County Championship Preview 2019 - Division 1
County Championship Preview 2019 - Division 1
We are almost there, it's almost the most wonderful day in the year for any cricket loving Englishman - the start of the county cricket season! Even if you aren't a fan of cricket, the first games of the county championship should give you hope that the long dark winter is behind us and the pleasant English summer is set to begin. Of course, you can't trust the English weather though and with many places forecast snow flurries across Thursday it will be touch and go to see if the games will all start come Friday morning.
It is a massive year for English cricket as we head into a World Cup that we are amongst the favourites to win and a home Ashes series during which we will hope to extend our unbeaten run in England against Australia to beyond 15 years. As such, it is also a very big year for some of the players who will be seeking to grab a spot in the national team - here is how their respective counties line-up and how I see their seasons progressing.
3rd last year and champions in 2017, Essex will hope to once again be challenging near the top of the table. Probably their biggest recruit of the summer, if you can call him that, is that of former England Test captain and all-time leading run scorer Alastair Cook who has signed a 2-year deal to continue playing for the county that he first turned out for as a teenager while still studying at Durham University. Essex will be keen that he continues the form that he has shown in pre-season with a century in one of the warm-up matches just last week and his weight of runs could be a real bonus for the side. Ravi Bopara and Captain Ryan ten Doeschate were the most consistent batsmen last year with Tom Westley hitting a couple of bigs scores but not doing enough to force his way back into contention with England.
In bowling terms, Essex still look very strong with Jamie Porter having been included in several England squads last year but still yet to make his Test debut. Peter Siddle is back for another year at the club and he will undoubtedly be looking to use the county championship as a chance to stake his claim for a spot in the Aussie's Ashes squad. Spin duties will once again be taken on by Kolpak player Simon Harmer who has already had 2 hugely successful seasons at the club.
Dan Lawrence is a player that will hope to rediscover his touch in 2019 after he averaged just 23 with the bat last season. Being the 3rd youngest player to score a championship century when he burst onto the scene 5 years ago has perhaps set the bar quite high in terms of expectations but at 21 and with over 50 games under his belt, Essex and England will be looking for him to return to the kind of consistency that was a big factor in the county's 2017 success.
Having just done enough to survive in what was a very tight battle for relegation last year, Hampshire will hope that they can give themselves and their fans a little more breathing room this time around.
It's been a year of rebuilding for the club following the retirement of county stalwarts Jimmy Adams and Sean Ervine. Into the side have come Aneurin Donald the young top order batsman from Glamorgan and Keith Barker, the left-arm bowling all-rounder from Warwickshire. Hampshire have also recruited South African opening batsman Aiden Markram albeit that he will only be available for the first 2 Championship games.
Several of Hampshire's key players will once again be made up of Kolpak signings with Rilee Roussow an important part of the middle order and Fidel Edwards and Kyle Abbott both taking over 50 wickets last year. They will also be hoping for more from Sam Northeast after the Kent captain jumped ship to join Hampshire last year but could only return 451 runs at an average of 25
Hampshire captain James Vince still has ambitions of an England recall in time for the Ashes and has stated that he will open the batting for his county this summer in a bid to target one of the more open spots within the Test team. He has all the ability in the world if he can only learn to value his wicket a little more dearly and show more hunger for the really big scores then it's not out the question that we may see him wearing the 3 lions at some point.
Promoted last year it looks likely that Kent will have a tough time of it in the top flight. 2 of their stars in Joe Denly and Sam Billings will not be available for the early rounds of the CC as they pursue big money contracts of the IPL. In Billings' absence, Heino Kuhn will captain the side while Aussie international Matt Renshaw will add some depth and experience to the batting options at their disposal for the first 2 matches.
New Zealander Matt Henry was a revelation for them last year snaring 75 wickets at an average of 15 but he will not be re-joining the club and with him missing Kent may find it difficult to take 20 wickets on a regular basis. Old warhorse Darren Stevens continues with his accurate and tricky medium pace and while he might be a handful in the right conditions it's difficult to see how Kent can keep the pressure on Division 1 batsmen when pitches flatten out. Matt Milnes has been recruited from Notts and he will need to step-up to playing regular first-team cricket quite quickly if Kent are to avoid an immediate drop back down to division 2.
Harry Podmore has had to journey around a fair bit in order to find regular red ball cricket but he is likely to be a key figure in Kent's season. At 6ft 3', Podmore has the ability to hit a good length and find bounce but also enough movement through the air to unsettle batsman. He took 43 wickets in what was comfortably his most prolific season to date and will hope to return similar success in 2019.
Notts have been busy in the summer hoovering up talented young batsmen who have somewhat lost their way of late. Chief amongst them are Ben Duckett and Joe Clarke, both been tipped for higher honours (Duckett has already represented his country) but both have had disciplinary issues in recent years as well. With top order spots very much up for grabs in the Test team the move for both these guys to an established Division 1 side represents a great platform from which to demonstrate their skills. Furthermore, Notts dearly need them to score big and consistent runs with too many of their players last year having very average years, leaving the county just above the relegation zone when the final ball had been bowled.
Bowling wise Notts have not been helped by the decision of last year's leading wicket-taker Harry Gurney to not play 4-day cricket this year. They will be sincerely hoping that Jake Ball can return to fitness in order to lead the attack in Gurney's absence and with Stuart Broad unlikely to be involved in the World Cup squad they should also be able to rely on his skill and experience for at least the first half of the season.
