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ESPNcricinfo's senior correspondent George Dobell runs the rule over the Division One clubs
April 9, 2013
Last year Champions (promoted), CC Div 2; Group stage, FLt20; 4th in Group C, CB40.
2012 in a nutshell Derbyshire have, for many years, been seen as a symbol of everything that is wrong in county cricket: barely competitive and rarely producing international players. But achieving promotion - the first time they have done so - was a welcome step in the right direction and reward for a club that has been revitalised since the arrival of the new chairman, Chris Grant. Success was built largely upon an excellent start to the season. While their rivals were thwarted by rain, Derbyshire won four of their first seven games and, with Tony Palladino and company exploiting seamer-friendly pitches, stole the march that led them to promotion. They were somewhat overly reliant for runs upon their overseas players - Martin Guptill and Usman Khawaja topped the batting averages - though Wayne Madsen and left-arm spinner David Wainwright also enjoyed solid seasons. They were much less successful in the limited-overs formats, winning two and losing six of their T20 games, but, for the first time in many years, Derbyshire played with spirit, hope and expectation in 2012.
2013 prospects Consolidating a place in the top division should be considered a decent achievement. The method that served them so well in 2012 - prevailing on green pitches - may prove high-risk when they come up against the likes of Durham and Warwickshire in Division One. Several of the squad will also be testing themselves at a higher level than ever before and they will need to so without the two overseas batsmen who played such a huge role in winning promotion. They have recruited astutely, though. The batting has been strengthened by bringing in Shiv Chanderpaul - one of the scoops of the off-season - and Billy Godleman, who once kept Nick Compton out of the Middlesex side and may yet, given a more sympathetic environment, turn his undoubted qualities into regular match-defining contributions. The seam bowling depth - with Mark Turner and Mark Footitt continuing to promise a bit more than they have achieved - remains impressive. Turner, in particular, looks to have developed substantially over the winter. More will be required from the likes of Ross Whiteley, Chesney Hughes and, with the bat, from Jon Clare and Wainwright if they are to survive, but all have impressed in pre-season.
Key player Dan Redfern is representative of this team beyond the runs he scores. Marooned in the seconds before Grant's revolution, he is exactly the type of player - young, gifted and, just about, locally produced - the club needs to see prosper in order to both improve and justify its own existence. If he can flourish in the top division, it will go a long to way to helping Derbyshire to survival and showing the club's strategy is correct.
Bright young thing At 24, Whiteley is not that young. But, with only 27 first-class games behind him, he is inexperienced. His current record is modest and does his ability no justice - he averages just 33.27 - but he is capable of timing the ball unusually sweetly and looks to have the class make the step up.
Captain/coach The smile has returned to the face of Derbyshire cricket over the last couple of years. Overseen by the calm and benevolent figure of head coach, Karl Krikken, and spurred on by the captaincy of Madsen, a resurgent team spirit has emerged. Whether that spirit is enough to overcome some of the other obstacles the club faces remains to be seen, but the pair have a good record of getting the best from the players at their disposal. You can't ask for more.
ESPNcricinfo verdict Resourceful enough to escape relegation in Division One, although it could be a struggle. Hard to see much one-day success.
Last year 6th, CC Div 1; Group stage, FLt20; 5th in Group B, CB40.
2012 in a nutshell It could have been much worse. By July 21, Durham were bottom of the table without a win in their first 10 games and relegation favourites. But the appointment of Paul Collingwood as captain in place of Phil Mustard was the catalyst to a recovery that saw them win four Championship matches in succession and pull themselves out of trouble. It had become apparent, however, that Durham were a county in transition. Several highly paid players of international experience - the likes of Ian Blackwell, Steve Harmison and Liam Plunkett - were unable to command a place and the team remained uncomfortably reliant for runs upon the veterans Collingwood and Dale Benkenstein. The fact that no-one averaged more than Collingwood's 33.19 in the Championship underlined the difficulty of batting on seamer-friendly pitches, but the excellence of Graham Onions and the emergence of Chris Rushworth ensured they had the weapons to take advantage. They started well in the CB40 before fading and, despite a respectable FLt20 campaign, were unable to progress to the quarter-finals.
