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.
By Mark Kidger (@MarkFromMadrid) & David Bowden (@Bowdenwhu)
Last Season: 10th Division 2. W2 L10 D2.
Last five results: Lost v Warwickshire (H), Lost v Derbyshire (A), Lost v Gloucestershire (H), Lost v Kent (A), Won v Leicestershire (H).
2018 leading run scorer: Chris Cooke, 606 @ 24.2 (0x100, 4x50, HS 69).
2018 top of batting averages: Usman Khawaja, 420 @ 52.2 (3x100, 0x50, HS 126).
2018 leading wicket-taker: Mike Hogan, 45 @ 22.5 (BBI 5-49, BBM 8-102)
2018 top of bowling averages: Tim van ter Gugten, 43 @ 21.8 (BBI 7-42, BBM 8-71)
Glamorgan had big wins in their first and last game of the season. In between, they lost ten of the remaining twelve matches and finished bottom by a distance. While there are some big changes in the backroom staff, the playing staff are largely the same as in 2018, which makes one fear for their chances in 2019. The form of the new Captain, Chris Cooke was one of the biggest worries. When your top run-scorer averages under 25, you know that the team has big issues. In the opening game, against Gloucestershire, centuries for Marsh and Lloyd set up a total of 526-9d and a big win but, even then, a collapse from 51-0 to 67-4, chasing 83, produced more than a few nerves in the closing stages. Lloyd and Marsh managed just two more fifties between them in the rest of the season and just twice more did Glamorgan pass 300.
Glamorgan will be waiting on Shaun Marsh’s fortunes. He is expected to be in the Australian World Cup squad, thus making him unavailable for the first half of the season. Whether or not he is selected in the Ashes squad is less certain. Marsh has dropped out of Test XI but, as a batsman with experience of English conditions, he will be hoping to have one of the batting reserve slots. If Marsh is again unavailable for much of the season, Glamorgan will be scrambling for a replacement who can hold together a flaky batting line-up. Aneurin Donald has rejected a new contract and left for Hampshire, for whom he played on loan after saying that he wanted to leave Cardiff, while Joe Burns, who has only played T20 for Glamorgan, has gone to Lancashire. They are replaced by Billy Root, signed from Nottinghamshire and Queensland batsman, Charlie Hemphrey. While neither is a big-name signing with stellar statistics to back him, both are solid players who management hope will solidify the batting. Two Youth signings join them – Callum Taylor and the delightfully named, Devon-born, Kazi Szymanski – and by MCC Young cricketer, Jamie McIlroy. Szymanski had some impressive 2nd XI performances, while Taylor has come through club cricket and is reckoned to be probably the best player in the South Wales Premier League, although all are on a Development contract and none of the three is expected to be a 1st XI regular this season.
Chris Cooke will have the massive job of being Captain, wicket-keeper, dominant batsman and One Day captain. No new Head Coach has been named since Robert Croft left in mid-October, with Matthew Maynard doing the job on an interim basis and Mark Wallace as Director of Cricket and Hugh Morris dedicating himself exclusively to the position of Chief Executive. It is hard to avoid the sensation that there is some turmoil at Sophia Gardens.
Prediction: Glamorgan are likely to struggle again. Their chances of success may rest on the availability of Shaun Marsh, but anything better than bottom three will require a significant turnaround in fortunes.
Last Season: 5th Division 2. W5 L4 D5.
Last five results: Won v Leicestershire (H), Drew v Middlesex (H), Won v Glamorgan (A), Drew v Northants (H), Won v Derbyshire (A).
2018 leading run scorer: Chris Dent, 851 @ 34.0 (1x100, 4x50, HS 214*).
2018 top of batting averages: Kieran Noema-Barnett, 323 @ 35.9 (0x100, 2x50, HS 73*).
2018 leading wicket-taker: Craig Miles, 56 @ 21.1 (BBI 5-50, BBM 8-90)
2018 top of bowling averages: Ryan Higgins, 48 @ 18.4 (BBI 5-21, BBM 8-54)
There was a moment before rain intervened at Hove on April 29th when Gloucestershire fans could contemplate possibly going top of Division 2, with two wins from three. The season went downhill rapidly from there as a succession of poor first innings performances left the side chasing the game, time and again. Things at Bristol then went from bad to worse as, first, overseas signing Dan Worrall went home injured after just four games, then stalwarts Craig Miles and Liam Norwell announced that they would leave Bristol and head to Birmingham, leading to unhappy fans to dubbing their side “Warwickshire 2nd XI”. Although the signing of Dan Worrall had been preceded by the same scepticism that had met the signing of Michael Klinger initially some years before, he rapidly showed himself to be a fine bowler and a shrewd pick, although all-too-briefly available. With Worrall gone, Liam Norwell injured for all but one game and David Payne and Kieran Noema-Barnett all missing a lot of games through injury, the batting misfiring badly and Captain, Chris Dent, looking as if he were batting with a stick of rhubarb, the season could have disintegrated totally.
However, wins in four of the last seven matches led Gloucestershire to pass from being wooden spoon contenders to their best finish for several seasons and boast more wins than defeats. The reasons for the resurgence were not hard to find: Ryan Higgins and Craig Miles showed some excellent form; Chris Dent produced, at last, huge, match-winning innings and several of the young players such as Ben Charlesworth and Bobby Bracey had their moments. Higgins, a fringe player at Lord’s, had a wonderful season, showing himself to be a destructive bowler and scoring a century – Middlesex fans wondered why they had let him go. And Craig Miles, who has struggled since touring with the England performance squad, signed-off at Bristol with some huge performances. One cannot not mention Kieran Noema-Barnett, who has attained legendary status at Bristol: his roly-poly appearance and an attitude described as “if it were any more laid-back, he’d be asleep”, has endeared him to the fans and, before his crippling injury, he was showing some fine form in organising low-order resistance.
The end of the 2018 season at Bristol has resembled the end of 2011, then, almost all of the first-string attack left. At the end of 2018, Craig Miles and Liam Norwell went to Warwickshire. Kieran Noemi-Barnett returned to New Zealand, accepting a major job offer at home, and although he remains the nominal overseas signing for 2019, Dan Worrall has had such an injury-plagued winter that his chances of a return must be deemed slim and, if fit, may be in the Ashes squad anyway. Gloucestershire’s only signing to replace the losses has been Stuart Whittingham, brought up from Sussex, where he got few chances to bowl much. The fans are hoping that someone will be signed as cover for Worrall but, as yet, there is no news of a replacement.
Prediction: The loss of the majority of the bowling attack from 2018 could be a crippling blow, but there is some optimism around Neville Road given that a group of good, young players are showing their ability. Realistically, repeating the fifth place of 2018 would be a fine result and mid-table would be no disgrace.
Last Season: 5th – Division One: 4W, 5D, 5L
Last Five results: Lost v Lancashire (H), Draw v Yorkshire (A), Win v Somerset (H), Win v Worcestershire (A), Lost v Essex (A)
2018 Leading run scorer: James Vince 1,101 @ 44.04 – (3x100, 2x50, HS: 201*)
2018 Top of the Batting Averages: Hashim Amla 492 runs @ 54.66 ( 2x100, 3x50, HS: 112)
2018 Leading Wicket Taker: Fidel Edwards – 54 wickets @ 26.72 (BBI: 6/50, BBM: 7/112)
2018 Top of the Bowling Averages (min of 10 wickets): Dale Steyn: 30 wickets @ 19.10 (BBI: 5/66, BBM: 7/71)
Hampshire will hope a change at the top will bring much-needed success after a couple of years of disappointment. Indeed, if the Hawks had a walkout tune to the middle, it would ‘The Great Escape’ admittedly last season wasn’t as hairy as 2017 but will still be deemed a failure in the eyes of the Ageas Bowl faithful.
For a team stacked full of international experience, particularly with the ball, it is somewhat baffling that they so severely underachieved in recent years. Fidel Edwards and Kyle Abbott alone have a shed load of test wickets between, while the tweaks provided by Mason Crane (who is looking for a big year in 2019 with an outside chance of an Ashes Call-Up) and Liam Dawson should be enough to take 20-wickets regularly. So often is the case though that they fall short and that is the first issue on the whiteboard of fixes for new coach Adrian Birrell.
