The Specsavers County Championship gets underway on Friday with all the Division One clubs having strengthened over the summer. Kalika Mehta looks at which sides are best placed to claim the title.
2019 prediction: Champions
Sky Bet Odds: 7/4 favourites
What’s changed? Surrey were head and shoulders above their opponents in Division One last season, as they swept to their first Championship title in 16 years. The team’s success saw international call-ups during the summer and winter for Sam Curran, Ollie Pope, Rory Burns and Ben Foakes. Alec Stewart has bolstered his side by adding seamer Liam Plunkett and all-rounder Jordan Clark, strengthening an impressive attack boasting former South Africa fast bowler Morne Morkel. Retaining the trophy will undoubtedly test Surrey’s squad depth and resources, with the team likely to lose players to the World Cup and Ashes Test squad throughout the summer.
Kent vs Hants
April 17, 2019, 12:30pm
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Wicket-taker: Morkel showed there was plenty of life and destruction left in his bowling yet, picking up four five-wicket hauls as he claimed 59 wickets in just 10 Championship matches in his first year with the London club. There is nothing to suggest he will not be just as potent this season.
Century-maker: Young batsman Pope reinforced why he received his England call-up last summer, by striking 251 in the County Champion match against the MCC in Dubai. With 10 Championship matches before the Ashes, the 21-year-old can further enhance his chances of making the England squad by replicating the fine form he has shown over the last 18 months.
2019 prediction: Second
Sky Bet Odds: 7/2
What’s changed? After the highs of 2017, when Essex lifted the County Championship title having been promoted to Division One, last summer proved to be slightly disappointing as the Eagles finished in third. Talented young batsman Dan Lawrence, 21, acknowledged he suffered a lack of consistency with the bat and has spent the winter working on technical issues to reinvigorate his game and batting. Of course, you also cannot look past former England captain Sir Alastair Cook, who has said winning trophies with the county is now his driving force.
Wicket-taker: After a sensational 2017 in which Jamie Porter helped lead Essex to the title, the seamer continued to impress with the ball last year – finishing as the third highest wicket-taker in the Championship with 58 scalps. After a challenging winter with the England Lions, on slow pitches in India against their challenging ‘A’ team, the 25-year-old is primed to show Trevor Bayliss et al he is waiting in the wings should he be required.
Century-maker: It is impossible to look past Cook, who opened his account this summer with Essex with an unbeaten century in the warm-up match against Cambridge MCCU. Without the pressure of international cricket, the former England opener looks in great touch and ready to dominate with his boyhood club.
2019 prediction: Third.
Sky Bet odds: 8/1
What’s changed? Over the last two seasons Somerset have agonisingly finished runners-up – that elusive maiden Championship title proving just out of reach. Marcus Trescothick is still going strong at the top of the order and will be joined by Pakistan batsman Azhar Ali, while fellow veterans James Hildreth and Lewis Gregory provide middle-order solidity. They have added seamer Jack Brooks to a bowling line-up that includes spin duo Dom Bess and Jack Leach, with the pair set to play a big part for the team once more.
Wicket-taker: Leach missed out on playing in England’s Test series defeat to the West Indies earlier this year, dropping out of the squad for the third Test. Impressing in the early part of the season will be crucial to building on his impressive showing earlier in the winter in Sri Lanka.
Century-maker: The calls for Hildreth to receive an England call-up became even louder last year after yet another season of domination with the bat. The Somerset batsman was one of only two players to score over 1,000 Championship runs, finishing behind only Burns. Regardless of his age, the 34-year-old surely cannot be ignored for much longer if he continues to amass runs.
2019 prediction: Fourth
Sky Bet Odds: 7/1
What’s changed? There have been many comings and goings at Nottinghamshire with Matt Milnes, Ben Kitt, Will Fraine, Riki Wessels and Billy Root all leaving Trent Bridge. In their place talented batsmen Joe Clarke, who has been tipped as a future England player, Ben Duckett and opener Ben Slater have joined the ranks as well as all-rounder Zak Chappell. Peter Moores’ side have been further boosted by Australian pace bowler James Pattinson, who will be available for Notts’ first 10 Championship matches as he looks to find form with the Dukes ball ahead of the Ashes. The seamer will be more than a capable replacement for Harry Gurney, who has retired from first-class cricket.