2013 prospects With a powerful bowling attack and several experienced batsmen, Durham proved towards the end of the 2012 season that they could remain a force in Division One. The age profile of the team is a concern, however, with Benkenstein, Collingwood, Harmison and Callum Thorp all firmly in the 'veteran' category and some of the younger players struggling to fill the void. While Ben Stokes, in particular, Rushworth and Michael Richardson offer hope for the future, Durham's hopes of rebuilding may well be handicapped by financial constraints. A need to cut costs is liable to rule out big-name overseas players or transfers from other counties for the foreseeable future, while this season could be the last for two or three more senior players.
Key player Onions - who claimed 64 Championship wickets at a bowling average of 14.98 - exploited the seam-friendly conditions expertly in 2012 and did more than anyone to ensure that Durham remained in the top division. While a little of the pace he had pre-injury may have gone, he remains a fine bowler given any help from the conditions. If he remains fit and is not required by England, he should finish among the top wicket-takers in the country once again.
Bright young thing Stokes is a cricketer of exceptional ability. A hard-hitting batsman, decent seamer and very fine fielder, he could well develop into the allrounder the England side have needed for so long. Being sent home from the Lions tour will have done his international prospects little good but, aged 21, Stokes has time on his side and a talent that is hard to ignore.
Captain/coach Collingwood made an immediate impression as captain in 2012. Instilling a determination that slipped away, he will demand higher standards of fitness and preparation than had been the case for a while. The head coach, Geoff Cook, has overseen the best days in the club's history but whether, aged 61, he retains the appetite to rebuild the team remains to be seen.
ESPNcricinfo verdict Durham are team in transition but cultural change, particularly with regard to fitness, could be more important than the turnover in personnel.
Last year: 3rd, CC Div 1; Group stage, FLt20; 2nd in Group A, CB40.
2012 in a nutshell: Third in the Championship constituted a very decent year after promotion. Perhaps only a lack of consistency cost them an even higher finish, with four losses including a 15-run defeat against Durham when set only 118 to win and an eight-run defeat against Surrey when set 254. The seam bowling - led by Toby Roland-Jones and supported by Tim Murtagh, Gareth Berg and Steven Finn - was very good, but the spin bowling - Ollie Rayner, with 15 wickets in 10 games, was the leading wicket-taker - and the batting were weaker. Of those who played regularly, only Chris Rogers averaged more than 35, with Neil Dexter, Dawid Malan and Jo Denly struggling for consistency. Eoin Morgan, when he was available, also proved a great disappointment, averaging 18.16 in the Championship. They struggled for runs from their wicketkeeper, too, with John Simpson and Adam Rossington failing to make a Championship half-century between them. They might consider themselves unfortunate to miss out in the CB40 - they finished second in their group - but started poorly, with early losses against Gloucestershire and Worcestershire and then suffered the abandonment of two potentially-winnable games. They lost four of their first five T20 games and never looked likely to challenge.
2013 prospects: Any team with a seam attack including James Harris, Toby Roland-Jones, Tim Murtagh, Corey Collymore and, perhaps, Steven Finn, have to be contenders. Some doubts remain about the batting and spin bowling in the longer format, but it is hoped that the appointment of Mark Ramprakash as batting coach will help Dexter, Denly, Malan and co find the consistency to complement their quality. Stirling, who is not part of the Championship side, and Morgan are largely underutilised, too. They will require more runs from their wicketkeeper, whoever it might be. Middlesex could be dangerous in the shorter formats, too, particularly when Stirling and Morgan are available. They remain in the market for a second overseas player in FLt20, with a batting allrounder the ideal candidate. There is some concern that Australia's chaos could bring an unforeseen call for either of their overseas players: Chris Rogers or Adam Voges. Their T20 record - they have reached the knockout stages once in seven years - is a disappointment, but they seem to have the personnel to do better. Off the pitch, Middlesex have invested around £750,000 in their facilities away from Lord's, at both Radlett and in Finchley.
Key player: Such was the desire within the county game to sign James Harris that, upon his departure from Glamorgan, he held discussions with every Division One county and the top three in Division Two. Middlesex won a very competitive race to sign him and, as a consequence, have a highly-skilled, highly-motivated seamer who, if he stays fit, should prove a regular matchwinner.
Bright young thing: Ravi Patel is a 21-year-old left-arm spin bowler in the mould of Murali Kartik who could make the spin bowling position his own in 2013. He broke into the team at the end of end of the 2012 season and claimed eight wickets in the match in an innings defeat of Lancashire. He chose shortly before the season to abandon his degree at Loughborough in order to concentrate full time on cricket and has been rewarded with a two-year contract.