Second on that list in big, bold capital letters will be runs on the board, only James Vince came out of last year with any real credit hitting an impressive 1,101 runs as he continues to carry the load for his side. The arrival of Aiden Markram (a late replacement for Sri Lankan Dimuth Karunaratne) should help add some stability, but the likes of Sam Northeast and Rilee Rossouw need to improve on last year’s outlay of 451 and 489 runs respectively. A concern for Birrell’s men is the potential loss of James Vince to Ashes action; the Hampshire Skipper harbours hopes of opening for England in the Ashes and a long spell without the talismanic leader could prove problematic for the Hawks.
Should their bowlers fire though they could yet enjoy a solid season, and a new coach with fresh ideas could turn their fortunes but, I do not expect to see them challenging at the top, expect them to survive (again) but be in for another season of mid-season mediocracy at best.
By Mark Kidger (@MarkFromMadrid) & David Bowden (@Bowdenwhu)
Last Season: 7th Division 2. W4 L7 D3.
Last five results: Lost v Kent (A), Won v Glamorgan (H), Won v Northants (A),
Lost v Middlesex (A), Lost v Gloucestershire (H).
2018 leading run scorer: Wayne Madsen, 1016 @ 37.6 (2x100, 7x50, HS 144).
2018 top of batting averages: Ben Slater, 676 @ 42.3 (0x100, 6x50, HS 99).
2018 leading wicket-taker: Tony Palladino, 51 @ 19.7 (BBI 6-29, BBM 10-81)
2018 top of bowling averages: Luis Reece, 11 @ 17.9 (BBI 7-20, BBM 7-38)
Derbyshire's problems could be encapsulated in the struggles of Captain Billy Godleman. The first eight games of the season brought him just a solitary fifty. Although he ended strongly, with 2x100 and 2x50 in the last six games, an average of 26.3 is not what you hope for from a batsman who had appeared re-born at Derby. An attack of Ravi Rampaul, Mark Footitt, Duane Olivier and Tony Palladino looked sturdy enough to give any batting line-up a hard time, but Footitt managed just a single game, and his England ambitions now seem to be over, and Ravi Rampaul’s 13 wickets came at more than 50 apiece. Rampaul’s season ended prematurely at Hove on August 19th when he left the field with breathing difficulties and spent several nights in the hospital bed.
Derbyshire have seen important changes both on and off-field over the winter. They have signed New Zealand all-rounder Logan van Beek as their overseas player for the entire 2019 season for all formats. A medium-fast bowler and middle-order batsman, Derbyshire hope that he will strengthen their attack. An international with The Netherlands, he has been out of their side for more than three years now but, instead, has played for New Zealand A and is close to a cap for them. Batsman, Tom Lace has been signed on loan from Middlesex but, as part of the agreement, will not be available for games against Middlesex. And Scotland spinner, Mark Watt, has crossed the Pennines from Lancashire, hoping for the opportunity of regular cricket. On the negative side, Ben Slater has left for Nottinghamshire, Duanne Olivier has taken a Kolpak deal at Yorkshire and stalwarts Gary Wilson (T20 captain), and Hardus Viljoen have both been released, alongside Will David and Callum Brodrick. While the playing staff seem thinner in 2019, the backroom staff is now full of experience. David Houghton comes back to his post as Head of Cricket. Steve Kirby is bowling coach, and Dominic Cork is Head Coach for T20, while John Wright will work as an advisor on recruitment and strategy.
Although 2018 was ultimately disappointing, it was, at least, despite all the injury problems, a small advance on the three wins and eighth place of 2017. However, one feels that 2019 is going to be a challenging year because recruitment has not matched the talent that has left the club. Derbyshire will need Billy Godleman to continue his late-season form from 2018 and for van Beek to get both runs and wickets. More than anything though, they will need Rampaul and Footitt to stay fit and have one, last hurrah if they are to bowl sides out regularly.
Prediction: Derbyshire will struggle to avoid a bottom three finish.
After several seasons of losing their best players, the county seems to be returning to stability. For 2019, Durham must do without Paul Collingwood, who has retired finally. Collingwood had a season to forget, without a single fifty and averaging under 15, but Durham will miss his calm and his authority. In his place they have made the brave, one might almost say, courageous signing of Cameron Bancroft. There is no question that Bancroft has talent, although his common sense and sartorial judgement might be questioned. It will be interesting to see what he makes of the spicy pitches of the Riverside, as an extended run for Gloucestershire in 2016 and 2017 brought minimal success: almost a quarter of his runs over sixteen matches came in a single inning. Bancroft will undoubtedly receive some “chat” from opposition players and fans alike and how he handles it may define Durham’s season. Elsewhere, the squad seems reinforced, with two shrewd signings in Leicestershire’s Ben Raine, a useful all-rounder, who enjoyed a wonderful 2018 season, and Yorkshire’s Alex Lees, exiting the club are Barry McCarthy as he is now, with Ireland’s promotion, an overseas player. Ryan Davis, a fringe player in the Championship, has also left for personal reasons. The county is unlikely to see much of Stokes and Wood – if he stays fit, Wood is likely to be playing for England – so a lot of weight will fall, again, on the shoulders of Chris Rushworth to hold together the attack. More critical still is for the batsmen to make top-order runs after a horrific collective 2018: if Durham is to challenge, they will need at least two batsmen to top 800 runs for the season and several more to go past 600. James Franklin is expected to join the coaching staff, bringing with him a wealth of experience.
Prediction: Durham needs to show that an up and down 2018, including some remarkable wins from unpromising positions, was the first sign that they are turning the corner. More consistency in 2019 and they could be dark horses to go up.
Cook’s return will be most welcomed perhaps by Tom Westley and Nick Browne who will be looking to have big seasons after disappointing large parts in 2018. The pair both tend to improve when batting with Cook with both men benefiting from the former England captain’s guidance and coolness in the middle. Whilst, unlikely a strong start to the season for either Westley or Browne could see an unlikely call-up for the Ashes, and learning from Cook can only set them in good stead.
In terms of winter arrivals the Eagles have secured Peter Siddle for a further two season after the Australian Paceman impressed last season, but there are fears that the club lose the opening bowling to international duty with the Aussies coming to town for the Ashes this Summer, and good start to his county campaign could see him receive another Ashes call-up. Siddle proved to be a popular character around the Cloud FM County Ground with the 34-year-old often seen helping the Essex bowling youngsters develop their game, and his experience will prove key for Jamie Porter, Sam Cook and Aaron Beard’s development long term, of course Porter will be hoping to line-up against Siddle in the Ashes come June.
Andre Nel, former Essex and South African strike bowler has linked up with the Eagles once again to become assistant and bowling coach replacing the departed Dimitri Mascarenhas, who struggled to make an impact at Essex in his year with the club. Nel’s international experience could prove important for the club’s young prospects with Jack Plom in particularly highly thought of within the club.
Prediction: Another season of challenging at the top awaits for the Eagles, they shouldn’t lose too many key men for the Ashes, and with the returning Alastair Cook they should be able to get the runs to set up their talented bowling attack.
By David Bowden (@Bowdenwhu) & Mark Kidger (@MarkFromMadrid)
The powers at be inside ECB Headquarters cannot go a year without changing the layout of the First-Class game, and yet again the tinker men at the top have decided to change the configuration of the leagues for the 2020 season – with ten teams set to compete in Division One and just eight in Division Two.
With only one dreaded relegation spot available it could well leave a side languishing at the bookend of the table and lots of drab cricket come the end of the summer as team battle it out for the minimal ‘prize’ money available for teams in mid-table mediocrity.
Make no mistake though, after a rather sombre opening gambit, it could well turn into an exciting fight for the top prize – with Surrey, Essex, Warwickshire (a potential surprise package), and Somerset all surely in the mix.
How did Division One finish in 2018?
A very strong Surrey side romped away with the title narrowly missing out on an unbeaten season after Essex edged home by one-wicket during an intense finale at the Oval. In a summer where everything seemed to click for the ‘Rey, runs were plentiful and an attack led by the Curran brothers, Rikki Clarke and the quite brilliant Morne Morkel often proving too hot to handle.
