Having scuppered Kent’s chances with the Division 2 predictions, here’s my look at Division 1. Just to get my excuses in early the last two years have been incredibly close, and I did get the relegated teams right last year. To be honest, this year looks to be even harder to call and I can’t see a team being cast adrift as Surrey and Worcester have in the past two seasons.
The loss of Mushtaq will hit the 2007 champions harder than the loss of Chris Adams, despite the emergence of Ollie Raynor. Last season’s hero with the bat, Matt Prior, will be spending the summer with England and the team will be reliant on the evergreen Murray Goodwin and new boy Ed Joyce, looking to get back into England reckoning. They were close to going down last season and while Yasir Arafat will help the aging pace attack, they will struggle.
Probably the county that will suffer most to England call ups, with Andrew Flintoff and James Anderson away for most of the year. Add to that the loss of Dominic Cork and Stuart Law, then this is a rebuilding season during which they will do well to retain their first division status. Paul Horton will be key to run scoring, while captain Glen Chapple will need to take a lot of wickets, particularly if Saj Mahmood joins Flintoff and Anderson with England. This year’s first division looks too strong for those that are left.
Only one player missing from last season’s promotion, but it will be strange sight to see a Hick-less Worcestershire team. Nonetheless, the batting looks to be the strong suit, with Stephen Moore and Steve Davies looking to bolster their international credentials. Kabir Ali is another looking to restart his International career and if Simon Jones stays fit (and as I write, he’s been ruled out of the start of the season), they have a decent pace attack with Imran Arif. With Gareth Batty and Ian Fisher providing slow bowling options, they have a much better chance of staying up than last time they were in Division 1.
A clear out of the fringe players shouldn’t impact too much on the Bears, who should score plenty of runs, particularly with Ian Bell and Tim Ambrose likely to be in the fold for much of the season. Jeetan Patel could be an astute signing if it is a hot summer. However, the pace bowling seems to lack the cutting edge needed to challenge this season. Chris Woakes is clearly promising, but is also barely 20, while Neil Carter and Darren Maddy won’t find wickets as easy to come by in Division 1. They won’t lose many, but won’t win many either.
With an Ashes series during the summer, it will be hard to watch Marcus Trescothick piling on the runs for Somerset. However, with Trescothick, Hildredth and Langer, runs will come a plenty even with Ian Blackwell decamping to Durham. Andrew Caddick will be hoping for a better season on the injury front, but age does like it is catching up on him. Charl Willougby will be the main threat with the ball again, but twenty wickets might be a struggle. Like Warwickshire, they may go through the season unbeaten, but won’t win enough to challenge for the title.
A first half of 2008 in turmoil following the departure of Shane Warne made them midseason favourites for relegation. However, a blistering second half to the season almost saw them take the pennant. Astute captaincy from Dimitri Mascarhenas along with runs from throughout the team and the discovery that Imran Tahir was indeed a match-winning bowler were the key to success. Like Yorkshire, they will do best in a dry summer and before Tahir’s injury, I’d have taken them to edge the title, despite losing Michael Brown. They’ll still be close, though. The top four this season is a real toss up.
Although Stuart Broad won’t feature much, Ryan Sidebottom is likely to be back and along with Darren Pattinson, Charlie Schrek and Mark Footit, they have a pace attack to match anyone in the Division. Graeme Swann will be on England duty, but in Samit Patel and Jason Brown, there is plenty of cover there too. The signing of Ali Brown shows that runs are the key for Notts and this may be the difference between the title and 3rd.
After the celebrations last season, this time round it may be more of a struggle for the champions. Steve Harmison is less likely to feature as he continues his international comeback, although with the likes of Mark Davies, Graham Onions and Liam Plunkett, there is still plenty in the pace department. The recruitment of Ian Blackwell will provide a spin option as well as providing valuable middle order runs. Another big season for Will Smith may see them close to retaining their title.
I don’t like this. However, a batting line up including Michael Vaughan with something to prove, Jacques Rudolph and new skipper Antony McGrath is going to score plenty of runs. The pace attack of Matthew Hoggard, Rana Naved and Tim Bresnan is a match for Durham and Notts and the spin options of Adil Rashid and David Wainwright means that Yorkshire have on paper the most balanced team in the country. Unfortunately, I’ve just ruined their chances, but I think the pennant could be flying over Headingley again come September.