The 2017 County Championship season begins today, and Sports Editor Calum Flintoff has been assessing what the campaign could have in store for each of the Division 1 sides.
Essex: After frustrating with three consecutive 3rd place finishes in Division 2, Essex finally prevailed with their promotion aims in what was on paper the most competitive campaign to date (with only 1 team promoted), and they did so emphatically. This will be a big season down at Chelmsford, and since their last foray into Division 1 in 2010 (which resulted in immediate relegation, as it did in 2001 & 2003), wicket-keeper Adam Wheater has left the club, spent four successful seasons at Hampshire, and subsequently returned home. Varun Chopra has also joined the homecoming parade after seven seasons with Warwickshire, and he and Nick Browne will be vital at the top of the order.
The team will be seriously boosted by Alastair Cook’s serial availability as a result of England’s shift to white ball focus, and his 643 runs, including three hundreds, at 91.85 last season were invaluable. In addition to Browne (1046), Ryan ten Doeschate (1157) and Tom Westley (1217) passed the one thousand run milestone last season, and all eyes – including notably Trevor Bayliss’ – will be on Westley in particular, as he looks to continue the form that has won him England Lions merit, against the best bowling attacks in the country, and he will need to. 19 year-old home-grown Daniel Lawrence is one of the most exciting talents in the country, and he, Ravi Bopara and Adam Wheater, fresh from a first first-class hundred for Essex against Durham MCCU last week, will form the middle order. Bopara drew a disappointing blank with centuries last season, which he will need to improve upon, but he did score six half-centuries, and an increased emphasis on his bowling provided 42 key wickets at a miserly 26.42.
The bowling department will ultimately decide Essex’s fate, especially given the 103 wickets of Graham Napier and David Masters that have headed into retirement over the Winter. Aggressive New Zealand quick Neil Wagner will battle jet lag to make an immediate contribution on that front, and he will be provided assistance from Matt Quinn and Matt Dixon, before making way for the exciting (if you can forgive) Mohammad Amir in the Summer. The key man, though, is Jamie Porter. The 23 year-old almost quit cricket in 2014 after a frustrating spell, but a change of attitude saw him become one of the most dangerous bowlers in Division2, an electric start propelling him to 55 wickets last season, and he will relish the step up with aplomb. Previous deficiencies in the spin department have been allayed with the Kolpak signing of South African test bowler Simon Harmer, and England under-19 fast bowler Aaron Beard is also one to follow closely, after devastating Sri Lanka in a tour match on debut last season.
OxStu Prediction: 8th, A valiant relegation battle that will be heavily reliant on the spine of the team; early results at Chelmsford will be key to offset a difficult-looking end of the season.
Hampshire: A tale of injury woe, Hampshire recorded only two victories last season, and more crucially, both were against the only team to finish below them in the eventual Division1 standings, Nottinghamshire. The race for survival wore abrasively against the threadbare squad, England came calling for James Vince and Liam Dawson, and it all boiled down to a final encounter with Durham. Durham were the victors, but off the field they were embroiled in financial issues, and merely weeks later, Hampshire were handed a reprieve and reinstated for the forthcoming season.
Overseas recruit Ryan McLaren enjoyed a particularly fine season, scoring 832 runs and finishing as the leading wicket-taker with 32, but he was overburdened in both disciplines markedly in the early part of the season, and now that he has transitioned North to Lancashire, the cameos that supported him must become match-winning performances if a repeat of last year is to be avoided. Alive to the rumours of the now-infamous exodus of South African talent though, Hampshire have recruited particularly well with Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw to spearhead their revival, and the heart-warming return of the supremely classy Michael Carberry from cancer, plus bowlers Reece Topley and Fidel Edwards from season-long injuries represents a significant injection of talent into the side.
Tom Alsop is a bright young talent at the top of the order, and there is evidence in a stylish 117 at the back-end of last season against Surrey that he can feature prominently. Club stalwart Sean Ervine will be as important as ever (club-high 1050 runs last year) as he enters his 13th consecutive season, and this time around the middle order should exhibit several extra strings to its bow. James Vince’s 119 vs Yorkshire in the second game last season was enough to convince the England selectors of a test place, but the early promise gave way to a stuttering season, and he will be looking for serious improvement on his 473 runs. George Bailey has joined for a second spell at the club, and will captain the side in addition to his batting duties, subject to his International commitments, and Australia’s progress in June’s Champions Trophy. Liam Dawson has developed into one of the finest all-rounders on the circuit in recent times, and his contributions will be vital, whilst erstwhile backup Lewis McManus has a difficult task to fill the Adam Wheater shaped void behind the stumps.
