By Mark Kidger (@MarkFromMadrid) & David Bowden (@BowdenwhU)
Last Season: 2nd (promotion) Division Two: 10W, 3L, 1D
Last Five Results: Lost vs Warwickshire (A), Win vs Glamorgan (H), Win vs Middlesex (A), Win vs Northamptonshire (H), and Win vs Derbyshire (A)
2018 Leading Run Scorer: Joe Denly - 941 Runs @ 34.50 (3x100, 3x50, HS: 119)
2018 Top of the Batting Averages: Joe Denly 941 runs at 34.50
2018 Leading Wicket Taker: Matt Henry – 75 @ 15.48 (BBI: 7-42, BBM 12-73)
2018 Top of the Bowling Averages: (Minimum of 10 wickets): Matt Henry 75 wickets at 15.48.
The bookies’ favourite to be relegated are Kent who are making their first return to the top flight of First-Class cricket since 2010. Much of last seasons’ success is owed to Joe Denly and Matt Henry who both starred to help the Spitfires’ to a second-placed finish in Division Two and with-it promotion to Division One.
However, worryingly for the Matt Walker’s men, you would think that Denly, the leading run-getter for the club will be missing for large chunks of the season with England duty and other T20 franchise cricket commitments. That will leave a lot of pressure on stand-in skipper Heino Kuhn, Daniel Bell-Drummond and overseas’ signing Matthew Renshaw to bring the bulk of the runs. The aforementioned three will need to have big seasons for the Canterbury-based club if they are to have any chance of survival. Kuhn is class, and I have no doubt that the South African will be able to handle the step up, the worry for Kent is that should Renshaw enjoy a fruitful early season spell he may well earn an Ashes call-up after becoming accustomed to conditions in England following a couple of stints of County action.
It is, of course, a big season for Bell-Drummond too, the opener has toured with the Lions and is undoubtedly being looked at as a potential opener for England in the future, he will need prove that he can handle the step up in quality in Division One to the England selectors.
On the bowling front, the loss of Matt Henry will hit them hard; the Kiwi did the bulk of the work for Joe Denly last season collecting a magnificent 75-Division Two scalps last summer. A lot will rest of the ageing shoulders of Darren Stevens – whose guile and experience could prove vital this summer, though you feel his dibbly-dobblers will be easy pickings for some of the batsmen in Division One. Matt Milnes and Mitch Claydon represent the other seam bowling options.
It was a fantastic feat from Matt Walker to even get Kent back up to Division One, and for his sake, I hope they perform miracles, but you fear their batting may leave them light and loss of Matt Henry will hit them hard.
Last Season: 7th Division 1. W3 L7 D3 (1 Tie).
Last Five results: Lost v Surrey (A), Won v Worcestershire (H), Tied v Somerset (A), Lost v Yorkshire (A), Won v Hampshire (A).
2018 leading run scorer: Dane Vilas, 792 @ 37.7 (3x100, 1x50, HS 235*).
2018 top of batting averages: Keaton Jennings, 709 @ 47.3 (3x100, 1x50, HS 177).
2018 leading wicket-taker: Tom Bailey, 64 @ 19.7 (BBI 5-53, BBM 8-67)
2018 top of bowling averages: Keshav Maharaj, 17 @ 16.6 (BBI 7-37, BBM 11-102)
Twenty-seven first innings runs against Hampshire in their last game – the difference between two and three batting points – proved to be the difference between Division One and Division Two cricket at Old Trafford in 2019. However, it could easily have been settled before then. An epic fight-back against Surrey on August 22nd left them just seven runs short of victory and, at Taunton, on September 5th, Lancashire recovered from being dismissed for 99 in the first innings to set Somerset 78 to win and took the last two wickets with the scores level, to produce a rare tie. A win in either game would have secured safety. However, until that late-season revival, it is fair to say that their season was pretty dire. Poor starts were ensured as Haseeb Hameed continued his lonely vigil in the wilderness: an average under ten and a top score of just 31 saw him twice relegated to the 2nd XI, yet he ended up playing ten Championship games. With veteran Shivnarine Chanderpaul also having a disappointing campaign, far too much rested on Keaton Jennings and Dane Vilas: between them, they scored all but one of the Lancashire centuries in the season. How much more patience Lancashire will show with Haseeb Hameed remains to be seen: he has taken a full part in Lancashire’s pre-season tour, showing that he is still central to their plans and ended 2018 just missing an unbeaten double century for the 2nd XI, but another mediocre season may be a prelude to a change of county. Similarly, Shivnarine Chanderpaul will surely retire this season. Keaton Jennings does not figure in England’s World Cup plans but, early season runs may yet save his place in the Test side.