Captain/coach: Neil Dexter remains the club captain and will lead the side in limited-overs cricket, but Chris Rogers remains the captain of the County Championship side. Angus Fraser, the director of cricket, inherited a club lacking direction and has, relatively quickly, helped fashion a team with an exciting future. Richard Scott remains head coach.
ESPNcricinfo verdict: The issues with the batting and, perhaps the spin bowling, may mean this is a year early to expect a sustained Championship challenge, but that seam attack will always give them a chance. While their neighbours across the river hog the headlines, it is Middlesex who look better placed for the next few years.
Last year: 5th, CC Div 1; Quarter-finals, FLt20; 4th in Group B, CB40.
2012 in a nutshell: By Nottinghamshire's high standards, 2012 was something of a disappointment. They started well in the Championship, winning four of their first seven games, but failed to win a match after May. Andre Adams carried the bowling attack - not easy for a 37-year-old - and masked the deficiencies of some of his colleagues with a remarkable Championship strike rate of a wicket every 38 balls or so. He was also the only Nottinghamshire bowler to claim a five-wicket haul. Several of the top-order batsmen had periods of poor form but Michael Lumb proved a wise acquisition and such was the reliability of Chris Read down the order that Nottinghamshire always had a safety net. They fared well in the FLt20 until a final-ball loss against the eventual winners, Hampshire, in the quarter-finals, but becoming the only team to be beaten by Scotland, in a rain-ruined game, cost them dear in the CB40.
2013 prospects: Recognising they had a weakness in their seam bowling, Nottinghamshire were among those most keen to attract James Harris to Trent Bridge. They eventually had settle for Ajmal Shahzad, who may have greater potential to succeed than Harris but also has the propensity to fail, while Jake Ball looks as if he is ready to fight for a first-team place. Harry Gurney, who bowled with pace and skill on the pre-season tour of Barbados, also looks ready for greater opportunities and may push Luke Fletcher, who remains an odd shape for a professional sportsman, and Andy Carter for their places. Ed Cowan, for the first part of the season, and David Hussey should stiffen the batting, but Nottinghamshire look well stocked in that department: Lumb, Alex Hales, James Taylor, Samit Patel and Rikki Wessels really should be able to establish match-defining totals in all formats. Nottinghamshire have reached at least the quarter-finals of the T20 for the last three years and, with that batting line-up, could go even further this time. While spin bowling has been a bit of a weakness since the loss to England of Graeme Swann, the development of Sam Wood and Graeme White promises better for the future.
Key player: Taylor's star has waned a little since his move from Leicestershire. Struggling to adapt to some tricky pitches and the step up in quality to Division One, he only passed 50 twice in the Championship last season and saw others move ahead of him in the England pecking order. But he remains an outstanding, if unorthodox player in all formats and should score far more heavily this year.
Bright young thing: Nottinghamshire's reputation - a slightly unfair reputation - as a predator of other counties' talent has overshadowed their development of young players. Wood, a 19-year-old offspinning allrounder, looks a fine prospect, though. It will not be easy for him to force his way into the side, but Wood appears to have plenty to offer in all formats.
Captain/coach: Mick Newell remains as director of cricket, despite interest from Bangladesh, while Chris Read continues as captain.
ESPNcricinfo verdict: A strong team which should challenge in all formats, Notts may lack the bowling quality or depth to win the Championship but the age-range of the squad and the quality of emerging players bodes well for the future.
Last year: Second, CC Div 1; Semi-final, T20; Third Group B, CB40
2012 in a nutshell: It says much about how expectations have risen at Somerset that last year was seen as disappointing by some. It probably shouldn't have been. Somerset equalled their best-ever Championship finish in coming second - the fifth time in succession they have finished in the top four - and again qualified - for the fourth time in succession - for T20 finals day only to come unstuck against Hampshire's medium-pacers and spinners in the semi-final. They were the only side to defeat Warwickshire in the Championship, thanks to a terrific innings from Craig Kieswetter, and, along with Warwickshire, the only side to lose only one game. They suffered terribly with injury - the loss of Marcus Trescothick for almost half the season was a colossal blow - though the sustained excellence of Nick Compton, who averaged 99.25 in the Championship, with the bat and Peter Trego, who claimed 50 Championship wickets for the first time in his career, partially made up for it. Various overseas players, notably Chris Gayle, flirted with the club only to ultimately disappoint, but the emergence of yet more talented young players - such as the Overton twins - compensated. They lost their first four CB40 games, which all but ended their interest in the competition, but then went through the rest of the campaign unbeaten.
