Can Lancashire do it again?
After a first title in more than three-quarters of a century, Lancashire won't give up the pennant without a fight, but Durham and Warwickshire look strong again. Can Somerset finally win a trophy? And will the London teams continue their renaissance?
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Captain Phil Mustard
Coach Geoff Cook
In Mark Wood
Out Kyle Coetzer (Northants), Ben Harmison (Kent)
Overseas players Herschelle Gibbs (T20), Mitchell Johnson (T20)
Last year 3rd in CC Div 1; 4th in FLt20 North Group; CB40 semi-finalists
Is the smell of embrocation beginning to cling a little too powerfully to the Durham dressing room? Their strength is undeniable, but if they did win the Championship, to follow their successes in 2008 and 2009, it would be an impressive feat for an ageing side. Paul Collingwood, an Olympic torch bearer in June, can bolster their batting if he can maintain his drive after retiring from Test cricket and a fully fit Graham Onions, if England keep away, would be another boon. But can Liam Plunkett get it together and does Steve Harmison, at 33, have a big county season left in him?
One to watch
Scott Borthwick, Durham's talented leg-spinning allrounder, has had quite a time since the end of the last county season, highlighted by an England ODI debut in India. He has been to India twice, Dubai twice, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and has worked hard on improving his economy in one-day cricket. "Four-day cricket is still the game for me," he has said, expressing relief that he can turn his attentions again to Championship cricket, where he can learn to bowl long spells and add variation to his repertoire. At 21, he deserves time to develop.
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Captain Glen Chapple
Coach Peter Moores
In Jordan Clark, Naaqash Tahir (Warwickshire)
Out Mark Chilton (retired), Steven Cheetham (released)
Overseas players Ashwell Prince
Last year CC Div 1 winners; FLt20 semi-finalists; 4th in CB40 Group C
Few expected Lancashire to end their 77-year wait for the Championship title last year but they showed what can be achieved by a team that makes the most of their resources. The squad has changed little over the winter - and bringing in Ashwell Prince strengthens the batting - so there is no reason why they shouldn't mount a strong defence although last year they were fortunate with the lack of injuries they suffered. Playing fewer matches at Aigburth will not work in their favour unless Old Trafford produces result pitches.
One to watch
Simon Kerrigan. With Monty Panesar back in the Test team and Samit Patel earning a chance there is unlikely to be an international opening in the near future, but Kerrigan will push for honours in years to come. Last season he took 9 for 51 to win the crucial, penultimate Championship game against Hampshire and spent some of his winter with England Lions. Kerrigan bowls quite quickly but gets considerable bounce, although it will be interesting to see how often both he and Gary Keedy play together early season.
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Captain Neil Dexter
Coach Angus Fraser
In Joe Denly (Kent), Ollie Rayner (Sussex)
Out Ben Scott (Worcestershire), Dan Housego (Gloucestershire), Jamie Dalrymple (released), Scott Newman (Kent - loan)
Last year 1st in CC Div 2 (promoted); 9th in FLt20 South Group; 2nd in CB40 Group A
It is a major challenge stepping up to the more intense cricket of Division One but they will take confidence from winning the second tier last season. Sam Robson, Chris Rogers and Dawid Malan provide the spine of a capable batting line-up, which could be bolstered by Andrew Strauss' return. Eoin Morgan should be available for large parts of the summer too and if England also refrain from picking Steven Finn, Middlesex could be blessed with three high-quality cricketers that will be a fillip for their survival hopes. Great things are anticipated of seamer Toby Roland-Jones, with Tim Murtagh and Corey Colleymore bringing bags of experience that could see Middlesex surprise a few.
One to watch
Chris Rogers' ability with the bat has propped up Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire in the past and last year his 1,303 runs at 54.29 fired Middlesex to the Division Two title. They will need another good haul from Rogers again if they are to compete in the top division.