In the youth department, too, there is cause for optimism, and Mason Crane’s winter down under resulted in him becoming the first overseas player to play for New South Wales since Imran Khan in 1984/5. The 20-year-old leg spinner enjoyed a difficult first full season, averaging 45 with the ball, but he is a serious talent, and alongside fellow academy graduates Brad Wheal and captain of England U19s at the recent World Cup in Bangladesh, Brad Taylor, he will push for further first team honours.
OxStu Prediction: 6th, A serious face-lift after the wake-up call of last season, there is certainly cautious optimism about Hampshire’s chances this season. The squad is still thin, but if their key performers can stay fit then relegation should not come into the equation.
Lancashire: If the season had ended on the 24th May last year, Lancashire would have been crowned Champions with a mighty impressive three victories from five matches. Alas, it did not, and a dramatic winless run spanning four months instead resulted in a marked slide down the table. Come the final day of the season the County found themselves in an uncomfortable position after resounding defeat to Warwickshire, and in the end it was a reliance on results elsewhere that ensured maintenance of their top flight status.
Lancashire were dogged by bowling woes in their demise, and only Kyle Jarvis was a permanent fixture of the attack, finishing with the 7th most wickets of any bowler in the division. Jarvis bowled 545.2 overs, almost double that of any other quick (Neil Wagner, now of Essex, 286.4), and returned 51 wickets. The county moved fast to add more consistency, and the addition of Ryan McLaren as Overseas player will provide a lot of hard overs, whilst Tom Bailey, Luke Procter and Jordan Clark will need to improve in sharing the remaining load, and young Saqib Mahmood is highly promising. Leader of the pack Jimmy Anderson featured only four times in the campaign, but he was involved in two of the three occasions the side managed twenty wickets, and the lack of test cricket this summer is a huge boost for Lancashire, who may be able to call on the Burnley Express as many as eight times before July.
In the spin department there is an embarrassment of part-time riches, with Aaron Lilley, Steven Croft, and Liam Livingstone, but there will have to be front-line improvement. Last season Simon Kerrigan turned over just shy of 500 overs, but each wicket was at a cost of 38 runs, and although he did not appear in a county match last season (and has only featured in 17 in a ten-year span), erstwhile One-day specialist Stephen Parry now looks to have been entrusted with the role. The highly talented 20-year-old leg spinner Matthew Parkinson may also feature as pitches become more conducive to spin, and last season he became the first Lancashire player to take a five-for on debut for six years.
Batting-wise last season it was a changing of the guard at Old Trafford; the duo of 20-year-old Haseeb Hameed (1198 runs at 49.91) and 23-year-old Liam Livingstone (815 at 50.93) highly impressive in their first Championship seasons. So taking was Hameed that he is now firmly in England’s future test plans, but with Livingstone’s own international ambitions, and Alviro Petersen’s (1134) two-year-ban for corruption offences, there may well be a serious dearth of runs to find. 42-year-old Shivnarine Chanderpaul has been brought in to offer such, and the Kolpak market has been exploited also in the signing of Dane Vilas, who averages a shade shy of 40 in South African domestic cricket, but will require time to settle. A keeper by trade, Vilas will ensure there is no repeat of the scenario that led to Steven Croft keeping for periods last year, and the Captain’s batting may improve as he is relinquished of the responsibility. The fit-again Alex Davies will be the first-choice glovesman though, and this also promises to be the season that he is able to fulfil his immense potential with the bat. Jos Buttler’s return late in the season will add an extra dimension, and 21-year-old Rob Jones, too, should ably deputise for Hameed, with a 290 ball 106* against Middlesex last season hallmarked by stout defence.
OxStu Prediction: 5th, A season that could have a very familiar feel about it, Lancashire will have to use their large squad effectively to ensure they do not wilt in the Summer months, but there is more than enough to suggest they can challenge, too.