Somerset suffered a familiar feeling of Deja-vu after another stellar season, they will be hoping to be the bride rather than the bridesmaid in 2019 after finishing runners-up for the second time in three seasons. You worry for the west-countrymen that potentially losing Jack Leach to the Ashes could well harm their chances this season. Essex enjoyed another positive season finishing third in their second season back in the top flight; it was always likely that they would struggle to repeat their heroics during the 2017 season after losing coach Chris Silverwood to England.
There was a significant drop off to the teams in mid-table with Yorkshire, Hampshire, and Nottinghamshire all battling more for survival than really challenging for the top. In the end, bonus points meant Nottinghamshire survived by the skin of their teeth in what proved to be a disappointing season for the Outlaws. Hampshire completed their almost now yearly great escape, this time with slightly more time to spare than usual finishing in fifth 11 points clear of relegation. While the White Rose finished in a comfortable fourth place in the end. It proved to be a task too much for newly promoted Worcestershire, who in all honestly looked woefully out of place throughout the entirety of the season winning just two of their 14 games, losing 10. Lancashire joined the Pears in relegation to Division two following a disappointing season for the Red Rose with their one-point deduction for slow over-rate proving pivotal in their demise after finishing level on points with Nottinghamshire.
The Promoted Teams:
Warwickshire and Kent are the new boys in the Division after both easing to promotion in 2018. Kent look strong with many astute signings in the offseason with Matthew Renshaw sure to bring them some vital runs this season alongside the ever impressive Heino Kuhn who will deputise as captain in early season with Sam Billings away on IPL duty. Warwickshire, have a lovely mix of youth and experience, with their ever-present overseas Jeetan Patel likely to prove key with the ball for the Bears, Olly Stone will also be looking to impress early season with half an eye on an unlikely call-up to the Ashes Squad.
The Teams in Division One in 2019:
Top tips for the title:
It could be a wide-open race of the title this summer, with the Division looking the strongest it has been for a long time. Surrey will once again be strong but could be hampered by Ashes call-ups. Somerset will be there or thereabouts again come the business end of the season, as will Essex who will be boosted by having Alastair Cook available for the entire season for the first time in a long, long time. If you want a dark horse, look at the newly promoted teams Kent and Warwickshire who could well surprise a few this season. Nottinghamshire and Hampshire are the teams that will be battling out for the wooden spoon, in my opinion, come September.
A season of change in Division Two:
After just three seasons of an 8/10 configuration for the two divisions, the County Championship will change to 10/8 for the 2020 season. At the end of the season, three teams will be promoted from Division 2, with just one coming back down. With an extra promotion place up for grabs, most of the sides in Division 2 will be thinking that this might just be their year.
How did Division Two finish in 2018?
For much of the season, Division 2 appeared to be a two-horse race between Kent and Warwickshire with both wrapping-up promotion with something to spare. Warwickshire’s innings victory over Kent in the final fixture gave them the Division 2 title. Challenges by Sussex, who finished with two heavy defeats and a draw in their last three games, leaving them a distant third and, more surprisingly, Leicestershire, faded as the season closed. In contrast, Middlesex’s challenge never appeared: although wins in the final two games lifted them to a somewhat flattering fourth, a slow start meant that they were never at the races. Behind them, there was little to choose between the mid-table sides.
At the other end of the table, Glamorgan’s season was about as bad as it could get. Wins in the first and last game of the season bookended ten defeats and condemned the Welsh to the wooden spoon long before the end of the season. Four losses in their first five matches and the other abandoned without a ball bowled left Northamptonshire’s season in ruins. Although they improved as the season went on, only Glamorgan finished below them. And, despite two stunning comeback wins in early season, being dismissed for under one hundred four times, including twice in the same match against Leicestershire and another four times for under 135, left Durham condemned to another season in the bottom three.
The relegated teams:
Worcestershire’s yo-yo relationship with Division 1 has continued. After one year in Division 1, they are back in Division 2. Lancashire have joined them, having fallen just 27 runs – one batting bonus point – short of condemning Nottinghamshire in their place.
The Division Two sides for 2019:
Tips for the Top Three
The Division looks weaker than in 2018 with any one of six sides seemingly candidate to go up. History suggests that one of the relegated teams almost invariably bounces straight back; that looks more likely to be Lancashire than Worcestershire. Middlesex and Sussex will think that surely this is their chance to get back into the top flight after various seasons trapped in the second division. The dark horses might just be Durham, who seem to be climbing out of the deep, dark hole that the ECB dug for them.
Spring has sprung (well, sort of) and the cricket season is about to begin, suddenly everything feels right with the world again. Twelve County get underway in the Specsavers County Championship on Friday all daring to dream of a memorable season ahead.
Yorkshire v Essex
Reigning Champions Essex travel north to face Yorkshire at Headingley looking to continue their momentum from last season and get their defence of the title off to a good start.
The White Rose suffered an early season blow losing three front-line bowlers weeks before the season opener. Both David Willey and Liam Plunkett were late call-ups to the IPL and young Ben Coad, who burst onto the scene last summer is a doubt for the season opener with a hip injury. They have also lost the mystery of Adil Rashid, who has become one of a number of players to focus on his white ball career.
They will though, be boosted by the re-arrival of Cheteshwar Pujara, the Indian batsman will have a point to prove ahead of India’s tour of England this summer and he will add much-needed stability to a line-up that was prone to collapse last summer.
It will be interesting to see how the hosts go in the opener with much relying on their senior pros like Adam Lyth, Tim Bresnan and Gary Ballance who will all be looking to get one over their former teammate Anthony McGrath.
For McGrath, who is taking charge of the Eagles for the first time, it is perhaps fitting that it takes place in his old backyard. He will be met by familiar surroundings as he looks to continue where Chris Silverwood left off with victory over Yorkshire. His first squad selection includes new signing Peter Siddle fresh from his Big Bash success with Adelaide Strikers in the Australian summer. Siddle, alongside Wisden Cricketer of the year Jamie Porter, youngster Sam Cook and Simon Harmer will be looking to make use of what is sure to be bowler-friendly conditions on the opening morning after the north of England was hit by horrendous weather in the weeks leading up to the curtain raiser.
The Eagles will have fond memories of playing Yorkshire having completed the double over the White Rose last summer, comprehensively beating them in both encounters. A good start at Headingley will negate any nerves of ‘doing a Middlesex’.
How they line up:
Yorkshire: Ballance ©, Bresnan, Brooks, Coad, Hodd (w/k), Leaning, Lees, Lyth, Pujara, Shaw and Waite.
Essex: Ten Doeschate ©, Foster (w/k), Bopara, Browne, Chopra, Sam Cook, Harmer, Lawrence, Porter, Siddle, Walter, Westley and Wheater
Day one: Early morning drizzle, which will clear and remain dry with highs of 11 degrees
Day two: Clear with sunny intervals with highs of 16 degrees.
Day three: Light rain and breezy, clear in the morning with rain showers in the afternoon with highs of 15 degrees.
Day four: Clear with sunny intervals with highs of 16 degrees.
Hampshire v Worcestershire
Newly promoted Worcestershire will be glad their season opener is away from New Road given the current status of their home of cricket. Instead, they face the tricky looking task of facing new look, Hampshire. The Southampton based club have further strengthened their squad with the arrivals of Hashim Amla and Sam Northeast – both of whom are in line to make their Hampshire debuts at the Ageas Bowl tomorrow.
Amla joins up with plenty of familiar faces with a smattering of South Africans amongst the Hampshire ranks with Rilee Rossouw and Kyle Abbott also in the squad to face the Pears. It is a squad packed with international pedigree with Fidel Edwards, James Vince and Liam Dawson all set to feature in the season opener.
Despite the strength in depth of this Hampshire side, Hampshire coach Craig White was quick to remind his players that there are no easy games in Division One ahead of their clash with their newly promoted visitors.
“ The Competition is extremely strong and Division One cricket is fantastic cricket with some very good teams out there – we’re aware of the challenges Worcestershire present us with and we’re not taking them lightly”. White told Ageasbowl.com.
