Veteran seamer Graham Onions has also moved from Chester-le-Street to Old Trafford and will add nous, even if he does not play every game, while Lancashire should have Australian Joe Mennie available for the whole of 2018. Mennie has replaced Ryan McLaren as overseas pro, while Onions will be asked to fill the void left by Kyle Jarvis’ return Zimbabwe duty.
McLaren and Jarvis supplied a combined 78 wickets in 2017 but Mennie will be confident of grabbing his fair share, the 29-year-old is a proven campaigner down under with 213 wickets in 58 first-class games at a lick over 27. Keep an eye on England Lion Saqib Mahmood, too – he has reportedly been bowling rockets in pre-season.
Hameed couldn’t buy a run for much of 2017, the youngster looking a shadow of the player who seemed so at home in Test cricket in India a couple of winters back. He warmed up for the new campaign with a pre-season century, though, which is good news for Lancashire, if not current England opener Mark Stoneman… With Jennings, Alex Davies, Livingstone and the evergreen Shiv Chanderpaul joining Hameed in Lancashire’s top six, big totals should not be a problem.
2017: Promoted (second in Division Two)
2018 prediction: Third
Sky Bet odds: 6/1
Last year’s white-ball kings made an immediate return to County Championship Division One and have enough about them to stay there. Don’t rule out a title bid, either.
Like Lancashire, Notts have a new captain, with Steven Mullaney taking over from the retired Chris Read. The Trent Bridge side’s middle order will be missing Alex Hales, following his decision to focus on white-ball cricket for the next 18 months, as well as Read and Brendan Taylor, who is back with Zimbabwe, but it will feature New Zealand’s Ross Taylor for the first eight games. Chris Nash has also arrived from Sussex to beef up the batting.
Former Durham all-rounder Paul Coughlin must wait to make his debut after dislocating his shoulder while on England Lions duty – the 25-year-old is set to be on the shelf for at least four months. Plus, seamer Brett Hutton, Notts’ leading wicket-taker in four-day cricket last term, has joined Northans after becoming frustrated at his lack of white-ball opportunities.
Notts shared the scalps in 2017, with Hutton bagging 37, Australia’s James Pattinson 32 in his five games and Luke Fletcher 36 before a serious head injury ended his season prematurely. Fletcher is back fit now, though Jake Ball could be the leader of an experienced attack also containing left-armers Mark Footitt and Harry Gurney. Ball’s winter did not go to plan – he played in the first Ashes Test and was barely seen thereafter – but he will expect to trouble county batsmen on the club’s top-flight return.
Taylor will want to score a few having not quite lit up the county game during his spell with Sussex a few years ago. Samit Patel, though, was Notts’ MVP in 2017 – some stellar white-ball performances helped the Outlaws to the Royal London One-Day Cup and T20 Blast titles, while he scored 906 runs against the red ball at an average over 53 with two double tons. Too late for an England recall?
2018 prediction: Fourth
Sky Bet odds: 11/2
Kumar Sangakkara’s exit will leave a big hole but Surrey are unlikely to be sucked into the relegation scrap with the signing of Morne Morkel significantly swelling the bowling reserves.
A change of captain seems to be a top-flight trend. Surrey have also made that move, with the aging Gareth Batty handing over the reins to opener Rory Burns. The Oval team’s batsmen must step up, too, with Sangakkara retiring in style after amassing 1,491 runs in 2017 at an average over 106 in just 10 matches. The Sri Lankan scored centuries in half of his 16 innings.
Mitch Marsh won’t be stepping up, not yet anyway, with the Australia all-rounder expected to miss a large chunk of the campaign following ankle surgery, leaving Surrey shorn of an overseas player for now. There are, however, reports Virat Kohli will jet in for a stint in June, while there is a new Kolpak in tow – South Africa pace ace Morkel inking a two-year deal.
Morkel will add real thrust to Surrey’s bowling attack, one which struggled to bowl out the opposition last year, particularly on flat Oval decks, as they won just twice in 14 games. Tom Curran is at the IPL for the first few weeks of the season with Kolkata, meaning brother Sam could steal a march with his slippery left-arm seam. He is getting better all the time.
Sangakkara’s sensational summer took a little of the gloss off Mark Stoneman’s impressive one – the opener averaged over 60 after joining from Durham, leading to his maiden England call-up at the age of 30. The left-hander hit four centuries in 2017 and will hope to bag a few more early on this season to convince the selectors that he is worth persevering with after a no more than steady winter in Australia and New Zealand.
2018 prediction: Fifth
Sky Bet odds: 5/1
Yorkshire’s batting, their Achilles heel last season, will be boosted by Kane Williamson and Cheteshwar Pujara but the bowling could be a tad light. Mid-table beckons for the Tykes.
Yorkshire will be hoping it’s a change of fortunes – having won back-to-back Championships in 2014 and 2015 and been in the mix for a third title on the spin a year later, the Tykes avoided relegation by just two points in 2017, only sealing survival with a late win over rock-bottom Warwickshire. A lack of runs proved Yorkshire’s problem, Gary Ballance ploughing a lone furrow.
The Headingley side hope to rectify that with the signings of New Zealand skipper Williamson and India’s Pujara – Pujara will be around from April to June, with Williamson taking over from July to September. Bowling-wise, Adil Rashid becoming a white-ball only player is a blow, as is the retirement of Ryan Sidebottom, now a bowling consultant at Surrey.