Wicket-taker: Having Stuart Broad available for the early part of the season is a big boost for Nottinghamshire but Pattinson looks to be building up back to his best form after his injury lay-off and could have a big say in how the Trent Bridge team fare this year.
Century-maker: Clarke has flourished over recent seasons and showcased plenty more of his talents with the bat last year as he struck three centuries over the course of the season, finishing with an impressive 853 runs for relegated Worcestershire. England all-rounder Moeen Ali has tipped the 25-year-old to step onto the international scene in coming years and another good turnout with the bat will only go to further enhance his reputation.
2019 prediction: Fifth
Sky Bet odds: 7/1
What’s changed? Plenty of changes have been afoot at Headingley with big names such as Liam Plunkett, Alex Lees and Jack Brooks all leaving the club while Ryan Sidebottom and Andrew Hodd both retired. Andrew Gale’s side is a team in transition but one that includes talented South African paceman Duanne Olivier after his decision to sign a three-year Kolpak deal.
Wicket-taker: In his short international career, Olivier made a significant impact with the ball, claiming three five-wicket hauls in just 10 Test matches and picking up a total of 49 wickets in those games. With an abundance of talent and the ability to get the ball to reverse-swing even on flat pitches, he will provide a challenge many county players may well struggle to handle.
Century-maker: Gary Ballance was instrumental in helping Yorkshire finish fourth last year, hitting three centuries, with a high score of 194, finishing with 906 runs for the season. With places up for grabs in an unsettled Test side, runs are the only currency that can provide him with a route back into the team.
2018: Champions Division Two, promoted
2019 prediction: Sixth
Sky Bet odds: 8/1
What’s changed? An immediate return to Division One for Warwickshire was underpinned by the retiring Jonathan Trott and replacing a batsman of his quality this season will be challenging. Equally, the Bears will be without talisman Ian Bell, who injured his ankle ahead of the Pakistan Super League, and has been ruled out for three months. New Zealand spinner Jeetan Patel has been made captain for all three formats following Grant Elliott’s retirement.
Wicket-taker: Chris Woakes will be keen to continue to push his case for a place in the Ashes squad and early-season wickets will be a minimum requirement if he is to remind the selectors of his talents on home soil.
Century-maker: Opener Will Rhodes will be required to step up in the absence of Warwickshire’s two most senior batsmen but the 24-year-old showed he is more than capable of being a crucial part of the batting line-up, falling only slightly short of scoring 1,000 runs in the Championship last year.
2019 prediction: Seventh
Sky Bet Odds: 8/1
What’s changed? Hampshire will be keen to avoid another season of slogging for survival. There have been a fair amount of outgoings including the retirement of Sean Ervine, whose batting proved crucial in the 2018 relegation battle. South African opener Aiden Markram is available for the first two Championship matches, while the side have added bowlers Keith Barker and James Fuller to their ranks too.
Wicket-taker: Windies paceman Fidel Edwards was one of two Hampshire seamers, along with Kyle Abbott, who took over 50 wickets; if they can fire, Hampshire have every chance of avoiding a third successive relegation battle.
Century-maker: James Vince has moved up to the top of the Hampshire order and is hungry to earn an England recall. Consistent, heavy run-scoring will only strengthen his claims.
2018: Runners-up Division Two, promoted
2019 prediction: Eighth, relegated
Sky Bet Odds: 20/1
What’s changed? After securing a return to Division One, Kent could well be a facing an immediate return to Division Two as they prepare for a season without talisman Joe Denly. The all-rounder is currently away at the Indian Premier League, along with captain Sam Billings, and is in contention for the Ashes. Australian opener Matt Renshaw will also be available for the early part of the Championship season.