Worcestershire will have to brush off a 14-year Ageas Bowl hoodoo if they are to get off to a dream start in Division One having snuck promotion back to the top flight on the final day of the County season last year.
New coach Kevin Sharp is feeling confident ahead of the County Season though after taking over the reigns at New Road. He has made some shrewd winter signings and has urged his side to play fearless cricket. It is a motto that served Essex well last season as they took everyone by surprise if the Pears can be half as successful as the Eagles were last year they’ll be happy.
The arrival of Travis Head will bolster their batting ten-fold, although he is more known for his white-ball career, Head will offer some much-needed aggression down the order for the visitors as they look to attack a talented, but ageing looking Hampshire bowling attack.
Joe Leach is a wiley cricketer and he is sure to find seam movement on a pitch that will offer plenty early season. He and the experienced Steve Magoffin will play a huge role in deciding how their return to the top flight goes over the next four days.
And Leach has reiterated his excitement of pitting his wits against the international stars that ply their trade in Division One Cricket.
“We are raring to go and can’t wait. It’s been a long winter and we’ve been back from tour (in Abu Dhabi) for three weeks so we are all ready to go.
We want to test ourselves against people like Hashim Amla and, looking at the release dates of the England players as well, it looks like we will be facing all of them and that’s what we want to be in the top flight for.
We need to go toe to toe with these guys and hopefully beat them and that’s how the group is going to go from strength to strength now.” He told WCCC.co.uk.
How they line up:
Hampshire: Vince ©, Adams, Wood, Dawson, Berg, Amla, Northeast, McManus, Rossouw, Weatherley, Wheal, Edwards and Abbott.
Worcestershire: Not yet announced
Day One: Light cloud with highs of 13 degrees.
Day Two: Sunny intervals with highs of 15 degrees.
Day Three: Light cloud with highs of 13 degrees.
Day Four: Sunny intervals with highs of 15 degrees.
Lancashire v Nottinghamshire
Fellow newly-promoted Nottinghamshire face a trip to Old Trafford to tackle Lancashire in a clash of Test Ground playing counties.
Despite being newcomers many are expecting Nottinghamshire to fair well on their return to the top flight with a number of experienced heads mixed in with some young up and coming talents it feasible that the Outlaws could repeat Essex’s heroics from last year.
A look down the team sheet for their opening day encounter with the Red Rose shows just how strong this Midland club is. Opening up with a top three of Chris Nash, Jake Libby and Ross Taylor is enough to send shivers down any opening bowler spine, and the depth in the line-up continues to run deep with the likes of Samit Patel, Steven Mullaney and Rikki Wessels sure to add plenty of runs this season. With the ball, they are blessed with the likes of Mark Footitt, Jake Ball, Luke Fletcher and Harry Gurney it is little wonder why many of tipping them to be the surprise package this summer.
You’d have to think that that bowling attach will cause problems at Old Trafford in April, only a fool would choose not to take the new cherry on the opening morning of this encounter.
Ahead of the clash, new skipper Mullaney has spoken of the excitement of taking to the field as skipper for the first time against his former county but has stressed he doesn’t feel any extra pressure.
“I don’t think that this match and situation being against my old county puts any extra onus on it for me, because it would have been a proud and privileged moment whoever it was going to be against.
This will be my ninth season at Trent Bridge now so I’m firmly an Outlaw, but it will be nice going back and leading the team for the first time at my old ground.
“It actually feels like the first game as Captain has come round quite quickly, especially since Christmas. But I cannot wait to get stuck in at Old Trafford and I’m confident that we have practised really well and are ready to go.” He told TrentBridge.co.uk.
Lancashire, meanwhile, have had a little bit of a reshuffle at Old Trafford in an attempt to freshen up things after an ultimately disappointing end to last season.
The Red Rose have brought a couple of faces from Durham in Graham Onions and Keaton Jennings who have moved slightly south to Manchester. Onions will add an extra layer to the Lancashire attack with his experience sure to add to Glen Chapple’s side’s armoury. Australian overseas recruit Joe Mennie will also add some much-needed craft to what looked like a pretty one-dimensional attack last season.
With the bat, they look strong, with Jennings adding some flair to the top of the order alongside the ever-reliable Haseeb Hameed, who will look for a strong start to the season as Alastair Cook continues to struggle on the international stage. A good first couple of months for either of this pair could see a call-up for the England Test team this summer.
Shiv Chanderpaul and Liam Livingstone are also top quality batsmen. Both will add middle order runs and look to add stability to the side and they will need to be at the top of their game if they are to get the hosts off to a flier against a tricky looking opponent.
This could be the clash of the opening weekend as two top sides clash at Old Trafford. It is difficult to call; you just hope the weather won’t be the winner in this contest.
How they line-up:
Lancashire: Liam Livingstone (C), Tom Bailey, Shiv Chanderpaul, Jordan Clark, Steven Croft, Alex Davies, Haseeb Hameed, Keaton Jennings, Danny Lamb, Joe Mennie, Graham Onions, Stephen Parry, Matt Parkinson, Dane Vilas
Nottinghamshire: Libby, Nash, Mullaney ©, Footitt, Wessels, Gurney, Wood, Fletcher, Patel, Taylor, Moores, Ball and Root.
Day one: Light rain with highs of 11 degrees.
Day Two: Light clouds with highs of 16 degrees.
Day Three: Light rain with highs of 15 degrees.
Day Four: Cloudy with highs of 16 degrees.
Warwickshire v Sussex:
The season is set to begin with a bang at Edgbaston, as the two hotly tipped teams for promotion face off in their first fixture. I suspect as with most games in the early season, Sussex may choose for an uncontested toss to get an early go at movement off the pitch. Both teams’ pre-season matches were disrupted by the weather, so there may be a few batsmen a bit uncomfortable with batting first. Look out for Olly Stone, the fast bowler played the 2nd half of last season after a nasty injury, but will be all the better after his first full pre-season with Warwickshire. For Sussex, it will be fascinating to see if Division Two top run-scorer from last year, Luke Wells, can repeat his magic performances, with a big test expected at Edgbaston.
How they line-up:
Warwickshire 14-man squad: Jeetan Patel, Tim Ambrose, Keith Barker, Ian Bell, Henry Brookes, Sam Hain, Adam Hose, Matthew Lamb, Will Rhodes, Dominic Sibley, Ryan Sidebottom, Olly Stone, Jonathan Trott, Chris Wright.
Sussex 13-man squad: Ben Brown, Will Beer, Michael Burgess, Harry Finch, Ollie Robinson, Phil Salt, Ishant Sharma, Will Sheffield, Stiaan van Zyl, David Wiese, Luke Wells, Luke Wright.
Jeetan Patel is captain for the first time, as the Bears look to put last season behind them. All-rounder Will Rhodes is in the match squad and could make his debut after his move from Yorkshire. Sussex also have a new club captain, as Ben Brown takes over the reins on a permeant basis from Luke Wright. Indian international pace bowler Ishant Sharma could make his debut for Sussex.
Cloudy and mild, with a chance of sunny spells later on in the match on Sunday and Monday.
Kent v Gloucestershire:
The first round of matches in 2017 also threw up this fixture. Gloucestershire will hope that history does not repeat itself, as Kent won by 334 runs, bowling out Gloucestershire for 149 and 61.
Kent have reinforced shrewdly during the off-season and have named three new signings in their 13-man squad: South Africa Test batsman Heino Kuhn, Harry Podmore (recently signed from Middlesex) and New Zealand international Matt Henry. Claydon and Tredwell are injured. They will make a late decision on the final XI, weighing different pace options, aiming to find the best balance.
Gloucestershire have decided to experiment with their batting order. Having opened in recent seasons with Klinger and then with Bancroft, 2018 will see Benny Howell move up from the middle order to accompany new captain, Chris Dent, with Gareth Roderick taking over the gloves. Australian paceman Worrall is expected to debut while new signing from Middlesex, Ryan Higgins is likely to make a debut. With Norwell and Payne injured, Gloucestershire will have some interesting decisions to make on the balance of the side.