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Captain Chris Read
Coach Mick Newell
In James Taylor (Leicestershire), Harry Gurney (Leicestershire), Michael Lumb (Hampshire), Karl Turner, Sam Kelsall, Sam Wood, Brett Hutton
Out Akhil Patel (released), Ali Brown (retired), Charlie Shreck (Kent), Mark Wagh (retired)
Overseas Adam Voges (from late May)
Last year 6th in CC Div 1; FLt20 quarter-finalists; 2nd in CB40 Group C
Nottinghamshire's title challenges have too often been undermined by a lack of top-order runs. Every year the top three is reshuffled, but too often the captain, Chris Read, comes in at No. 7 to begin another rescue act. This year Michael Lumb, earmarked for No. 3, smacks more of a good one-day signing, but Alex Hales can develop at the top of the order, James Taylor and Adam Voges promise mid-order runs and if Samit Patel remains on the fringes of the international side they might finally crack it. This year, oddly, it might be lack of depth in bowling that costs them most dear, especially as Darren Pattinson could be an early season absentee.
One to watch
Notts' coach Mick Newell signed Taylor anticipating that it would be a while before England came hunting, but such has been the national team's problematic winter, he will be monitored closely by all those looking for batting alternatives. His move from Leicester to Nottingham might be short in terms of miles - about 30 if you don't get confused by the ring roads - but it is considerably more demanding batting-wise as he encounters not just Division One attacks but one of the most bowler-friendly grounds in the country. It will be an invaluable education for him, but the A* grades may take a year or two.
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Captain Marcus Trescothick
Coach Brian Rose
Overseas players Vernon Philander, Chris Gayle (T20), Albie Morkel (T20)
Out Charl Willoughby (Essex), Murali Kartik (Surrey)
Last year 4th in CC Div 1; FLt20 runners-up; CB40 runners-up
Very good. There is no reason Somerset should not continue to challenge in all formats, though England call-ups might mean they are unable to field their full-strength T20 side until the quarter-finals. Most encouragingly, their squad contains several talented young men who promise much long into the future. Keep an eye on Craig Meschede - tipped for greatness by no less a judge than Mike Procter - and left-arm spinner George Dockrell. In the absence of Mural Kartik, the young Irishman will gain far more opportunity. He has a bright future.
One to watch
Marcus Trescothick might not be an imaginative choice in this category, but is there a finer sight in the county game than the Somerset captain in full flow? Appreciate him while you can. The fact that Tresco averages 70.82 in first-class cricket (4,887 runs in 45 games) over the last three seasons pretty much tells its own story and there are times when his imperious dominance revives memories of Graham Gooch. And there really isn't much praise higher than that. If Somerset are to go the extra step and win a final (they have lost five in a row), however, Trescothick's record in big games may have to improve: he has tallied 86 (at an average of 17.20) in five Lord's finals and his highest score in four T20 finals is 33.
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Captain Rory Hamilton-Brown
Coach Chris Adams
In Jon Lewis (Gloucestershire), George Edwards, Freddie van den Burgh
Out Michael Brown (retired), Chris Schofield (released) Simon King (released)
Overseas players Murali Kartik, Jacques Rudolph, Dirk Nannes (T20)
Last year 2nd in CC Division Two (promoted); 5th in FLt20 South Group; CB40 winners
When Chris Adams took over at Surrey at the end of 2008, he inherited what he called a "dysfunctional club" that was "on its knees". He had a point, too: despite the mediocre results, the club was still imbued with the arrogance of champions. Adams talked of "performing a handbrake turn in a cruise liner" and progress was, understandably, gradual. Now, however, with promotion achieved, a trophy secured and record profits off the pitch, all the signs are that Surrey are, at last, heading in the right direction. Managing expectations is likely to become more of an issue for Adams as a squad bursting with young talent may still be a couple of years from their best, but they should be contenders in all three competitions.
One to watch
Quite a few choices here - Jason Roy, Chris Jordan, Stuart Meaker and Matt Dunn are all hugely talented young men - but it is, perhaps, Rory Hamilton-Brown who generates most interest. Now 24, Hamilton-Brown's batting, perhaps inhibited by the burden of captaincy and a positivity that would have Sehwag urging him to calm down, has not blossomed as it might have done. He can certainly play, but he has much to do to dissuade the doubters than he can become one of the best six batsmen in England. His bowling - quick, flat off-spin - could be a valuable limited-overs weapon for England in the same way that Michael Yardy's was - while he remains an excellent fielder.
