The Specsavers County Championship gets underway on Friday and there are three promotion places up for grabs this season in Division Two – but which sides are best placed to claim them?
2018: Seventh, relegated.
2019 prediction: Champions, promoted.
Sky Bet odds: 7/4 favourites
What’s changed? A disappointing 2018 season ended in relegation, albeit by the finest of margins, and the Red Rose county will have a new captain as they bid to return to the top flight at the first attempt. Liam Livingstone stepped down as skipper as he tries to rediscover his best form and add runs to a batting order that was sorely lacking in them last season, Dane Vilas will lead the team in his stead. Meanwhile, the signings of Aussie pair Joe Burns, for up to 10 Championship games, and Glenn Maxwell, for up to five Championship matches as well as 50-over and T20 cricket, should also bolster Glen Chapple’s side, who have lost Jordan Clark to Surrey.
Wicket-taker: Tom Bailey was called up to the England Lions after finishing last season as the leading wicket-taker in Division One. The seamer will again have a big part to play and a similar haul to last year could go a long way to earning his side promotion. Having James Anderson available to lead the attack for up to 10 games prior to the Ashes is another huge boost.
Century-maker: Keaton Jennings played 10 Championship games last season, scoring three centuries and was the only Lancashire batsman to average over 40, 47.26 to be precise, and had he played the other four, they may still be in Division One. He is likely to be available throughout the summer this season and despite his struggles in international cricket, at this level he is a proven run-scorer. Haseeb Hameed finding his 2016 form would not go amiss, either.
2019 prediction: Second, promoted.
Sky Bet odds: 11/4
What’s changed? First and foremost, the head coach. Stuart Law has come in and will lead the county in all formats, joining after an encouraging spell in charge of Windies. The acquisition of AB de Villiers for the start of Vitality Blast has understandably excited fans, but while white-ball success would be nice, Law’s main aim will surely be to get a squad still comprising many of those who won the County Championship in 2016, back to Division One.
Wicket-taker: James Harris led the way with 61 wickets at 20.54 last year, assisted by the evergreen Tim Murtagh as well as youngster Ethan Bamber, who made such an impact at the end of last summer. However, if the fit-again Toby Roland-Jones can get anywhere near the level that saw him starring for England a couple of years ago, he could clean up in Division Two.
Century-maker: Stevie Eskinazi topped the averages for Middlesex in red-ball cricket last summer with just 35.23. Far from awful, especially in a summer dominated by the bowlers, but with a batting line-up filled with familiar names, Middlesex will expect better this time around with England’s forgotten man Dawid Malan perhaps most determined to show his class.
2019 prediction: Third, promoted.
Sky Bet odds: 7/2
What’s changed? In truth, not a great deal. The only major incoming for Jason Gillespie’s side is Pakistan left-arm seamer Mir Hamza for the first two months of the season, perhaps to soften the blow of potentially losing Jofra Archer to England duty, while Rashid Khan will return for the early part of the Vitality Blast.
Wicket-taker: Ollie Robinson was the star last summer, taking 74 Championship wickets, and with Chris Jordan and Archer likely to be missing at various points during the season, the 25-year-old will again be tasked with leading the attack.
Century-maker: With top-order runs hard to come by, Ben Brown’s runs in the lower middle-order often proved invaluable in 2018. The captain will want more from his top-order this year though and a little more consistency from enterprising opener Phil Salt could go a long way in Sussex’s push for promotion.
2018: Eighth, relegated.
2019 prediction: Fourth.
Sky Bet odds: 13/2
What’s changed? Plenty. Alex Gidman is the new first-team coach with Kevin Sharp taking up the role of head of player and coaches development, while South African left-armer Wayne Parnell has signed a three-year Kolpak deal with the club. Australian Callum Ferguson returns but the highly-rated Joe Clarke has left for Nottinghamshire, with Riki Wessels moving the other way.
Wicket-taker: The injured Joe Leach was a big miss for Worcestershire for much of last season and looks likely to miss the start of this campaign too. Ed Barnard stepped up in his absence but after 40 wickets last year, young quick Josh Tongue, if he can stay fit, looks well placed to kick on again in 2019.
Century-maker: Four centuries and 957 runs in Division One last season. Even at 35, Daryl Mitchell remains the key man in the Worcestershire batting line-up. He will hope another experienced head, Wessels, can play his part too this summer, following his move from Trent Bridge.
2019 prediction: Fifth.
Sky Bet odds: 25/1
What’s changed? Marcus North has replaced Geoff Cook as director of cricket, the recently-retired James Franklin has taken over as head coach from Jon Lewis and the pair’s first major decision has proven controversial: the appointment of Cameron Bancroft, fresh from a nine-month ban for ball tampering, as captain for County Championship and Royal London One-Day Cup games; the Aussie batsman fills the vacancy left by Paul Collingwood.