2013 prospects: If, as seems likely, Somerset are to be without Compton for much of the season, he will prove desperately hard to replace. Alviro Petersen, who has been signed as an overseas player for the first part of the season, is one of those charged with filling Compton's boots, while spinner Abdur Rehman, so successful in his brief stint in 2012, returns towards the end of the season. With a long, strong and positive batting order, Somerset should continue to be a force in the limited-overs formats and look hard to beat in the Championship, but whether they have the bowling firepower to bowl sides out twice remains to be seen. While there are some exciting bowlers emerging, some of the more experienced performers - the likes of Steve Kirby and Alfonso Thomas - are in their mid-30s and may need careful handling. Dave Nosworthy, the new director of cricket, will also have to resolve the issue of finding a way to satisfy two talented young wicketkeeper-batsmen with England aspirations.
Key player: Gemaal Hussain secured a large pay rise when he left Gloucestershire for Taunton at the start of 2011 but, so far, he has failed to live up to expectations with only 35 first-class wickets in two seasons at an average of 39.20. Now aged 29, time is running out for him to justify his signing. It goes without saying that Tresocthick remains a giant at this level.
Bright young thing: Somerset have a host of talented young players. George Dockrell, the Overton twins - Craig has more than a hint of Stuart Broad about his bowling - Lewis Gregory and Craig Meschede - should all have bright futures. But, amid the excitement in his unique style, it could be easily forgotten that Jos Buttler is only 22. He continues to learn his trade as a batsman - he didn't score a Championship century last year - and a keeper but has the potential to become a special player.
Captain/coach: Marcus Trescothick remains as captain, with Dave Nosworthy, the South African coach who has enjoyed success both at home and in New Zealand, replacing Brian Rose as director of cricket. Andy Hurry remains as head coach.
Cricinfo's verdict: A strong and explosive batting unit and canny bowling attack remains well-suited to the shorter formats, though a nagging worry remains about their Championship prospects: has Somerset's best chance of success passed them by?
Last year 7th, CC Div 1; Group stages, T20; 2nd Group B, CB40
2012 in a nutshell: A season overshadowed by tragedy. While it would be an exaggeration to suggest all was progressing well before the death of Tom Maynard - Surrey's form had been modest - the club faced a desperate struggle to retain equilibrium afterwards. That they retained their Division One status and missed out on a CB40 semi-final by the skin of their teeth might be considered admirable. Amid the shock, few individuals progressed. Surrey utilised 24 players in the Championship alone, seeming unsure who was best at the top of the order and rarely batting with assurance. The bowling of Stuart Meaker, who was not flattered by his figures, was a bright spot but Jacques Rudolph was a disappointment, Steven Davies and Chris Jordan were dropped and Jon Lewis, Jade Dernbach and Chris Tremlett either rarely played or struggled to make an impact. All have strong mitigating factors, but there is no avoiding the fact that 2012 was a dark year in the history of the club.
2013 prospects: Surrey look a very different team in 2013. Gone is the old captain, Rory Hamilton-Brown, gone is the mainstay of the batting for a generation, Mark Ramprakash, and gone are several of the bright young things (Maynard, Chris Jordan and Matt Spriegel) who it was hoped would form the spine of the team for years to come. Recognising that more maturity was required in the dressing room, the club brought in Vikram Solanki (37 on April 1) and Gary Keedy (38) to join the likes of Zander de Bruyn (37), Jon Lewis (37) and Gareth Batty (35) as well as big name overseas signings Graeme Smith (32) and Ricky Ponting (38). Some good young players remain: George Edwards and Matt Dunn are among the most promising fast bowlers; Jason Roy and Rory Burns are talented young batsmen and all can be seen as products of the club's youth system. But the balance between youth and experience has swung sharply. A trophy seems unlikely - the batting looks a bit fragile for that - but decent limited-overs form and the comfortable retention of Division One status should not be beyond them.
Key player: While Surrey have other wicketkeeping options in Gary Wilson, Steve Davies could be seen as a barometer of this side. He typifies the Chris Adams regime: recruited on a large salary and amid much expectation, his career has not progressed as some predicted. His talent remains undoubted but Surrey - and their director of cricket, Adams - could do with him producing more to justify the investment they made.
Bright young thing: George Edwards, 20, is a strong fast bowler with some ability with the bat. Given sustained fitness and opportunity, he could develop into a top-quality player for club and country.