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Captain Michael Yardy
Coach Mark Robinson
In Matt Machan
Out Lou Vincent (released), Ollie Rayner (Middlesex)
Overseas Steve Magoffin, Scott Styris (T20)
Last year 5th in CC Div 1; FLt20 quarter-finalists; CB40 semi-finalists
Although the chances of re-establishing their mid-2000s dominance of the Championship are slimmer than Monty Panesar winning a catching competition, Sussex have bounced back well from relegation three summers ago. In Ed Joyce and Murray Goodwin they have two of Division One's most experienced run-getters, but the bowling looks light in the four-day game, especially if Panesar continues his renaissance with England. Though they fared badly in their guest appearance in the Caribbean T20, losing heavily in the three out of four matches, they have options and experience throughout the squad and should be one-day contenders again.
One to watch
Will Beer experienced a year in the wilderness last season but after wintering in Australia, training at the Darren Lehman academy and playing grade cricket in Adelaide, he was offered a route back into the team during Sussex's Caribbean excursion. While his team-mates struggled, Beer's legspin was tidy and he then took 4 for 26 against Lancashire in Dubai last month. The focus will be on limited-overs cricket but, if Panesar is absent, Beer may even add to his tally of five first-class appearances in four years.
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Captain Jim Troughton
Coach Ashley Giles
In Recordo Gordon (academy); Chris Wright (Essex)
Out Ant Botha (retired), Naqaash Tahir (Lancashire), Maurice Holmes (released)
Overseas players Jeetan Patel
Last year 2nd in CC Div 1; 8th in FLt20 North Group; 5th in CB40 Group B
Strong contenders. Warwickshire should challenge in the Championship and are keen to improve last year's wretched limited-overs form. They are well placed to do so. In Keith Barker, Tim Ambrose, Chris Woakes, Neil Carter and Rikki Clarke - who played some of the most consistent cricket of his career last season - they have allrounders to add depth to the team, while Ian Bell, whose limited-overs international career may well be over, should be available more often, too. Jeetan Patel looks a modest overseas signing but, with a promise of better pitches and as fit a squad as any in the country, they should enjoy another good season.
One to watch
In Chris Woakes, Warwickshire may have found themselves the Ramprakash of this generation: a high-achieving county cricketer who is not going to play much international cricket. Woakes, an allrounder worthy of a place in any county side with bat or ball, performed so well last year (579 championship runs at 48.25 and 56 wickets at 21.78) that, had he been available for the entire Championship campaign, he might have come close to completing 'the double'. A perceived lack of pace with the ball impedes his international progress, but at county level, he's growing into a giant.
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Captain Daryl Mitchell
Director of cricket Steve Rhodes
In David Lucas (Northamptonshire); Ben Scott (Middlesex)
Out Matthew Mason (retired); Chris Whelan; (released); David Wheeldon (released)
Overseas players Michael Klinger (April-June), Philip Hughes (June-September), Saeed Ajmal (T20)
Last year 7th in CC Div 1; 5th in FLt20 North Group; 7th in CB40 Group A
Any analysis of Worcestershire must start from the premise that it is a miracle - and a miracle that should be credited to the foresight of club officials - that Worcestershire survived the floodings of 2008. Financial ruin lapped at the door and was followed by the departure of several of their most high-profile players. So to win promotion to the top division and then stay there last year was a truly wonderful performance. The club continues to be run on a budget that would barely cover the grocery bill at The Oval but a ground redevelopment, which now includes a new pavilion and a hotel, promises greater financial stability in future. On the pitch they continue to ask an awful lot of Alan Richardson - a gem of a bowler but a man who will be 37 in May - and can consider it another fine achievement if they avoid relegation and reach the knockout stages of either of the limited-overs competitions
One to watch
Alexei Kervezee endured a bitterly disappointing season in 2011. For one so talented to average just 28.57 in first-class was a poor return. Now aged 22, and the beneficiary of much time and patience from Worcestershire, the time has come for Kervezee to repay that investment. He has the ability to play Test cricket with distinction, but needs to curb a propensity to get himself out.
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