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County Championship Preview, 2016

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A new sponsor, Specsavers, will lend their name to county cricket’s famous old trophy this summer, and I hope the association is a long and profitable one for both parties. For the last time, for a while at least, there will be two divisions of nine counties playing each other home and away, thus sixteen matches.  In 2017 there will be an eight/ten split and only fourteen matches, not a change I approve of, but we will see.

On paper it is a struggle to see the first division being other than a two horse race this summer. Champions for the last two seasons Yorkshire will be looking to complete their hat trick. If they do it will be the first time since the 1960s that they have shown such dominance. In those days the saying was that when Yorkshire were strong England were strong, and once again that seems to be true. The difference now is that in those days, despite the Test calls, the White Rose had its big names available more often than not.

This year I don’t suppose Joe Root will play anything other than very occasionally, and it seems likely that Jonny Bairstow, new signing David Willey and Adil Rashid will all spend time on international duty. There are plenty of other members of the squad who will be looking to resurrect England careers; Gary Ballance, Liam Plunkett and Adam Lyth all falling into that category. I suspect that neither Tim Bresnan nor Ryan Sidebottom expect the call again, but both are wily old county pros who will be able to guide those as yet uncapped but who harbour serious international ambitions. By that I mean men like seamer Jack Brooks, and opening batsman Alex Lees.

One reason why Root will not be too much missed is that for the first half of the summer Yorkshire will have the services of Kane Williamson, one of the handful of batsmen in the world who bear comparison with him. Australian Travis Head, who will replace Williamson in mid-July, is a rather more underwhelming name, but he is young, talented and will doubtless benefit from working with coach Jason Gillespie. I expect Yorkshire to win again, but not quite as easily as last summer.

It is difficult to imagine Warwickshire wanting for runs this summer. Even when they were England regulars Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell were always ready and willing, when able, to plunder county attacks. This year Trott will be keen to show that despite his travails at the game’s highest level he can still dominate the county game. As for Bell there is surely nothing more certain this summer than that he will be one of county cricket’s leading batsman. He has a point to prove to the England selectors, and surely the decision to give him the captaincy of the county in January was a masterstroke in motivational terms.

The rest of Warwickshire’s batting is sound enough and supporters will be hoping that without the cares of the captaincy Varun Chopra’s form will improve. If it does and Ian Westwood retains his consistency then there will always be firm foundations for Trott and Bell to build on. There is also a young batsman, Sam Hain, of whom much is expected.

There is a fine seam attack at Edgbaston two of whom, Chris Woakes and Rikki Clarke, provide useful runs as well. Boyd Rankin brings something different with his height and the West Midlanders have one of the most effective overseas players the county game has seen in recent years. Jeetan Patel might not be quite as good as a few fanatical CricketWeb members believe, but at County Championship level he is consistently successful.

It is difficult to see beyond Yorkshire and Warwickshire for a title challenger but Middlesex look a pretty good bet for third. A fine squad has been assembled in recent years and the acquisition of the highly promising James Fuller from Gloucestershire means that their seam attack is one of the best. Fuller will join the much improved James Harris and Toby Roland-Jones.

Of the batsmen Sam Robson and Paul Stirling are both good players and with Eoin Morgan lurking in the lower middle order and the man with the Bradmanesque average, Adam Voges, overseas player and four day skipper, runs shouldn’t be a problem. It will also be interesting to see whether Dawid Malan, 28 and surely therefore in his prime, is spurred on by the T20 captaincy. He is a good player anyway, but if he can find additional inspiration he might just be unstoppable.

Nottinghamshire aren’t going to see very much of Stuart Broad and Alex Hales, but should still have plenty of firepower with which to compete, and I am predicting them to come fourth.  If James Taylor joins Broad and Hales on England duty however there may not be quite enough runs, so I add that caveat. Much will depend therefore on Brendan Taylor, in his second summer with the county, and Samit Patel needs to recapture some of the form of years gone by with the bat. Plenty of attention, if he makes the first team, will doubtless also focus on 23 year old Billy Root, who has a hard act to follow.

Peter Siddle will be missing after pulling out of his contract because of injury, but Jackson Bird looks like a useful replacement as overseas player.  Harry Gurney has an established reputation as a seamer. Luke Fletcher has not quite lived up to expectations in the past but always looks a good bowler and perhaps this will be his year. He will have to be at his best though as last summer three very promising new seamers established themselves; Jacob Ball, Brett Hutton and Luke Wood. None is much above medium, but all had their good days last summer and Wood, at 20 the youngest of the three, is a fine batsman as well.

There has been something of a revolving door down in the West Country this last close season, but looking at the entrances and exits it does look like the Somerset side will be a little stronger this summer, so I am looking at them to finish fifth.

The county will be led once again by Marcus Trescothick, undoubtedly a national treasure in cricketing terms. There were times last summer when ‘Tres’ looked like he might be past it, but he recovered and ended the summer with an average of 45 and hopefully has a season or two left yet. He will be opening the innings with another veteran, overseas signing Chris Rogers.

Of those who have left Taunton the release of George Dockrell is disappointing, management having presumably decided that two senior left arm spinners is one too many and that Jack Leach is a better bet. The additions to the squad are promising. Kent wicketkeeper Ryan Davies is a fine prospect and South African Roelof van der Merwe, signed on a Dutch passport, has the look of one of those Saffers who will find the Championship very much to his liking.