Lancashire have had something of a clear-out. Australian batsman, Joe Burns, will be available for ten games and Glenn Maxwell for the full season. Between them, they replace Joe Mennie and Keshav Maharaj for the Championship and should ensure that the overseas position is thoroughly covered. Jordan Clark goes to Surrey, Aaron Lilley to Leicestershire and Mark Watt to Derbyshire. Karl Brown, who has had few opportunities, has been released and also, sadly, Simon Kerrigan, who has put his playing career on hold to move into coaching. Kerrigan who, at one stage, seemed to be the natural successor for Monty Panesar in the England side, never recovered from his rough handling on his England debut. Richard Gleeson, who made a significant impact in the last two games of the season on loan from Northants, joins the Lancashire attack, full time. Lancashire have also given contracts to four players from the youth programme: George Lavell, George Balderson, Tom Hartley and Jack Morley. Dane Vilas takes over as captain from Liam Livingstone, who had a torrid season, failing to reach fifty and having few opportunities with the ball. Karl Krikken becomes Performance Manager, and Mark Chilton adds the post of Performance Director to Assistant Coach.
Prediction: What are a historic club like Lancashire doing in Division 2 for the second time this decade? The last time that they found themselves in this predicament they made sure that their return was the fastest possible. It will be a major shock if they do not take one of the three promotion places on offer.
Last Season: 6th Division 2. W5 L7 D2.
Last five results: Lost v Gloucestershire (A), Lost v Sussex (A), Lost v Warwickshire (H), Won v Durham (H), Lost v Glamorgan (A).
2018 leading run scorer: Colin Ackermann, 876 @ 39.8 (2x100, 3x50, HS 196*).
2018 top of batting averages: Zak Chappell, 145 @ 48.3 (0x100, 0x50, HS 40).
2018 leading wicket-taker: Ben Raine, 51 @ 22.5 (BBI 4-44, BBM 7-89)
2018 top of bowling averages: Colin Ackermann, 9 @ 15.2 (BBI 2-26, BBM 3-29)
For a few wonderful weeks in mid-season, Leicestershire had a run of form that had their fans dreaming of playing in Division 1. After starting with two draws and a defeat, leaving the suffering fans thinking that another wooden spoon battle was on the way, four of the next five matches were won. It was a vindication for the pundits who looked at the signings made for the season and felt that Leicestershire had reinforced wisely and effectively. An extraordinary win against Glamorgan by three runs, just when the Glamorgan last wicket pair seemed about to snatch an incredible victory, was followed by a calm chase in a low-scoring match against Northants. A heart-stopping defeat against Middlesex, interrupted the sequence, as the last pair of James Harris and Tim Murtagh got their side over the line in a big chase. Two more comfortable wins then moved the Foxes up to a totally unexpected third place and left them pressurising the top two. Sadly, it was not to be, because five of the last six games were lost. Sixth place was probably better than most fans expected before the season started, but was ultimately bitterly disappointing.
The reasons for the difficulties are not hard to see. While Mohammad Abbas and Ben Raine sent down 740 overs and took a heroic 101 wickets between them, at a combined average of 20.1, only Colin Ackermann scored a century, and only one other batsman reached 90. Abbas and Raine carried the side, aided and abetted by Ackermann’s bat, with only bit-parts from other members of the squad. Without Raine in 2019, Leicestershire will need Gavin Griffiths to step up after a decent 2018 with the ball and will need more from Fireball Dexter who, although third in the batting averages, managed just 3x50 and averaged a modest 34.4, although his bowling continued to produce valuable wickets, often when most needed. Paul Horton and Harry Dearden averaged 28.3 and 22.3 respectively and will both need to step up their game if Leicestershire are to set totals that their bowling attack can defend.
Leicestershire have had an enormous clear-out of the playing staff. No fewer than ten players have left, four to other counties and six released. The loss of Ben Raine and Zak Chappell will surely be felt, as will the experience of Mark Pettini, Ned Eckersley and Michael Carberry. Mohammed Nabi did not feature in the Championship, but he too departs, leaving the county searching for a T20 specialist. Mohammad Abbas will return to lead the attack and will be expected to bowl a lot of overs in the absence of Ben Raine. Entering are Chris Wright, from Warwickshire, Will Davis from Derbyshire and Aaron Lilley from Lancashire. Overall though, the squad looks significantly weaker than it was in 2018.
Prediction: The end of season implosion and loss of key members of the team suggests that 2019 will be a season of struggle. Anything better than bottom three will be a pleasant surprise.
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