Wicket-taker: Once again, Durham need look no further than Chris Rushworth. The ever-consistent and unerringly-accurate seamer is approaching his 33rd birthday but after 60 wickets at 20 last summer and with Mark Wood firmly back in favour with England, he is still the bowler on whom Durham most rely.
Century-maker: Alex Lees was once tipped for Test honours and will be aiming to show exactly why in his first full season at Emirates Riverside. No one will have more to prove than Bancroft though and given his previous experience in county cricket and a promising start to his Test career, prior to sandpaper-gate, it would be little surprise if he were to answer his critics with weight of runs, rather than words.
2019 prediction: Sixth.
Sky Bet odds: 20/1
What’s changed? Scotland fast bowler Stuart Whittingham has come in as Gloucestershire try to replace their leading wicket-takers from the past two seasons, Liam Norwell and Craig Miles, both of whom have joined Warwickshire. Meanwhile, Kieran Noema-Barnett turned down a new contract after topping the club’s batting averages in last year’s County Championship. Australian seamer Dan Worrell is back after his four-match stint last summer and Michael Klinger will take on the role of batting consultant as well as captain in the Vitality Blast.
Wicket-taker: Norwell and Miles may be gone but Gloucestershire still have Ryan Higgins to call upon and after his 48 wickets at 18.37 last summer, the 24-year-old seamer has proven himself to be a very good option and will be well supported by left-armer Matt Taylor.
Century-maker: His name may no longer be mentioned in conversations about potential England batsmen, but Chris Dent is still a very talented county opener. The left-hander has been a reliable source of runs for 10 years now and, aged only 28, has got plenty more in him yet.
2019 prediction: Seventh.
Sky Bet odds: 16/1
What’s changed? An improved showing last season came at a cost as Leicestershire saw highly-rated all-rounder Zak Chappell snapped up by Notts and Ben Raine move to Durham, while Cameron Delport has joined Essex. Meanwhile, long-serving wicketkeeper Ned Eckersley was one of four players released and Michael Carberry left the club by mutual consent. Seamer Chris Wright has joined from Warwickshire with all-rounder Arron Lilley arriving from Lancashire and fast bowler Will Davis from Derbyshire.
Wicket-taker: Mohammad Abbas. A top-class bowler, who has used accuracy and skill rather than pace to excel at Test level, he seems almost tailor-made for English conditions. Don’t be surprised if he improves on his mightily impressive 50 wickets at 17.72 from last season.
Century-maker: The only Leicestershire batsmen to score a Championship century last summer was Colin Ackermann. The South African made two of them, including a top score of 196no, averaged just shy of 40, and will be aiming to push on again in 2019.
2019 prediction: Eighth.
Sky Bet odds: 20/1
What’s changed? Firstly, David Houghton has returned as head of cricket with Steve Kirby joining from the MCC as assistant and bowling coach. John Wright has taken up a new advisory position with Dominic Cork taking over as T20 head coach. Cork will need to appoint a new captain with Gary Wilson one of a number of departures, including Ben Slater, whose exit was confirmed at the end of last season. Meanwhile, Kiwi quick Logan van Beek has joined as an overseas player.
Wicket-taker: After 50 wickets at under 20 last year, 35-year-old Tony Palladino will again lead the attack this summer, and with Hardus Viljoen among those to have left, Derbyshire will be looking to the veteran seamer more than ever.
Century-maker: In an increasingly chaotic world, it is nice to have something to rely on and in this instance, that something is Wayne Madsen churning out runs for Derbyshire. He made over 1,000 Championship runs last season and a century in last week’s match against Leeds Bradford MCC suggests he is ready to do it all again this season.
2019 prediction: Ninth.
Sky Bet odds: 25/1
What’s changed? Windies captain Jason Holder has signed up for the first month of the season but, after losing Ben Duckett and Richard Gleeson to Notts and Lancashire respectively at the end of last summer, as well as Steven Crook to retirement, and Rory Kleinveldt’s decision to return to South Africa, it could be another tough year for Northants. Temba Bavuma’s arrival for a couple of months from the middle of May should help. The Kolpak signing of Zimbabwean Blessing Muzarabani is the only other addition.
Wicket-taker: Ben Sanderson‘s 60 Championship wickets at 16.70 last summer was one of few high points for Northants last season and the 30-year-old seamer will again be asked to shoulder much of the wicket-taking responsibility.
Century-maker: While Sam and Tom are battling for England places, the middle Curran brother is making his way at Northants. Ben Curran was one of only three batsmen at the club to average more than 30 in the County Championship last summer and after spending the winter working with Gary Kirsten in South Africa, the left-hander is primed to make his mark.
2019 prediction: 10th.
Sky Bet odds: 25/1
What’s changed? Where to start? Robert Croft has gone with Matthew Maynard taking over as interim head coach until the end of the season, Chris Cooke has been appointed captain of the County Championship and 50-over sides and former skipper Mark Wallace has come in as director of cricket. Aneurin Donald has departed for Hampshire but Billy Root joins from Notts, Shaun Marsh is back as overseas player and another Australian, Marnus Labuschagne, has .