Middlesex: The reigning Champions – via a declaration pact with Yorkshire and a Toby Roland-Jones hat-trick to seal the deal – Middlesex remained unbeaten throughout the Championship season, their enviably talented team coming of age after four seasons of consolidation. Adam Voges and George Bailey were important contributors in their short Overseas stints, both scoring unbeaten centuries at different ends of the season in the title run, and upon his International retirement with an average second only to Sir Don Bradman, Voges will return to spearhead another strong challenge.
Opener Sam Robson started the season in sterling form, scoring 231 at Lord’s against Warwickshire, and 114* at Trent Bridge (both by early May), but both were in vein as Middlesex faltered early on, drawing each of their first six matches of the campaign. In the end six victories were enough for the title, but this season they will almost certainly need to record more (Yorkshire recorded 11 in 2015), and the form of Robson and his partner Nick Gubbins will have a big say in that. The right-hand, left-hand partnership is on paper the strongest in the division, and although Robson faded disappointingly towards the end of the season – scoring a pair in the title-decider with Yorkshire – Gubbins scored 125 & 93 in the same game en route to a mighty 1409 runs, and the duo are fancied to go well again.
Nick Compton endured a particularly difficult Summer with England that resulted in an immediate break from cricket, but he did score a typical 131 vs Durham in August, and an in-form Compton this time around would add real steel to the batting line-up. Classical in his stroke-play, Stevie Eskinazi at 4 was one of the breakthrough talents of the Summer and the 1000 run milestone will be on his agenda, whilst his antithesis, England Lions’ captain Dawid Malan continues to impress as a counterpoint, and Ryan Higgins may also be on the cusp of a well earned first class bow. James Franklin’s experience, as well as all-round game, will again be vital for the side, and wicket-keeper John Simpson has become one of the finest in the country at batting with the tail, a recent 89* to secure a 1-wicket victory over MCC furthering a CV including a match-winning 79* in the crucial 2-wicket victory over Somerset.
That tail is formed of a plethora of bowling, so much so that James Harris (leading wicket-taker with 69 in 2015) and Harry Podmore (leading average of 21.81 in 2016) have already been loaned to Division2 in a search for cricket, and both will no doubt have big parts to play later in the season. That is partly due to Steven Finn’s likely International engagements in all formats throughout the Summer, but his wicket-taking ability, when and where it appears, will be welcomed. Wisden cricketer of the year Toby Roland-Jones will continue to lead the attack probingly, supported by the duo of 90mph+ James Fuller and ever-reliable Tim Murtagh, and Ollie Rayner’s spin (51 wickets @ 23.59) will again be requisite for results as the no-toss rule continues into its second season. The pick of the bunch, however, may well be 22-year-old Tom Helm. Long heralded as a star, his last first-class appearance came in the opening fixture of the 2015 season, where he suffered a stress-fracture that has side-lined him since. He comes under the radar as a result, but his first extended spell of bowling was so impressive that he was fast-tracked into the England Lions set-up, and 5/33 extracting pace and bounce from a flat deck in Columbo was the best bowling performance on the tour.
OxStu Prediction: 1st, A top-two finish will be well within their capabilities, but hungry for further success a second title in as many years could be on the way to Lord’s.
Somerset: The Taunton-based side will have won many fans over with their underdog status in a largely unforeseen title battle last season, but that will be no remedy for the players, who having dispatched Nottinghamshire emphatically by 325 runs inside 3 days, watched on impotently as Yorkshire and Middlesex all-but removed the possibility of the draw that would have seen them crowned Champions on the final day.
Captain Chris Rogers departs after a one-year cameo that saw 1010 runs, including centuries in both innings in his final game, but he will remain at the club in the capacity of batting coach, and South African test batsman Dean Elgar’s arrival as Overseas player will go some way to offset the deficit of runs. The captaincy has rather boldly been awarded to 23-year-old Tom Abell, but that encapsulates the refreshing way the club is being run, and the exciting young talent is balanced effectively with the experience of Marcus Trescothick and James Hildreth. Trescothick will continue to open the batting in his 25th first-class season, and 1239 runs at 51.62 last year were typical of his longstanding class. Elgar will partner him, allowing Abell, who notched only 538 runs in comparison, to drop to number three in the order, where he will hopefully be better suited. Hildreth scored four centuries as he continued his trend as an ever-present in the leading run-getters, and his invincible air at Taunton will be supplemented by a raft of all-rounders, including Peter Trego, Lewis Gregory, the Overton twins, and Roelof van der Merwe, who between them contributed a further four centuries. In his first at the club, 19-year-old Ryan Davies kept for much of last season, but in what could well be signing of the Summer, Steven Davies has joined from Surrey as he looks to step up his England keeping ambitions, and his aesthetic technique will bolster the Somerset middle order significantly. Somerset have also handed 19-year-old George Bartlett his first contract at the club, and a supreme 167 in a record-breaking 321 run stand in Nagpur for the England Under-19s in the Winter earmarks him as a future star for the County.
