When Essex, freshly promoted from division two, won the 2017 county championship, it was their first title in 25 years. Under the leadership of Chris Silverwood, who has since been appointed England bowling coach, and with the aid of a dominant Alastair Cook in the early season due to the ODI-heavy England schedule, the Chelmsford-based team showed that the County Championship is anything but predictable. So, with this year’s instalment kicking into gear, who will be looking for that hallowed old trophy come September, and who will be facing the prospect of division two for the foreseeable future? Let’s start with last year’s champions. The largest changes have been behind the scenes, with the promotion of Anthony McGrath to the head coach role following the aforementioned departure of Chris Silverwood. Former England all-rounder Dimi Mascarenhas has also been recruited into the backroom staff, and last year’s captain Ryan ten Doeschate unsurprisingly reprises his role this year. Other notable signings include Australian bowler Peter Siddle, who will fill the overseas player role for the early season, with Kiwi Neil Wagner filling the role come mid-May. This side remains strong, with plenty of depth in the bowling, and plenty of runs if Alastair Cook can show his class as he did last year. Their first game of the season was curtailed by the traditional mid-April rain without a ball being bowled, so we shall have to wait to get an idea of just how close Essex will get to a second consecutive title.
One of the stronger line-ups, at least on paper, are last year’s runners-up, Lancashire. Playing out of Old Trafford, whose multi-year renovation has resulted in one of the finest grounds in the country both from a cricketing and aesthetic perspective, Lancashire raided the financially struggling Durham, with Keaton Jennings and Graeme Onions both crossing to the north-west. This will lead to a fascinating matchup at the top of the order, as Jennings and Haseeb Hameed duke it out for the perennial chance to open the batting for England. The top order is further bolstered by the massively experienced Shiv Chanderpaul at the ripe old age of 43. A six-wicket defeat at the hands of Notts in a rain-affected and low-scoring clash will have been a set-back, but it will be a sur-prise if they aren’t challenging come September.
Nottinghamshire were promoted as runners-up in division two, and are joined in promotion by Worcestershire who topped the table. Big Bash star Travis Head is the big overseas signing at New Road, while head coach Kevin Sharp has taken the reigns in the back room. A 196-run defeat away to Hampshire in the opener demonstrated the frailty of their batting, and a return to division two is very much on the cards. On the other hand, Notts look strong despite the loss of Chris Read and Michael Lumb to retirement and Alex Hales to a white-ball-only contract. In come Chris Nash from Sussex and New Zealand star Ross Taylor to solidify the batting while Steve Mullaney takes over as captain.
Hampshire captain James Vince’s 75 against Worcestershire will have gone a long way to demonstrating to the England selectors that he deserves to retain his test spot. Their star over-seas signing Hashim Amla failed in that game, but he will provide stability in the batting line-up during his early season stint at the Aegeas Bowl. He will be replaced in June by fellow South African Dale Steyn, but the loss of young spinner Mason Crane to in-jury for two months may well prove damaging to Hampshire’s chances of a real title challenge.
Moving along the south coast, the nearly-men of Somerset will be hoping that their great escape of last season will not require a repeat performance this time around. Their side are bolstered by the twins Jamie and Craig Overton, the latter returning from England duty, while the loss of overseas signing Cameron Bancroft to a ball-tampering ban is a blow. With Taunton famously dry and dusty come late summer, Somerset’s sea-son could well be determined by how much they see of spinner Jack Leach when he is not on England duty.
A strong season from Kumar Sangakkara last year saw Surrey place third in the championship, but the departure of the veteran batsman has left the Londoners with a 1,491-run hole to fill in their batting side. This may be briefly filled by Indian superstar Virat Kohli, but a more permanent replacement in the form of Aussie Mitchell Marsh was scuppered due to an ankle injury. On the bowling front, the signing of newly retired Morne Morkel on a Kolpak contract may well prove crucial, while Tom Curran is sure to continue his excellent form when not on England or IPL duty.
Finally, Yorkshire will hope to improve on their lacklustre batting performances which saw them finish fourth in a campaign where captain Gary Ballance averaged 67, a full 30 runs higher than the next best in the side. A side bereft of England players Liam Plunkett, David Willey, and Adil Rashid, the latter to a white-ball contract and the others to the IPL, will be reinforced by the addition of Cheteshwar Pujara and later on Kiwi captain Kane Williamson. With more consistent batting performances this season, there is no reason why the white rose might not fly over English domestic cricket once again.