Kent were on the fringes of the promotion race last season and finished fifth one place, but 28 points ahead of Gloucestershire. They will hope for another good start to the season to start the challenge for a long-overdue promotion, while Gloucestershire will hope that their re-jigged batting is more solid than it was in 2017.
How they line up:
Kent: Joe Denly (c), Daniel Bell-Drummond, Sean Dickson, Heino Kuhn, Zak Crawley, Darren Stevens, Will Gidman, Adam Rouse (wk), Calum Haggett, Grant Stewart, Matt Henry, Harry Podmore, Ivan Thomas
Gloucestershire - Dent (c), Howell, Roderick (wk), Bracey, J.Taylor, van Buuren, Higgins, Noema-Barnett, Miles, Worrall, M.Taylor, Liddle, Hankins
Weather Watch: Fair and dry with a good chance of sunny spells throughout the match.
Middlesex v Northants:
Middlesex will give a debut to Australian, Hilton Cartwright. Middlesex have captain Dawid Malan rested and Nick Gubbins and Eoin Morgan injured. Sam Robson will captain and Paul Stirling has been added to the squad named for the match against Durham UCCE. Northants announce a twelve-man squad and include former Middlesex players Adam Rossington and Steven Crook. New Zealand Test player Doug Bracewell, signed for the first four Championship matches, will debut.
This interesting fixture features two sides that feel that they should not be in Division 2. Middlesex were extremely unhappy about the circumstances of their relegation, Northants were also unhappy to miss-out due to a points deduction for slow overrate that was also suffered in strange circumstances.
In 2011, the last time these two sides met in Division 2, both sides were both in contention for promotion in the final round of matches. Middlesex ended-up going up as winners of Division 2 and, despite being runaway leaders for much of the season, Northants missed-out narrowly to fast-finishing Surrey. Word inside the Middlesex camp is that immediate promotion back to Division 1 is their minimum aim for the season, while Northants will hope to make a point against a promotion rival. This fixture is likely to offer a pointer towards the prospects of both to play in Division One in 2019
How they line up:
Middlesex – Sam Robson (captain), Tom Barber, Hilton Cartwright, Stephen Eskinazi, James Harris, Tom Helm, Max Holden, Tim Murtagh, Ollie Rayner, Toby Roland-Jones, John Simpson (wicket-keeper), Paul Stirling, Robbie White
Northants – Wakely ©, Proctor, Levi, Rossington, Cobb, Keogh, Crook, Bracewell, Hutton, Gleeson, Sanderson, Newton
Weather watch: Dry and mild for large spells, with sunny spells on the final days play on Monday.
Division One previews by David Bowden (@Bowdenwhu)
Warwickshire v Sussex by Harry Hill (@HarryHill96)
Middlesex v Northants & Kent v Gloucestershire by Mark Kidger (@MarkFromMadrid)
By Mark Kidger
Where: SSE Swalec, Cardiff
Ins: Shaun Marsh (Australia)
Outs: Jacques Rudolph (Ret), Will Bragg (Ret)
Key man: Nick Selman
2017 season: Championship 7th, RLODC 4th, T20 Blast S/F
2018 Odds: Championship promotion: 20/1, RLODC: 18/1, T20: N/A
Our West-Country correspondent Mark Kidger sees the Welsh side as being highly competitive in white-ball cricket, but likely to be, once again, in the battle of the also-rans in the Championship. He pens his views below.
Despite modest returns in the County Championship, any side that reaches Finals Day in the Blast and misses out on the knock-out stages of the One Day Cup by a single point, can look back on the season with a degree of satisfaction, if not full-blown pride.
It comes as a surprise to many people that Glamorgan have managed to do three times what their local rivals over the Bristol Channel, Gloucestershire and Somerset have never managed in over a century – win the Championship. However, since the split into two divisions in 2000, Glamorgan have only spent one season – 2001 – in the top division. Division Two of the County Championship looks to be brutally competitive once again in 2018, with six teams that will feel that they have real chances of promotion. To match the 2015 result of fourth in Division Two – the highpoint of recent years – would probably be seen as a magnificent over-achievement.
The loss of long-term servant and adopted Welshman, Jacques Rudolph will be felt within the club. Michael Hogan remains Championship captain, while Colin Ingram takes over for the white ball games. Glamorgan have made what looks to be an excellent signing in Shaun Marsh, who will reinforce the middle-order, although with five batsmen averaging 35+ and two 40+, runs were not Glamorgan’s biggest worry in 2017. Young dual Anglo-Australian national Nick Selman led the run-scoring, with 872, including four centuries. At 22, this was his second season with Glamorgan and, after a promising first season, avoided the “second season syndrome” that plagues many young players after a fast start. Currently, he is recording a First Class century every 4 matches, but an average in the low 30s hints at too much inconsistency (his last four innings in 2017 were: 0, 142*, 0, 70 – which tells its own story). If he can add consistency to his ability to make big scores, runs will not be an issue for Glamorgan.
Glamorgan’s issues were more to do with bowling depth. Michael Hogan was magnificent with his 50 wickets at 20.9, but had little back-up save in the small fraction of games when Tim van der Gugten provided potent support. Carey averaged over 30 with the ball, de Lange, almost 40 and Salter, mid-40s. Glamorgan even became one of the three counties to sign Middlesex’s Harry Podmore on loan, although without solving their fundamental problems in the bowling department.
Without reinforcement of the bowling resources it is hard to see Glamorgan doing better than playing their part in what looks likely to be a four-way dog-fight between Derbyshire, Glamorgan, Gloucestershire & Leicestershire for the title of “best of the Division 2 also-rans”. Making competitive totals should not be a problem: converting them into wins will be.
Things look brighter in the white-ball. Glamorgan topped the South Group in the Blast and, despite more games being washed-out than any other side, had the equal best win-loss record with Nottinghamshire – the eventual winners. Having annihilated Leicestershire in the Quarter Final, they were unfortunate to come up against an inspired Warwickshire, who gave them too much to do in the first semi-final. The runout of Jacques Rudolph in the fifteenth over left the tail too much to do, although they went down bravely. The One Day Cup was a case of what might have been. Although no games were rained-off, the lottery of Duckworth-Lewis played a major part in their games: just one more win would have seen Glamorgan through to the knock-out stages.
Without Jacques Rudolph and with no second overseas player yet signed, success is not guaranteed in 2018 in white-ball cricket, but Glamorgan will be disappointed if they cannot make the knock-out stages in at least one and, preferably, both of the competitions.
Championship – 8th
RLODC – Q/F
T20 – Q/F
You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkfromMadrid or at http://spanishturn.blogspot.com.es/ and, talking about space, at https://openspacescience.blog/
3/21/2018 0 Comments
By Mark Kidger
Where: Bristol County Ground, Bristol
Ins: Daniel Worrall (Australia, until 2 July); Ryan Higgins (Middlesex)
Outs: Patrick Grieshaber (released), Brandon Gilmour (released), Cameron Bancroft (Somerset)
Key man: Liam Norwell
2017 season: Championship 6th, RLODC 7th, T20 Blast 9th
2018 Odds: Championship promotion: 16/1, RLODC: 25/1, T20: N/A - Powered by Oddschecker.com
I was at the County Ground in Bristol in 1977 when Mike Proctor’s wonderful side only missed out on a first Championship since 1877 on the last afternoon, thanks to a century by one Gordon Greenidge. Only in 2003-5 have Gloucestershire made it to Division One, although there was a near miss in 2011. Since then, expectations of a return to the top division have been modest and, usually, almost nil. Division Two of the County Championship looks to be brutally competitive once again in 2018, with Warwickshire and Middlesex coming down, Northants (who only missed-out on promotion due to an over-rate points deduction) and Kent again likely to be in the mix and Durham and Sussex (fourth in 2017) both hoping for a revival of fortunes and a return to Division One. For Gloucestershire, fourth or fifth place would be an immensely satisfying result in the face of such strong opposition.
The bad news is that with the defection of Cameron Bancroft across the River Avon to local rivals, Somerset, Gloucestershire only have an overseas player lined-up until the start of July. Money is tight at Bristol and when the county announced, pre-season, a big-news signing, social media scepticism was intense. It is fair to say that the reaction from most fans has been the widely predicted “Daniel Who?” A second blow is the fact that Jack Taylor will not be allowed to bowl initially in 2018 due to an illegal action: he has been a vital part of Gloucestershire’s limited-over success in recent seasons. There has been no better team man in the successes of recent seasons and the fans hope that he can come back from this latest blow.