Jack Leach was the talisman on the spinning Taunton pitch last season, but it remains to be seen how the discovery of an illegality in his bowling action at Loughborough – which cost him a place on England’s tour to India – will affect his performance. Leach underwent extensive remedial work in the UAE, however, and there have been positive signs that he will continue where he left off last season (65 wickets at 21.87). Supporting Leach will be the crafty Van der Merwe (22 wickets at 27.90), and 19-year-old Dominic Bess, a precocious off-spinner who took two five-fors in his first three innings at the back-end of last season. Craig Overton recently took a hat-trick for the MCC vs Middlesex and will be key with the new ball, alongside Lewis Gregory, who despite 146 first-class wickets is remarkably only 24, and the more senior Tim Groenewald. It is Craig’s twin-brother Jamie, though, who is the most exciting of the fast-bowling quartet, and now fully-fit he is expected to play a big role this season; possessing the ability to bowl 90mph+ and extract marked extra bounce.
OxStu Prediction: 4th, Home comforts at Taunton were the catalyst for success last time around, and whilst they will no longer be underestimated, Somerset’s carefully balanced side should again prove difficult to surmount.
Surrey: Relegated to Division 2 in 2013 in a season containing just a sole victory, Surrey jettisoned some of their more established stars in favour of a fresh youthful approach, and allied to strong Summer recruitment of similar principle from Chester-Le-Street this season, they now possess a hungry group of young and impressive cricketers that are ready to challenge for Championship honours.
Unfortunately for Durham, their financial hardship has been Surrey’s gain, and both Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick have headed south to the Oval over the winter. Borthwick scored three centuries last season, more than any Surrey player managed, and Stoneman notched two of his own; both batsmen passing 1000 runs (1060 & 1234 respectively) for the third consecutive season. The Surrey batsmen did score ten of their own hundreds over the course of the season, but remarkably they were scored by eight different batsmen (six accounting for one each), and Stoneman in particular will provide much needed stability at the top of the order alongside Rory Burns, who has remained an ever-present. Burns is perhaps the most underrated player in the entirety of the County Championship, and the if the two can form a healthy partnership then Surrey will be a strong force against the new ball. Borthwick will slot in at three, shuffling the masterful Kumar Sangakarra to 4, and Dominic Sibley will too lay claim to a middle order berth. Ever since a 242 against Yorkshire in 2013 that made him the youngest ever County Championship double centurion (18 years, 21 days), Sibley has struggled for real consistency. Playing at The Parks last week, though, he scored a second first-class hundred – ending the three days unbeaten with innings of 104* & 60* – and this season he looks very well set to fill the void that Steven Davies’ departure has left. Jason Roy will ply his trade with the Gujarat Lions in the IPL in the early season, before then heading England’s Champions Trophy assault, but his elevated strike-rate (72.96) can turn games on their head, and will be invaluable upon return, and Sam Curran’s batting, too, is of similar ilk.
The reason behind the departure of gloveman Steven Davies (and also Gary Wilson) is the 24-year-old Ben Foakes, who himself was once forced to leave Essex due to a certain James Foster. Regarded as the best English keeper behind the stumps themselves (potentially barring Ben Cox), Foakes is a natural, and his England credentials now surely rely on the development of his batting for Surrey, which last season included 3 half-centuries and an excellent 141* against Hampshire. The lower order will also include Zafar Ansari, Tom Curran, and Gareth Batty, and should Foakes be set for such accolades, Surrey also have a ready-made replacement in the talented 19-year-old Ollie Pope.