Young all-rounder Zak Chappel could well be one to watch this season. He managed just 4 championship games for a poor Leicestershire side last year but still demonstrated his potential by averaging 48 with the bat and 15 with the ball. Division 1 will be a big step up for the youngster but time is on his side.
The runners-up in last year's competition will hope to go 1 better this time around. Experienced county seamer Jack Brooks has swapped Leeds for Taunton and joins a solid looking bowling attack that includes the Overton brothers, Lewis Gregory and England's spin twins Jack Leach and Dom Bess. With good strength and depth in the bowling department, it's difficult to imagine that Somerset won't be up there challenging for the title once again.
Batting wise Somerset will once again look to their county stalwart James Hildreth, the man with the unfortunate tag of being the best current player never to have played for England, to get them the bulk of their runs again this season - he scored over a 1000 last year! Pakistan's Azhar Ali will also be available for the entire season having played 7 matches for the county last year.
Tom Abell became one of the youngest captains in county history in 2017. Having managed to steer his side clear of relegation, he then took them to 2nd place and his form in 2018, as well as his leadership, played a massive part in the county's success. He averaged 40 with the bat, compiling 883 runs at the top of the order and showed signs of all-rounder potential too with 16 very useful wickets.
It was a great year for my home county Surrey who returned to winning ways for the first time since 2002. Into the mix for this season have come 2 bowling all-rounders in the form of Liam Plunkett and Jordan Clarke. While both players are likely to see game time in the county championship their signings also suggest that Surrey have genuine ambitions (and the resources) to look to challenge on all fronts this year.
Dean Elgar will return as the side's oversea's player albeit that he will not be available until after Easter. Joining him will be fellow South African and now Kolpak player Morne Morkel who proved that he is still at the peak of his powers with 59 wickets at an average of 14 during the 2018 campaign.
However, it is the abundance of young English talent that has also caught the eye with the likes of Ollie Pope, Sam Curran, Tom Curran and Ben Foakes all having stellar seasons and all being involved with the England squad at various times of the year. Captain Rory Burns was finally rewarded for his consistency in a Surrey shirt with his first Test cap this winter and it looks likely that he will open the batting with Jason Roy who himself is being talked up for a place at the top of England's order for the Ashes this summer.
Will Jack's is certainly a player that many people will be looking forward to seeing more of this year. He made his breakthrough into the side in all 3 formats last year and had some success but it is the 25 ball hundred that he belted on Surrey's pre-season tour of Dubai that has got people really talking. I've written a fair bit about him in the past, most notably his everipedia profile at a time when he didn't even have a wikipedia page. If he keeps smashing big centuries like that then he's going to create a lot of hype!
Promoted largely off the back of the runs scored by England old boys Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott, Warwickshire will have to do without the latter's run-scoring this year after Trott announced his retirement. Will Rhodes had a solid season at the top of the order and former Surrey man Dom Sibley will also be keen to demonstrate that he is capable of scoring big runs at the highest level.
Bowling wise Hampshire have lost Keith Barker to rivals Hampshire and the strength and depth of their resources may well be determined by how much cricket Ollie Stone and Chris Woakes are able to play for them this season with injury and international call-ups limiting their involvement last time around.
With Grant Elliot also having retired, long-serving overseas pro, Jeethan Patel will take on the captaincy of the group in all 3 formats as well, of course, as being a more than credible bowling option in his own right. One additional player that Patel will have at his disposal is seamer Craig Miles who has made the move from the West Country where he was Gloucestershire's leading wicket-taker in 2018 to the Midlands in order to pursue higher honours.
With Keith Barker departing and Stone and Woakes needing to have their workloads carefully managed, it suggests that young fast bowler Henry Brookes will once again get a chance to impress for Warkwickshire. Through his success with the U-19 squad to a very promising debut season, there are many within the county game who have high hopes that Brookes could one day fill the shoes of one half of the ageing Broad and Anderson combo.
It was a decidedly average season for Yorkshire last year that was not made any easier by several of their star players deciding not to play red-ball cricket while a couple of others continue to form part of England's core in all 3 formats of the game.
Gary Ballance was by far the county's most consistent batsman while Tom Kohler-Cadmore showed in the limited opportunities that he had that he could be considered more than just a one day specialist. Alex Lees has now left for Durham and Adam Lyth had a disappointing 4 day season - at one point it was felt that those 2 may open for England together! Young Harry Brook showed glimpses of promise throughout the season but in general, Yorkshire will hope that he and all their batsmen can put bigger numbers on the board this time around.
The major concern for Yorkshire will be in their fast bowling. Jack Brooks has left for Somerset and Liam Plunkett has joined Surrey. Captain Stephen Patterson spent a large portion of last season injured and as such it was essential that Yorkshire brought in reinforcement. They have done that primarily with the signing of South African Duanne Olivier who comes in on a Kolpak deal while also recruiting Matt Phillans from Surrey. Phillians has genuine pace to burn but has generally been limited to bowling in white ball cricket only over the last couple of years.
Another bowler whose season was limited by injury last year was the impressive Ben Coad. In just a couple of years, he has taken over 100 wickets at an average below 20 and you would imagine that if the 25-year-old can stay fit that England recognition may not be too far away. A once powerful seam bowling unit looks a little thin on the ground and they need Coad to step-up to lead them in 2019.