On the plus side, Gloucestershire have managed to keep their all their squad, with its array of promising pace bowlers, without any being snapped-up and have made a shrewd signing in Middlesex’s highly-regarded Ryan Higgins. In a superb coup, they have also brought in Chris Rogers as coach for the first two months of the season. Higgins showed what he can do in hitting 68 in 28 balls against Gloucestershire in the tied Blast match last season and as well as adding useful wickets to his runs. With the new Championship format putting results in April and May at a premium, Daniel Worrall could just turn out to be a canny signing on early-season, juicy green pitches. Good enough to play three ODIs for Australia in 2016, the coaching staff will look to him to mentor bowlers such as Liam Norwell, Craig Miles and David Payne and push them on to the next level. The fact that Norwell took 59 wickets at 17.4 and was ignored by the selectors for the Lions and other minor winter tours though is a sad indictment of how hard it is to make an impact when playing in Bristol.
One of the indications of Gloucestershire’s problems in 2017 was the fact that rarely was the first-choice attack available due to injuries. None of the attack, save the (by obligation) sparingly used Jack Taylor, played more games than Liam Norwell’s eleven and, in those eleven games he took more wickets, by a comfortable margin, than the next two highest wicket-takers combined, as well as bowling sixty overs more than anyone else over the season. Another illustration of Gloucestershire’s problems is that none of the other regular bowlers averaged under 32. When Liam Norwell was missing, the attack all too often looked totally impotent and the frail Gloucestershire batting was too often put under pressure by massive first innings totals from the opposition.
Thereby lay Gloucestershire’s second, major issue in 2017: the batting was far too inconsistent. On paper, averages of 42.6 and 40.3 respectively for Chris Dent and Cameron Bancroft look impressive, but Chris Dent was 350 runs down on his return from 2016 and less consistent than before (in 2016 he actually had better figures as an opener than some of those selected to go on the various winter tours) and Bancroft’s average was padded by an unbeaten double century: take it out of his season’s figures and his average drops below 30. Six batsmen scored centuries and two more had near-misses, but the weight of runs was not there to set up winning positions and Gloucestershire were too often indebted to Jack Taylor’s efforts to add valuable runs shepherding the tail.
Will Tavaré, the nephew of Chris, has had his last two seasons severely undermined by injury, but knows that he needs to do better in 2018 than his 422 runs at 26.4 in 2017 and that he has the ability to do it. After coming to Bristol with high expectations attached to him, Graeme van Buuren’s returns have been disappointing and Phil Mustard made less impact with the bat in the Championship than was hoped, while George Hankins was unable to take advantage of the opportunity to have a run in the side. All averaged in the 20s while having the talent and ability to be averaging mid-to-high 30s.
One to look out for though is James Bracey. After making his debut at the fag-end of the 2016 season, he came into the side for the last four games of 2017, batting at #3 and scored 370 runs in six innings at an average of 74. Just twenty years old, his First Class average stands at over 50 from his first seven games.
Given the side’s manifest problems in 2017, to finish sixth and “best of the also-rans” in a very strong division was a creditable result. To get around the fringes of the promotion race in 2018, Gloucestershire will need Liam Norwell and Daniel Worrall to combine to good effect in the early season and get effective support from one of the other seamers. They will also need the captaincy to inspire Chris Dent and for him in turn to inspire two or three of the top order to perform well above their 2017 level. Fourth place is not impossible, but anything better would be a huge surprise.
For the travelling support, there is the enticing prospect of a 4-day match at Lord’s for the first time since 2011 – to be played, less enticingly, in mid-May – and at Edgbaston in late August holiday season. Sophia Gardens is the third Test ground that Gloucestershire will visit, although the vagaries of the fixture computer’s deliberations mean that there is no fixture at the lovely Riverside Ground at Chester-le-Street in 2018.
The Gloucestershire squad probably looks better suited (on paper at least) to achieving success in ‘white ball’ cricket, particularly in the shorter T20 format.
Sadly, despite being on the Gloucestershire books for another two years, the hugely popular Michael Klinger has had to be relieved of the captaincy of the 50-over side as he helps his wife battle cancer. His availability is very doubtful and Chris Dent has also taken over the side in Klinger’s likely absence. Andrew Tye has been signed again for the Blast, having needed to be replaced at short notice for the 2017 competition by Thisara Perera of Sri Lanka, but a measure of the uncertainty at Bristol is that no T20 captain has yet been appointed, in part because Chris Dent does not play in the competition.
In the One Day Cup, which had been won in 2015, the best that can be said was that 7th in the South Group was a better result than in 2016 but, four defeats in the first five matches meant that Gloucestershire’s interest in the competition ended in the first week of May. Without Klinger and without Jack Taylor’s bowling, the chances are that 2018 will again be a struggle in the Royal London One Day Cup, barring some magic from Benny Howell, who is showing in the Bangladesh Premier League that his talents adapt to foreign climes and that his success in England is no flash in the pan.
Having topped their T20 Blast group in 2016, before losing in the Quarter Finals, Gloucestershire were second in their group after ten of the fourteen games of 2017, lifted by a magnificent Michael Klinger century and by some mean bowling from Benny Howell, who seems to get better and better with the white ball. They would have qualified comfortably for the Quarter Finals with just three points from the last four games. Instead, all four games were lost and Gloucestershire slumped to last in the South Group. It was a dispiriting and unexpected implosion.
With Michael Klinger looking sadly unlikely to play, Gloucestershire will hope that Andrew Tye can turn out this time. Cockbain, Howell and Mustard all backed up Michael Klinger with 230+ runs last season but, of the rest, only Cameron Bancroft, who shared the second overseas spot with Perera, scored the weight of runs to support the “big four”. Similarly, although Benny Howell had admirable support from David Payne, Tom Smith and – when he played - Thisara Perera, Matt Taylor followed a promising 2016, with a nightmare T20 season in 2017, going at nearly 10-an-over and having (un)comfortably the worst strike rate of any bowler who took more than one wicket.
Just like Mark Alleyne’s unlikely all-conquering side of early in the millennium, Gloucestershire’s successes in the white ball game in recent years have been down to a team of individual modest talents that are, jointly, far greater than the sum of the parts. A team, like Alleyne’s, who have been raised to the heights by skilful captaincy. Without the father figure of Michael Klinger to coax out performances that some of those who produced them probably did not even believe themselves capable of, success is less certain. Much will depend on team spirit and on developing successfully a David and Goliath mentality.
While the Gloucestershire playing staff is not as small as it was five years ago, in the darkest days when the club almost folded, it is less well-equipped to handle injuries and loss of form than most, so the T20 Blast is the most likely competition to allow a team with limited resources to ambush its more illustrious opponents. As Gloucestershire found in 2017, margins in the Blast can be tiny and if the luck falls the right way they could get into the knock-out stages and, when you are there, logic often goes out the window while the knock-out games are being played, leading to some unlikely champions.
Championship – 5th
RLODC – 6th
T20 – 6th (but with a hope that the dice fall right and that the Shire sneak into the Q/Fs, at which point all bets are off)
You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkfromMadrid or at http://spanishturn.blogspot.com.es/ and, talking about space, at https://openspacescience.blog/
By Mark Kidger
Where: Taunton, Somerset
Ins: Cameron Bancroft (Overseas, Australia) and Fin Trenouth (Academy)
Out: Jim Allenby (released), Ryan Davies (released), Michael Leask (released)
Key man: Jack Leach
Last year: Championship 6th, RLODC Q/F, T20 Blast Q/F
2018 Odds: Championship 14/1, RLODC 14/1, T20 Blast N/A - Powered by Oddschecker.com
After just missing out on the Championship on the last afternoon in 2016 to what many felt was a contrived finish from their two main rivals, many fans must have felt that 2017 could be the year for that elusive Championship pennant. However, a consequence of the change in Division 1 to fourteen games was to neutralise in part Somerset’s ability to make a late-season charge on turning pitches. There was, though, a certain irony in the fact that the side that had pipped them to the title in 2016 – Middlesex – went to Taunton in the last round, with the second relegation spot between them, knowing that even a defeat would save Middlesex and condemn Somerset… unless Somerset took more bonus points, which they duly did. It was a curious game to end the season, with a spinner taking the new ball in three of the four innings of the match, on what can most kindly be described as a result track – with Middlesex briefly holding out hopes of salvation, even after the season ended, in the form of a sanction for an unsatisfactory pitch.
