As the fat lady limbers up on England’s World Cup “campaign”, the serious business of the Championship is about to start. We already know from my Division 2 predictions that Essex and Notts are going to win promotion. Who will they pass on the way down and who will lift the trophy? Teams, as before, are in reverse order.
Promoted last season but about to find out how much tougher it is in Division 1 than Division 2. Phil Jacques is a proven run scorer, but surely the sands of time must catch up with Graeme Hick soon, leaving Vikram Solanki as the other source of runs. The main source of wickets last year, Zaheer Khan, is not coming back though, so Matt Mason and Kabir Ali need to fill the gap. Gareth Batty still harbours England hopes and at 30 should be approaching his prime as a spinner. Also with England hopes is highly regarded wicketkeeper Steven Davies. However, this year will be a struggle and survival has to be the aim.
Only Matt Walker and Martin van Jaarsveld got a thousand runs last year. Amjad Khan was the leading wicket taker with 34, yet Kent finished fifth, showing the importance of a good all round team effort, and the paucity of the four teams at the bottom of Division 1 last season. The teams that have come up are an improvement and Yorks and Durham look much stronger, so Kent need to improve to keep up their unbroken run in Division 1. This won’t be helped by the injury to Amjad which will rule him out for the season or the delay to Andrew Hall joining the team. In particular, Rob Key had a dreadful season with the bat, but it’s going to take more than his resurgence for Kent not to struggle this year.
Runs were the main problem for Warwickshire, with only Jim Trott and the now retired Nick Knight getting over 600. Kumar Sangakkara should help on this front, bit Darren Maddy looks like a short term solution with one dayers in mind. Warwickshire won’t see much of Ian Bell this year, and it needs to be a big season for Alex Loudon with bat and ball if he wants to get back in to the England reckoning. Heath Streak and Dale Steyn will be a real force with the new ball and the wickets they take should win enough games to see them survive.
Paul Collingwood will be missing, but it is likely that Durham will see more of Steve Harmison and Liam Plunkett than they did last season. Add Graham Onions to the list and that is a pretty formidable pace attack. Dale Blenkenstein weighed in with over 1400 runs and if Michael Di Venuto brings his Derbyshire form from last year, then young talent such as Gordon Muchall and Phil Mustard should flourish. They survived by half a point last season. They should be a bit more comfortable this season.
The great imponderables. If Mark Ramprakash keeps up his form from last season then the rest can go home now. However, Division 1 is tougher than Division 2. Their middle order of Mark Butcher, Ramps and Ali Brown behind an opening pair of Scott Newman and Jon Batty is as good a batting line up as any in the league on paper but youth isn’t on their side and if they do struggle, there isn’t a lot as back-up. However, if Rikki Clarke starts to justify the early promise week in week out with bat and ball, then this team could be challenging for the prize money. The bowling looks much weaker than the batting, with Mo Akram and Azhar Mahmood having little in support. The spin twins of Salisbury and Doshi, backed up by a returning Chris Schofield, will need to match their success of last year or Surrey could end up with a lot of drawn games.
At the start of the year they were certainties for relegation and ninth place. Chris Adams had come and gone. Darren Lehmann had retired, Michael Lumb had gone to Hampshire and Anthony McGrath never wanted to play for Yorkshire again. Then Jacques Rudolph was signed as a Kolpak, Younus Khan was signed as the overseas player, Darren Gough and Martyn Moxon returned as captain and coach respectively and McGrath decided to stay. With Craig White and the promising Joe Sayers, this gives a strong, if untried, batting line-up. And who knows, we may even see Michael Vaughan turning out. Gough, Jason Gillespie, Matthew Hoggard and Tim Bresnan form an experienced, pace attack, backed up by Deon Kruis and a raft of youngsters. The main cause for promise, though is the spin attack with Adil Rashid and Mark Lawson hoping to continue where they left off last season. The lows and highs of the winter have brought a momentum of its own. If that continues, then anything is possible.
Ironically, the Chris Adams affair may have a greater effect on Sussex than Yorkshire. The Sussex triumph of last season was based largely upon a great team spirit. If times get tough over the season, the effect of the captain trying to leave during the winter may be crucial. Murray Goodwin’s runs will again be crucial in giving Mushtaq Ahmed enough runs to bowl at, and they will also be looking for more runs from their openers, with Chris Nash looking like he’s got the nod over Richard Montgomerie. The loss of Michael Yardy for the start of the season will be a blow and if Matt Prior does get an England call up, his runs will also be difficult to replace. The strength is the bowling attack. James Kirtley and Jason Lewry are still a force at this level and Mushtaq was comfortably the bowler of the English season last year. They will challenge for the title, but will just come up short this year.
Like Sussex, the bowling is stronger than the batting, and has been strengthened further by the signing of Muttiah Muralitheran. While James Anderson and Andrew Flintoff likely to be away with England, it would be a surprise if Sajid Mahmood wasn’t available for most of the season to form a pace attack with Dominic Cork, Glen Chapple and the promising Tom Smith. Gary Keedy was tipped by many to be England’s second spinner over the winter and will team up with Murali. The batting doesn’t have the same strength in depth, although with Stuart Law, Brad Hodge and Mal Loye, there should be enough runs scored to make a challenge. However, even if the weather holds off for them, they’re not quite good enough again.
Like Sussex the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But for the feats of Mark Ramprakash, we’d have been talking up the John Crawley revival and with James Adams, Nik Pothas and Michael Carberry, there should be plenty of runs for Shane Warne to play with. In addition to this, Michael Lumb will be looking to recapture the form that got him an A team tour three years ago, moving from Yorkshire. The bowling isn’t just about Warne, with Dimitri Mascarenhas, Chris Tremlett and the newly signed Stuart Clark all likely to contribute in a balanced and potent attack. Third last year, this is likely to be Warne’s last season and no-one in the game (including one IT Botham) has had a better scriptwriter.