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 Harry Hill
Where?: Wantage Road, Northampton
Ins: Brett Hutton (Nottinghamshire), Luke Proctor (Lancashire), Ricardo Vasconcelos (EUP), Doug Bracewell (New Zealand, 1st month of the season), Rory Kleinveldt (South Africa, from Mid-May), Seekkuge Prasanna ( Sri Lanka, for T20 Blast).
Outs: David Murphy (Retired), Azharullah (Released)
Last Season: County Championship: 3rd, RLODC: Group stage, T20: Group Stage.
2018 odds: County Championship: 9/1, RLODC: 20/1, T20: N/A - Powered by Oddschecker.com
Last season played out rather differently to how many would have expected, with a very strong showing in the County Championship with Northants finishing 3rd in Division Two after a strong backend of the season saw them pick up four wins on the spin to push Nottinghamshire all the way. Northants will be looking to gain similar momentum at the start of this season, but it starts with a tough looking trip to Lord’s in the opening round of fixtures against recently relegated Middlesex.
Looking ahead to the strengths and weaknesses of the squad, Northants will be delighted to have kept the core of the group together, as the tight-knit comradery was certainly a driving factor in last seasons’ successes. I suspect that skipper Alex Wakely will be happy with his bowling options this season, an area of real improvement last season. The club looks to have a nice balance to the bowling attack, and the signing of Doug Bracewell will add valuable international experience for the early part of the season to complement the likes of Ben Sanderson and Richard Gleeson. Perhaps one area that David Ripley has been looking at over the winter is the batting depth, as Northants took only 29 batting bonus points last season, amongst the lowest in the division. The addition of all-rounder Luke Proctor from Lancashire will add some depth to the middle-order, after impressing with three half-centuries from just two matches on loan at Wantage Road at the end of last season.
There are several players to look out for this season, Rob Newton has gone under the radar at the top of the order with the likes of Richard Levi and Ben Duckett understandably grabbing the headlines. But Rob Newton got ten half-centuries last season in the County Championship, and if he can convert a few of these into big hundreds, Northants can look forward to competing towards the top of Division Two this season. Another player to keep an eye on is Richard Gleeson, who was rewarded with a trip to the West Indies with the England Lions, impressing with both the red and white ball over the past few months. The arrival of exciting wicket-keeper batsman Ricardo Vasconcelos will add some competition for the gloves with Adam Rossington as the highly-rated South African replaces retired club stalwart, David Murphy.
The race for promotion to Division One will be extra competitive this season as Middlesex and Warwickshire will both be desperate for a short stay in Division Two. I suspect that Northants will enjoy being the underdog, with a fearless ‘can-do’ attitude proving its value in the County Championship by Essex last season. Northants have long been renowned with white-ball success, but last season was disappointing for the club, as they failed to progress through the group stages of either the One-Day Cup or the T20 Blast. The Northants squad is very much suited to T20 cricket, with the likes of explosive batsman Ben Duckett, Richard Levi and Adam Rossington, complemented with the accurate medium pace of Rory Kleinveldt and Steven Crook.
Northants supporters can expect an exciting season ahead, and with a bit of early season momentum to carry on from last year, a promotion push could be a distinct possibility.
Where I think Northamptonshire will finish:
County Championship Division Two: 2nd
One-Day Cup: 5th (North Group)
T20 Blast: 3rd (North Group)
You can follow Harry on Twitter on @HarryHill96.
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