You would have to be a real curmudgeon not to want to see Marcus Trescothick – Banger to the fans – obtain the one county honour that he has never won and the one that probably would mean more to him than any other, in what may well be his final season. He will be close to his 43rd birthday come the end of the season and has not played limited-overs since 2015, preferring to drop down to play for the 2nd XI rather than play white-ball cricket. You cannot help but feel that he has hung on one more year in the hope that he can see Somerset go one better than its four runners-up spots, achieved in 2001, 2010, 2012 and 2016.
Such was the mid-table log-jam in 2017 that just two points separated Yorkshire, with their 4th place and a not to be despised amount of prize money, from Middlesex, in 7th. But while 6th in the Championship and an undignified late-season scramble to survive was a disappointment, there was no shame in the manner of their Quarter-Final exit in the Royal London One Day Cup. Chasing 430 to win, they gave Nottinghamshire an almighty scare before finally losing. Jamie Overton and Tim Groenewald had scored 38 from the previous 23 balls and reduced the equation to 25 needed from 13 – certainly well on – before Overton was run out to end the game. Fourth in the group in the NatWest T20 Blast with a 6-6 record was a big improvement on 2016, even if the Quarter Final ended up with Nottinghamshire again getting the better of them, on this occasion, quite comfortably.
Tom Abell retains the captaincy for a second season and will take over the One Day Cup captaincy too with the departure of Jim Allenby. However, under 600 runs, no century and an average of just 26 will have done nothing to suggest that the people who doubted the wisdom of his appointment were wrong. Having dropped down to 3 for the start of the season, to avoid the double load of the captaincy and opening, four fifties in twenty-five innings is a return that will have to improve in 2018 if Somerset are to challenge in the Championship. Later, in the second half of the season, he dropped himself further down the order to #5, although with no greater success.
Dean Elgar has been replaced as the overseas player by Cameron Bancroft. The South African opening batsman only played six Championship games in 2017 but held the batting together when he played, with 2x100, 2x50 and a batting average of 47 (twelve more than anyone else). Between him and Marcus Trescothick, they scored four of Somerset’s nine centuries during the season. Charged with the job of filling his very large boots Cameron Bancroft, who has moved westwards across the River Avon from the County Ground at Bristol is an interesting choice. Sixteen games for Gloucestershire over two seasons have hardly set the West country alight, producing just a single century – albeit an unbeaten double – and 5x50. However, Bancroft has also made his Test debut – in the Ashes, no less – and, after an uncertain start, is beginning to suggest that he can make a success of it. It is hoped that Bancroft’s solidity as an opener, added to Trescothick’s hitting, will allow Somerset to post some decent starts.
Bancroft’s second string is as a gloveman. He will back up Somerset’s big winter signing from 2016/17, former England wicketkeeper, Steven Davies. Davies played every Championship game in 2017 and was the only batsman other than Elgar to average over 35. However, with two international wicket-keepers on the books and a third ‘keeper, Fin Trenouth, who played for Somerset 2nd XI and for Devon in 2017, signed for 2018, Ryan Davies, the club’s other wicketkeeper, who ended 2016 strongly, did not get a First Class game in 2017 and has been released.
To challenge, Somerset will need more runs from some of their senior batsmen. James Hildreth’s runs were critical in the crucial win over Middlesex but, before that game pushed his Championship average over 30, he had been averaging only 26, far below what his side needed or expected. Byrom and Barlett, who came into the side in the second half of the season, averaged mid-twenties and mid-teens respectively. Added to Abell’s struggles and the fact that Marcus Trescothick averaged well under 30 too, meant that there were rarely many runs for the bowlers to defend.
When analysing a particular side’s troubles a few years back, the situation was summed-up with the words “too many batsmen averaging under thirty. Too many bowlers averaging over thirty!” If Somerset can presume to have the former trouble, the latter is not an issue. No fewer than five front-line bowlers averaged under twenty-five and Jack Leach’s 51 wickets at a highly respectable 25.8 saw him finish well down the bowling averages.
Craig Overton finished just short of fifty wickets, with 46 at an average of 22.4, putting him sixth in the list of Division 1 wicket-takers and, of bowlers to send down at least one hundred overs, eighth in the Division 1 bowling averages. The result was a call-up by England and a Test debut, impressing both with the ball and, by his courage in playing on despite a broken rib, quite apart from making useful runs at Perth. Fortunately for Somerset, the return of Ben Stokes should limit Craig Overton’s chances of adding to his two Test caps during the summer, although another season as good as 2017 will see him touring next winter and, undoubtedly, playing many more Tests in the near future.
Injury limited Jamie Overton and Lewis Gregory to just a dozen games between them, but those games showed glimpses of what they offer if the much-changed backroom staff can keep both fit. Gregory made a maiden First Class century and bowled with good effect in the first half of the season. Jamie Overton had a good game with the ball for the Lions against South Africa A in June but was only able to play a single 2nd XI game in August after that. However, on the plus side, off-spinner Dom Bess became a regular in the side and formed a lethal spin partnership with Jack Leach.
What to say of Jack Leach? After a miserable winter during which he lost a possible Test debut as he was re-modelling his action and then struggled initially with his new action during the Lions tours, there were concerns that Somerset’s biggest weapon – the chance to exploit fully turning pitches at Taunton – might be seriously compromised. He could not match his 65 wickets at 22 from 2016, but 51 wickets at 25.8 in two fewer games was a fantastic effort with his re-designed action. One of the few successes of the disastrous recent Lions tour of the Caribbean, Leach has been rewarded with a place in the England Test squad in New Zealand, replacing the injured Mason Crane. While, at the moment, a Test debut in New Zealand or, during the summer, in England, looks unlikely, a good 2018 will undoubtedly see him making a Test debut in Sri Lanka in October. If anyone can bowl Somerset to a Championship pennant, it is Jack Leach.
Some fans are already beginning to think of a future England spin attack of Leach and Bess, the first county spin twins for England since the Middlesex pairing of Edmonds and Emburey. As a slow left arm/off-spin combination, it would offer England potentially their best-balanced attack for all conditions since Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar combined so effectively in India in 2011. Somerset should be praised for offering the one pitch in England that really rewards spin and trains batsmen to play in the kind of conditions that have caused their batsmen so many problems in recent years.
A look at the fixture list though shows that Somerset will play three of their home Championship games in April and early May, one in June and just three in late August and September. If the Somerset pace attack can stay fit and if the batting can give them some runs to defend, Somerset may not be too far off the pace come August for Leach and Bess to power another surge up the table but the reduction in fixtures has inevitably done Somerset no favours.
Somerset’s t20 cricket improved massively in 2017 and a Quarter Final was probably about right – the side was too irregular to go further. Corey Anderson of New Zealand returns as the T20 overseas player. He only played four games in 2017, but made a big impact, scoring 142 runs at the impressive strike rate of 184: comfortably the highest strike rate in the side. If Anderson plays more games this season and if the young lions in the attack fire – their returns were promising in 2017 – Somerset may even threaten to reach Finals Day.
The Taunton faithful have just one question though: could 2018 be the year when the County Championship finally comes to Taunton? There were high hopes for 2017, but Somerset were never in the hunt and were extremely lucky to escape relegation in the end. It is a lot of ifs that must be fulfilled for Somerset to win in 2018, but England calls are unlikely this summer, so all the fit players should remain available. Somerset will either be title challengers, or relegated: I cannot see a season of mid-table anonymity in the side’s DNA, but it may be too much of a stretch for the county to give Marcus Trescothick the retirement present that he most wants, especially considering the unusually changes in the off-field staff over the winter that may hint at an unsettled support team.