Wickets themselves were not a problem last season, but Surrey lacked a strike-bowler to lead the attack consistently, as Tom Curran had done the previous year in claiming 74 Division 2 wickets. Curran struggled in his first season at the top, with a strike rate of 81.0 (33 wickets), and whilst his immense potential will ensure he remains the go to man, a clean bill of health in pre-season gives the side a raft of other options. The rehabilitated duo of Stuart Meaker and Jade Dernbach offer unique capabilities, including top-end pace, Ravi Rampaul provides international pedigree, and having recovered from an injury breakdown in April last year, left-armer Mark Footitt will provide a genuine test for the Division’s finest batsmen. Still only 18, Sam Curran did not play between April and July last year because of exams, but he took 27 wickets at 27.85 upon his return, again impressed for the England Lions in Sri Lanka, and looks set for a starring role in his first full season. The sides attractive all-round make up is completed by Captain Gareth Batty and Zafar Ansari, who both toured India with England as spinners – playing a test each – and the left-arm Ansari in particular will need to improve upon last year if he is to usurp a more regular place in both the Surrey and England sides.
OxStu Prediction: 2nd, Last season harboured immense potential but was ultimately dogged by too many defeats. This time expect a reenergised Surrey to be right up with the pace, although going the full distance may just prove beyond them.
Warwickshire: A Royal London One Day Cup trophy towards the back-end of the season ensures last year is remembered with contentment amongst Warwickshire supporters, but in reality it is a smokescreen for what was an alarming season in the Championship; recording just a sole victory at Edgbaston – over Lancashire, on the final day of the season, to safeguard their Division 1 status. Then of Lancashire, Ashley Giles has returned home as coach in a bid to revive fortunes, but there have been no other acquisitions, and the season ahead undeniably represents his greatest challenge to date.
A big factor in Giles’ decision will surely be the presence of Ian Bell, and Warwickshire will be heavily reliant on their captain this season. Bell scored an elegant 174 against Hampshire in the opening fixture last year, but registered no further centuries, ending with a tame 678 runs. Such returns were reflected across the whole Bears’ batting line-up, where no batsman passed 1000 runs (every other County had at least 1 batsman achieve the feat), and Bell will need to lead by example to avoid what would be a damning repeat. Johnathan Trott adds extra class as well as resilience, and Tim Ambrose, Ricki Clarke and Keith Barker will also need to provide hard runs. Varun Chopra has not been replaced after his exit to Essex, and so the unexposed 25-year-old Alex Mellor will open the batting with William Porterfield, where the two will need to establish a sustainable partnership quickly. The key to solving the erstwhile batting woes, however, may well be Sam Hain. In 2014, at the age of 18, Hain broke Ian Bell’s record as the youngest County Championship centurion for the county on his way to 4 for the season (and a 2nd placed finish), but continually touted as the rising star in the Birmingham ranks, he is yet to shed the tag; returning just 455 runs last campaign. He did, however, majorly impress in the shorter formats at the top of the order with his more classical accumulation, and he remains the archetypal four-day batsman that the County are so desperate for.
The core of Warwickshire’s bowling has remained unchanged for several seasons now – and for good reason – but Ricki Clarke, Chris Wright, Keith Barker and Jeetan Patel (as well as Bell, Trott, Ambrose and Porterfield) are all now the wrong side of 30. When fully firing, the bowling attack is lethal, as the quartet’s 200 wickets at a staggering 24.89 last season shows – but there is a developing concern about the paucity of genuine pace, exacerbated by Chris Woakes’ long-term absence to an increasing multitude of commitments, including now the IPL. Jeetan Patel bowled more overs (616.4), and took more wickets (69), than anyone else in the division last season, and there will be an increased onus again on him this year to act as the counterpoint of the side. Ian Bell will need to continue to rotate his attack in admirable fashion in order to carve out results, and with Ollie Hannon-Dalby, Boyd Rankin and developing leg-spinner Josh Poysden also in hand, the whole squad will need to carry their weight.
OxStu Prediction: 7th, Warwickshire will need to sort out both their batting, and home form at Edgbaston imminently, and the worry is that if they do not then relegation will likely loom for the ageing core.
Yorkshire: Two years of dominance in the Championship came to an end last season as the side fell short on the final day; the disappointment compounded by the departure of the mastermind of their success, Jason Gillespie. Only 32, Andrew Gale has called time on his playing career to take on the role of head coach, and returning from England duty indefinitely Gary Ballance has been confidently entrusted with leading the side – two bold appointments that make the county an interesting proposition in their bid to regain the title.
OxStu Prediction: 3rd, Not as good as they once were, Yorkshire retain the knowledge of how to win matches, have fresh impetus under Gary Balance, and should be there or thereabouts come the end of the season.