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 Matt Layton
Where? Edgbaston, Birmingham
Ins: Jeetan Patel (NZ - full season), Colin De Grandhomme (NZ - T20), Will Rhodes (Yorkshire)
Outs: William Porterfield (Released), Ateeq Javid (Leicestershire)
Last Season: Championship 8th (relegated), RLODC (9th in group), T20: runners-up
2018 odds: County Championship promotion: 5/1, RLODC: 10/1, T20: N/A - Odds powered by oddschecker.com
It has been a turbulent 12 months at Edgbaston with the county suffering their 1st relegation out of Division One since 2007 under the leadership of controversial figure Mark Greatbatch. There are a number of similarities between the relegation season of 10 years previously and the Bears recent campaign where they dropped out of Division One with an incredibly poor 86 points (with 1 win) and a full 60 points behind Middlesex who unexpectedly got sucked into Division Two during the last game of the 2017 season. In 2007, Warwickshire were relegated by 14 points and although that doesn’t quite seem as bad as 2017, the turbulent leadership of Greatbatch behind the scenes was clear to see. Zimbabwean international seamer Heath Streak relinquished the captaincy after one game of that season and was replaced by Darren Maddy for the remainder. Postseason there was a restructure in coaching staff, notably the employment of Dougie Brown and Allan Donald – both former and successful Edgbaston favourites who were installed to develop the talent line of young hungry local players and enhance the qualities of the established pros within the dressing room. Ian Bell who had subsequently taken over the captaincy from Varun Chopra in 2015 who cited poor batting form when passing the reigns to Bell followed the trend by resigning the role during 2017. Jonathon Trott (maybe reluctantly) took the leadership of the team for the remainder of the season. It was an obvious and safe move at the time to try and bring some stability to their cricket.
Changing of the Guard
The winter has also seen a management reshuffle with established and well-respected backroom staff being moved on including Strength and Conditioning coach Chris Armstrong and Alan Richardson as bowling coach. They were replaced by, again, former Warwickshire man Graeme Welsh (returning for a 2nd spell as bowling coach) and Ian Westwood returning after immediate retirement early in 2017 as batting coach to support Tony Frost and the head coach Jim Troughton.
There is one common denominator that remains between 2007 and 2017 and that is Ashley Giles. Like in 2007 ‘Gilo’ answered an SOS call to be appointed to a new role of Director of Cricket and although his role has changed in wording to ‘Sporting Director’ Ashley is again very much at the helm and taking charge of rebuilding and re-establishing Warwickshire as a superpower of county cricket. The appointment of so many former Bears to guide the fortunes of the club can be viewed in 2 ways. 1: These highly qualified former teammates trust, check and challenge each other and work exceptionally well in partnership. They understand the operations of the whole club inside out and have a deep desire and passion to bring success to back to THEIR club. or 2: The management staff is too cosy, does not challenge each other which brings apathy and a culture of mediocre acceptance. All members hope the former is true and judging by the interviews and comments coming out of Edgbaston since ‘Gilo’s’ reappointment there seems to be a clear plan and structure to the development of the playing squad and direction of their cricket ‘brand’, which is the popular phrase used these days.
What Has Gone Wrong?
Even during the major successes of recent times, winning the Championship in 2012 and more recently in one day cricket, winning the T20 Cup in 2014 and One Day Cup in 2016 there was a feeling amongst members that well-established players were all performing at their peak at the same time and that some had too much negative controlling influence. Standards were allowed to slowly slip meaning results started to become inconsistent. Although these alarm bells had been loudly ringing for some time, this was not addressed. Giles must now take control yet again. Will it bring immediate returns like in 2007?
There is now a clear focus on youth. Not since Ian Bell, Chris Woakes, Ian Westwood and a little more recently Ateeq Javid has a young player developed through the Academy system to establish themselves as a first-team regular. This is a desperately poor record for a TMG County who’s catchment area covers England’s 2nd city. To date, apart from Moeen Ali’s elevation and very early departure to neighbours Worcestershire to seek 1st team cricket, the Bears have failed to capitalise on the talent of young inner-city cricketers.