Other highly rated young Somerset players are seamer Lewis Gregory and batsman Tom Abell. And then there are the Overton twins, two England bowling all-rounders in the making. Let us hope that Craig has learnt to temper his desire to win at all costs with the ability to think before expressing his opinions, and that Jamie has lost none of his impressive turn of speed.

Surrey were promoted as champions last summer and after a few years of seemingly going backwards the county are looking strong again. The strength is the bowling, and with Mark Footitt having been signed from Derbyshire there will be real competition for places once young Sam Curran is able to join the side after his A-Levels. Footitt and Curran minor will vie with Curran major, Matt Dunn and Jade Dernbach for the seamers’ places, and if that isn’t enough rumour has it that Stuart Meaker might be fit and firing again.

There are a few good batsmen in the Surrey squad as well. Jason Roy is the best known of the England qualified but Rory Burns, Zafar Ansari and Steven Davies should all score plenty of runs in the top flight. They probably won’t score as many as Kumar Sangakkara, but then it is unlikely that many in the country will do that. With the cool head of veteran off spinner Gareth Batty leading them the Brown Caps will comfortably avoid relegation

After the 77 years of hurt came to an end in 2011 I wasn’t the only Lancashire supporter to discover it led to a reality check. After a lifetime of genuinely believing every summer was going to be ‘the one’ I finally realised that the Red Rose was really somewhat fragile after all, and the pattern of relegation followed by promotion that has come since has not been a surprise.

But despite what has happened before I do think Lancashire will, at the third time of asking, avoid an immediate return to the second division, but only just and not without a good deal of anxiety along the way. The attack looks good. Kyle Jarvis made huge progress last summer, as did Tom Bailey, and with overseas signing Neil Wagner will do plenty of damage whenever the ball moves around. As back up there is still the evergreen Glenn Chapple, 42 years young, and at the other end of the age spectrum I expect great things from Saqib Mahmood.

In the spin department Simon Kerrigan’s disappointments last year will, I hope, prove to be a blip but even if not I have always rated Stephen Parry very highly so even if the sun shines the bowling will do well, but then there is the batting.

Even with Ashwell Prince Lancashire’s batting looked as fragile as usual in their promotion campaign last summer, and this time he has not been persuaded back. So what do Lancashire have? Just Alviro Petersen, a 19 year old with a huge future (Haseeb Hameed) together with the usual suspects. Perhaps one or more of Tom Smith, Steven Croft, Karl Brown, Luis Reece, Luke Procter and the others will finally come good. Come the end of the season I fear however that Ashley Giles will be regretting not signing an overseas batsman, but hopefully Alex Davies will make sure most of his blushes are spared.

I have a feeling this season will be the one where things finally unravel for Durham after years of being one of the strongest sides in the Championship. That itself was initially a surprise to those of us old enough to recall their early struggles, but they soon convinced us they were the real thing.

For 2016 the usual strength, their seam attack, is going to look decidedly threadbare. It would be fine with Ben Stokes and Mark Wood, but they will seldom be able to pick that pair, so the county will just have to hope that Graham Onions, now approaching the veteran stage, and Chris Rushworth stay fit.

Paul Collingwood is going to have a tough season making the most of his squad and will need to score some runs himself, and perhaps even help out with a few wickets. The one thing that it is likely he can count on will be a big contribution from Scott Borthwick. The man who won his one Test cap so far as a leg spinner scored almost 1,300 runs at 42 last summer. His bowling was less impressive, but apparently has been worked on extensively over the winter. It won’t be enough though, and Durham will fall just behind Lancashire and take a relegation place.

Hampshire looked like they would go down last year until a late resurgence took them clear. They may avoid the drop again, but their bowling looks thin, and if Reece Topley forces his way further into the England set up they will struggle to bowl sides out twice. Maybe they will get a few turning wickets, and hopefully the exciting young leg spinner Mason Crane will continue to progress, but at 19 he cannot be expected to carry the hopes of the county.

Runs almost certainly won’t be a problem for the south coast outfit. The powers of Michael Carberry and Jimmy Adams appear undiminished and James Vince, particularly if the captaincy fires his enthusiasm, is as good as any uncapped batsman in the country, but I doubt he will be able to stop them propping up the table come September.

To accommodate the changes due for 2017 there will be just one side promoted from Division Two this summer. On balance most would accept that the splitting of the Championship has raised the quality of the county game, in the top division anyway. It has however increasingly meant that a competition that in the 1970s and 1980s had become one where every single county had at least one period in the upper echelons, has regressed to one reminiscent of the 1930s, with a number of counties who appear destined to stay in the lower reaches in perpetuity.

There will still be plenty of good cricket played in the lower division. Some good youngsters will emerge, some more experienced players who have lost their way elsewhere will look to come good again, and a few thirty somethings will show us what might have been. Kent supporters are particularly fortunate, as they will get a chance to have a look at Kagiso Rabada, but I foresee little drama in the table, and will be surprised if Sussex and their overseas signing Ross Taylor have not secured that single promotion place well before the summer’s end.

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