County Championship: 2nd
T20 Blast: S/F
You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkfromMadrid or at http://spanishturn.blogspot.com.es/ and, talking about space science, at https://openspacescience.blog/
By Mark Kidger
Where? Lords, North London
Outs: Ryan Higgins (Gloucestershire)
Key Man: Toby Roland-Jones
2017 season: Championship: 7th (relegated), RLODC: 8th, T20 Blast 7th
2018 odds: Championship 15/8, RLODC: 12/1, T20: N/A - Odds powered by Oddschecker.com
The last dozen years have shown wild swings of fortune for Middlesex fans and, not least, for the admirable Radio London commentators who have recounted it cheerfully, day after day, however awful things were on the field. Radio London started commentary long before the current service that sees every ball of every Championship and List A game broadcast, as well as some Minor Counties games. Pioneered by Mark Church at The Oval and by Ned Hall and the Kevin Hand at Lord’s, they have followed the highs and some pretty desperate lows. The joy with which Kevin Hand broadcast the final overs of the Middlesex charge to the Championship title on September 26th 2016 was counterpointed by the cheerful bonhomie of the sadly departed Dave Callaghan, the visiting commentator for Yorkshire, describing the massive party in the ground, with even the curmudgeonly Dave Townsend sounding slightly less miserable than usual on the commentary.
Roll on one year and things were so different. Rather than defending their title, as many expected, Middlesex were spiralling to defeat at Taunton, their relegation effectively sealed by a crossbow arrow at The Oval and their failure to take batting bonus points at Taunton.
Where did it all go wrong?
Even in early August, that final fixture at Taunton was looming its gorgon-like head and, with it, a realisation that it might be crucial and that, if it were, Somerset were unlikely to be generous hosts after the events of twelve months before. First Division safety should have been sealed long before staking everything on that final game.
Division 1 in 2017 was all about fine margins, as testified by the gap of just two points between Yorkshire in fourth and Middlesex in seventh. With one fewer side, there were two fewer “easy games” in which big points could be bagged. As such, opportunities had to be grabbed with both hands when they presented themselves. Middlesex will regret a handful of moments of absent-mindedness that ultimately proved costly.
The worst of these were two, ultimately catastrophic brain-fades as early as April 23rd. Having amassed 507-7d, powered by centuries for Robson, Gubbins and Eskinazi – the top three in the order – Steve Finn and Tim Murtagh engineered an Essex collapse from 282-6 to 295ao. Rather than enforce the Follow-On, James Franklin decided to rest his bowlers and batted again. Robson, Gubbins and Eskinazi filled their boots again and, with a poor weather forecast for the last day, the declaration was delayed, unbelievably, until just eight overs before the Close, with a ludicrous target of 452. The weather, inevitably, closed-in and Essex survived with 8-down, almost 300 short. Middlesex missed the chance of an early win and some Championship momentum and did not finally register a win until Round Six, when they did not repeat the same mistake of not enforcing the Follow-On and beat Yorkshire by an innings and plenty at Lord’s, before succumbing themselves to Essex in the next round to an innings defeat, by which time alarm bells should have been ringing loudly.
The second black day was August 31st. The events of that day have been endlessly discussed and Middlesex can, quite rightly, feel hard done by, although it was an accident waiting to happen. All season Middlesex had been behind on the over-rate, sometimes by as much as 5 overs and only smart work by the scorer – known within the club as “The Magician” – again and again, to get umpires to make allowances for minor delays in play, had saved them from points deductions. Even The Magician’s powers were defeated as Middlesex, found themselves in the centre of the possibly the most bizarre incident ever seen in a British cricket ground.
A game that should have been dead after the whole of the third day was lost, blazed to life on the last morning as a typical Middlesex collapse saw Surrey sniffing the unlikeliest of victories at Lunch, with Middlesex 61 ahead with six wickets down and Nick Compton retired hurt and looking unlikely to bat again. Stubborn resistance, led by the admirable John Simpson, inched Middlesex to safety. The draw had been ensured when a lethal crossbow bolt, fired from several hundred metres outside the ground, crashed into the square close to one of the players, provoking a terrorist alert, an evacuation of the ground and the abandonment of the game. Middlesex, who were two overs behind on the over-rate, had planned a token declaration before the handshake to allow them to whistle down a few overs and avoid a points deduction. The declaration never happened. In the confusion, the umpires failed to report that they felt that the over-rate violation should be pardoned and the resultant two-point deduction sent Middlesex down.
These incidents, individually relatively trivial, epitomise the Middlesex 2017 campaign. It was a chapter of accidents. You got the feeling that after the supreme effort of winning the title in 2016 after so many near-misses, the side just relaxed slightly and that few percent below maximum performance, combined with an absurdly tight table, made the difference between a top-three finish and relegation.
It is absurd that a county that could field six players with England Test caps, two who will undoubtedly play Tests for Ireland and one who played Tests for New Zealand, should be consigned to Division Two, but that is what 2018 brings. The squad, mob-handed with talent, has not been reinforced, no overseas professional has yet been confirmed and the only change is the loss of white-ball player Ryan Higgins to Gloucestershire.
One would like to think that Middlesex will outclass the opposition in Division Two in 2018 in the same way that Nottinghamshire did in 2017 after relegation. In Sam Robson and Nick Gubbins, they have one of the best opening pairs in the country, both of whom might have harboured hopes last September of going to Australia as back-up openers. A hungry Nick Compton is an insatiable run machine. Eoin Morgan has declared his intent to play Championship cricket again, though where he would fit into the first-choice middle order is doubtful. Paul Stirling is beginning to deliver on his promise. John Simpson is rated one of the best wicket-keeper batsmen in the country and the seam attack is so strong that James Harris, who had had an amazing season with bat and ball in 2015, could be loaned-out to Kent without diminishing its depth. A fit seam attack of Finn, Roland-Jones and Murtagh, backed-up by any one of Harris, Helm and Podmore, with Ollie Rayner as a better than average spinner, should be far too good for Division Two batting line-ups on the spicier Division 2 pitches.
That is the theory. The reality is that for such a talented side, Middlesex seemed ridiculously prone to horrific collapses in 2017, so much so that fans again threatened to set up the MiddlesexBattingCollapse.com website. Almost as bad was the bowling attack's inability to take maximum bowling points on several occasions. No one epitomised more the struggles of the middle order than Steve Eskinazi, so highly rated at Lord’s, who was top run-scorer for the season, with 793 runs to his name, but who tailed-away so badly that he managed a top score of just 16 in his last six Championship games, scoring a mere 75 runs at an average of 7.5 in those games. Apart from Sam Robson, who also fell away badly after a wonderful first half of the season and John Simpson (who averaged 28.5), no one else managed 500 runs. Finn, Roland-Jones, Helm, Harris and Rayner all averaged the wrong side of 30 with the ball, although some excuse can be found in the nature of the home pitches that they bowled on. The impression was that the attack missed having a wrecking-ball bowler that Harris had been for them in 2015 and Roland-Jones and Rayner in 2016.
Middlesex should come straight back up without breaking a sweat but, if they do not, you can imagine that it might take five or six years to gain promotion, as it had after their previous relegation. The key to promotion may be the fitness and availability of Toby Roland-Jones: if he stays fit and if England does not take him away, he should pick up a stack of wickets. Almost as vital will be Sam Robson’s appetite for runs and his ability to combine with Nick Gubbins to give solid starts and force scoreboard pressure.
The Lord’s gloom extended to the white-ball game. The One Day Cup has been a source of pain to fans for several years now. Two wins from eight games saw Middlesex interest ended quickly. Middlesex also had a losing record in the Blast, in a desperately tight South Group, in which just one more win could have brought passage to the knock-out stages on Net Run Rate. While any success with the white ball in 2018 will be received with open arms, these competitions will certainly take a back seat to the season’s real priority of promotion in the Championship.
Where I think Middlesex will finish:
County Championship: 1st
One-Day Cup: 8th (South Group)
T20 Blast: 7th (South Group)
You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkfromMadrid or at http://spanishturn.blogspot.com.es/ and, talking about space, at https://openspacescience.blog/
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