There are seeds of optimism, however. Sunny Singh is developing and became the 1st player nurtured through the ECB Chance to Shine programme in the country to make a first-team debut and carries the hopes of the clubs’ Asian support. Ed Pollock and Aaron Thomason burst onto the scene during T20. Andrew Umeed showed signs of gritty promise. A day-night 113 off 392 balls demonstrated he has the application to open the batting in 4-day cricket. England U19 International trio George Panayi, Liam Banks and Henry Brookes have broken into the first team and the average age of the playing squad has been reduced further with the signings of Dominic Sibley (22) Adam Hose (25) Will Rhodes (23) from Surrey, Somerset and Yorkshire respectively. Although this may bring with it less experience, it is hoped the level of athleticism in the field and application on and off the pitch will be enhanced. The club has high hopes for middle-order batsman Matt Lamb in 4-day cricket, having semi-established himself for 7 games at number 5 during 2017 he will, however, need to improve his shot selection in order to improve his current average of 23. It is also another huge season in 4-day cricket for Sam Hain. One of the best one-day openers in the country averaging 61 with 5 hundreds and 7 fifties from 26 games in 50 over cricket and 829 runs in 29 games in T20, it is a mystery to all at Edgbaston as to why he cannot transform this form into 4-day cricket. He seems to have the technique (a carbon copy for Jonathon Trott) but averages just 31 from 47 matches and without a hundred all last season only contributing a small handful of scores above 30. It is hoped that Oli Stone is fully fit after his serious knee injury which kept him sidelined for nearly all of last season can stay fit and spearhead the pace attack in all forms. If he does, expect International recognition with the youngster sure to be on the England Lions radar.
It is also a huge season for a number of senior pros in 4-day cricket. Jeetan Patel the new First-class skipper will have to set the tone for his young talents (and his captaincy heir Dom Sibley). He will have to draw upon all the years of outstanding service his have given Warwickshire to maintain his own level of performance whilst taking responsibility for the team. With the bat, Ian Bell without a hundred last season for the first time in his career surely must fill his boots in the second tier. Jonathon Trott, the same. These two are crucial to stabilising the top 6 in order to allow the younger players like Umeed, Lamb, Banks, Alex Thompson and Pollock to establish themselves. Dom Sibley will open the batting and should score runs and Adam Hose could be a surprise signing at 5 or 6. Tim Ambrose found form towards the end of last season must score more consistent runs. Normally playing 5 bowlers Ambrose needs to take more responsibility at the crease. The Surrey bound Rikki Clarke leaves a large, deep all-rounder hole at 7. Will Rhodes will fill that void and having played within Championship winning squads at Yorkshire, he comes with pedigree and expectation. Amongst the seamers expect the ever-reliable Keith Barker to swing his way to 50+ wickets. In addition as one of only one of 2 players to average more than 30 last season (Trott the other) the all-rounder will again be crucial to Warwickshire’s hopes of promotion. He is in the last year of his contract and needs a big season after slightly disappointing last year with the ball. Ryan Sidebottom was THE shining light after being signed from Birmingham League cricket mid-season and took 24 wickets @ 25 last year. It is also big seasons for experienced seamers Chris Wright and Boyd Rankin who will hope to rekindle their performances of recent past.
In T20 cricket expect Warwickshire (Birmingham Bears I think they are called!) to again be in and around the knockout stages. Experienced T20 specialist Grant Elliot will again captain and big hitting Colin De Grandhomme will fly in to hit the ball into the city centre. Ed Pollock will set the tone at the top of the order and has developed a growing reputation as a one-day hitter. Expect pace off the ball with Jeetan Patel and Josh Poysden providing double spin and a battery of medium pace seamers bowling offer cutters and all types of slower balls. Adam Hose will provide the middle order fireworks to complement the classical top order play of Bell, Trott, Sibley and Hain. The lure of another finals day at their home ground seems to inspire the Bears in T20 cricket.
One Day Cup
50 over cricket may become 3rd on the list of priorities this season behind the Championship promotion hunt and the glitz and glamour of T20. A number of young players will be given a run in the team meaning inconsistency may be present in this form of the game. The Bears will be competitive however if they do not start well and look unlikely to challenge for quarterfinals expect players to be rested for Championship and T20.
Like in 2007 county members will be hoping (and expecting) to gain immediate promotion back to Division One. But with a competition second tier this year, it will be a tall order. Middlesex and Sussex will lead the race for the top spots and I expect those two to take the honours. 20 wickets from the likes of Barker, Patel et al, should be achievable but 1st innings runs which had served Warwickshire so well in recent years, but were so desperately lacking last season could prove to be the defining factor.
In T20, Birmingham Bears will hope to make finals day yet again and the Chief Executive will certainly demand it. With a squad now packed full of dynamic one day cricketers, the pressure will be on to go all the way in the Blast. The One Day Cup will be a physical and psychological challenge during May and June. Not losing sight of the clubs apparent Championship priorities during the mid-summer glut of white ball cricket could be key come September.
Where I think they will finish:
County Championship: 3rd
One Day Cup: 5th (North Group)
T20: Semi Final
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