Ben Coad was Yorkshire’s star seamer last campaign with 50 wickets at 20.86, the right-armer described as a “revelation” by director of cricket Martyn Moxon after bagging myriad end-of-season awards. He will need to impress again, with Sidebottom hanging up his boots and David Willey and Liam Plunkett late IPL call-ups for Chennai and Delhi respectively. Spinner Azeem Rafiq will also take on added importance with Yorkshire sans Rashid.
Ballance has broken into – and then fallen out of – England’s Test team on a frequent basis. Trevor Bayliss and co appear to have moved on from him and his idiosyncratic technique now but that should be to Yorkshire’s gain. Pujara and Williamson’s international pedigree should translate into county runs, while coach Andrew Gale will expect a far greater return from openers Adam Lyth and Alex Lees, who averaged in the mid-twenties last term.
2017: Promoted (Division Two champions)
2018 prediction: Sixth
Sky Bet odds: 14/1
Worcestershire will be many people’s relegation bankers but a close-knit squad captained well by Joe Leach could spring a surprise. Their latest stint in Divison One may last longer than one season.
The coach. Kevin Sharp has succeeded Steve Rhodes with the latter departing following an internal investigation. Playing-wise, the Pears have snapped up Australia batsman Travis Head as their overseas pro – the 24-year-old will be available for the majority of the season but could miss a spell in June when Australia head to England for five ODIs and a T20.
Veteran seamer Steve Magoffin, 38, has returned from Sussex and there has been a switch in the boardroom with former spinner Matt Rawnsley becoming chief-executive, but once again the focus will be on Worcestershire’s young guns, with highly-rated batsman Joe Clarke, a player described as potentially the next Joe Root by Sharp, and pacey seamer Josh Tongue getting to test their mettle in the top flight.
Leach. Tongue and Ed Barnard claimed 47 apiece last campaign as Worcestershire pipped Nottinghamshire to the Division Two crown, but captain Leach led from the front with 69 scalps at 19.39, including a 10-for against Northants. Having nabbed 65 the season before and 59 in his last year in Division One, he should face few problems making the step up.
Clarke. There were rumours he would make the move to Nottinghamshire in the off-season and with the 21-year-old out of contract at the end of this campaign, the vultures will be circling. If Clarke is the next Root, it won’t be long before he is donning the England whites. Daryl Mitchell is in his mid-thirties now but still churns out the runs – only Sangakkara and Sussex’s Luke Wells scored more than his 1,266 last term across both divisions.
2018 prediction: Seventh (relegated)
Sky Bet odds: 7/1
Tipped by Sky Sports’ David Fulton to win the title. A middle order of Hashim Amla, James Vince and Sam Northeast should supply runs but do they have the all-round potency in the bowling ranks?
Northeast is an eye-catching signing. It seemed every Division One county wanted to prise him from Kent but Hampshire succeeded, tying him to a four-year deal. The 28-year-old has moved in order to boost his England chances and another 1,000-run season should do that. Amla will play for the first three months before heading off to Sri Lanka with South Africa.
Another veteran Protea, Dale Steyn, will cover for Amla for one Championship fixture in June, and could return to the county for the “final weeks” of the season fitness permitting – something that hasn’t been his strong point in recent times. In terms of outgoings, Michael Carberry has joined Leicestershire and Will Smith has returned to Durham.
Kyle Abbott. The former South Africa seamer took 60 wickets during the last campaign and his workload could be increased with Fidel Edwards and Gareth Berg now 36 and 37 respectively and Reece Topley a white-ball bowler only. Liam Dawson chipped in with a tidy 31 wickets in 2017 and will be chief spinner, at least until Mason Crane is over his back injury.
Amla has been one of these for much of his career but Northeast could be Hampshire’s top run-getter. His average and reputation have been steadily growing, with the right-hander striking 1,017 runs at over 50 for Kent in the second tier last term, including three hundreds. Northeast’s new county team-mate Vince could have a real contender for his England berth…
2018 prediction: Eighth (relegated)
Sky Bet odds: 14/1
Somerset survived late on in 2017, courtesy of a thumping win over Middlesex and the latter being involved in Arrow-gate, but their time in the top flight could be coming to an end.
A coaching reshuffle. Out has gone Matthew Maynard as director of cricket, with Andy Hurry appointed in that role and Jason Kerr named head coach. Somerset are still seeking an overseas player, too, after cancelling their agreement with Australian Cameron Bancroft following his part in the ball-tampering scandal. There have been no other big-name additions.
Jack Leach, who has snared over 50 scalps in each of the last two seasons. The couple of caveats here, though, are that Somerset’s decks may not be as spin-friendly in 2018 and that after a neat England Test debut against New Zealand last month, the slow left-armer may get the gig again against Pakistan and India. That would be a blow, though fellow spinner Dom Bess is a player of considerable talent.
Runs were an issue for Somerset in 2017. No one came close to 1,000 with Steve Davies (775) and James Hildreth (756) the best of a quiet bunch. Davies is a far better player than that and will to hope prove it in his second season at Taunton. Marcus Trescothick is still there but the runs have dried up, the 42-year-old passed fifty just three times in 27 innings last term.