Captain/coach: It was always going to take time to turn things around at The Oval. Just as things were, at long last, improving, the club were thrown into turmoil by the death of Maynard and the team required rebuilding. This is Plan B for Chris Adams. How much time he will be given to get things right this time remains uncertain but the club have backed him to the hilt by bringing in Smith as captain. Such investment is likely to demand a return.
Cricinfo's verdict: It may frustrate supporters, but Surrey enter this season at the start of another rebuilding process. Having lost several of those seen as the future of the club, it may take time for others to settle in their place. How much patience will be shown towards Adams and co. remains to be seen but the squad is deep and experienced and, led by Smith, they will surely prove tougher, more obdurate opposition.
Last year: 4th, CC Div 1; Semi-finals, T20; Semi-finals
2012 in a nutshell: Such has been the success at Sussex over recent years - they had won seven major trophies in the previous decade - disappointment over a season that finished without tangible reward was inevitable. But Sussex again pressed hard in the limited-overs formats and finished above many larger clubs in the Championship. They were in a bit of trouble after winning just one of their first seven Championship games, but then threatened a top three finish before losing the last two games to slip back into mid-table. They topped their group in both the CB40 and FLt20, but lost to Yorkshire in the T20 semi-final of the T20 and Hampshire in CB40. Steve Magoffin - with 57 Championship wicket at 20.05 apiece - led the bowling manfully, supported by the decidedly sharp Jimmy Anyon and the relentless Monty Panesar. Ed Joyce and Chris Nash led the way with the bat in the Championship, with Luke Wright - who made three CB40 centuries - exceptional in limited-overs cricket. Matt Prior and Scott Styris were both excellent in T20, with Michael Yardy back to his mean best with the ball. Murray Goodwin was released at the end of the season
2013 prospects: Sussex may not have the bowling depth to mount a sustained Championship challenge, but they remain a very dangerous limited-overs unit. In keeping with their reputation as a mender of broken players, they have brought in Rory Hamilton-Brown and Chris Jordan, two highly-talented cricketers who had lost their way a little at Surrey. Andrew Miller, a tall seamer who previously represented Warwickshire, has joined, too. But John Hastings has pulled out of his T20 contract through injury, Kirk Wernars has taken a year off to explore other career opportunities and Luke Wright will miss the start of the season on IPL duty. They will require more runs from Joe Gatting and Michael Yardy this year, while Ben Brown's wicketkeeping also remains a work in progress. But with the likes of Nash, one of the unsung heroes of English cricket, contributing with impressive consistency, they should have enough quality to avoid relegation. Off the pitch, the club continues to be particularly well run and understand its role in the wider game under a new chief executive, Zac Toumazi.
Key player: Monty Panesar. It's not just the wickets he takes, it is his ability to perform the role of stock bowler. Should he be required by England for lengthy portions of the summer, Sussex will have a huge hole to fill.
Bright young thing: Luke Wells is a batsman with a great deal going for him. Blessed with a similar temperament to Alastair Cook but, perhaps, more elegant, he seems to have the ideal game to step-up to Test cricket. A lack of limited-overs experience - he has only played one T20 and six List A games - cannot help, but this is a 22-year-old who could go a long way in the game.
Captain/coach: Ed Joyce, 34, probably takes on the captaincy at an ideal stage of his career; established, experienced and with little more to prove as a player, he will be able to dedicate his energy towards the role. Mark Robinson, the head coach, will continue to coax the best out of his eclectic squad with a calm and quiet wisdom that, in a shrill world, could easily be undervalued.
ESPNcricinfo verdict: Chris Adams described Sussex as the 'benchmark team' of the Championship; a description that makes sense: finish above them and you are challenging; finish below them and you are in trouble. They are likely to be very competitive in the limited-overs formats.
Last year: Champions, CC Div 1; Group stages, T20; Finalists, CB40
2012 in a nutshell: Warwickshire looked the strongest team in Championship cricket by some distance in 2012. A stable squad balanced by several allrounders, a potent seam attack and a batting line-up that stretched beyond the horizon lost only once in the Championship and deservedly won the title. And they did it despite the long-term absence through injury of the two men, Boyd Rankin and Chris Woakes, who were expected to make most impression with the ball. Three bowlers - Chris Wright, Keith Barker and Jeetan Patel, a sound if unglamorous choice of overseas player - claimed over 50 wickets and Varun Chopra was one of only two England-qualified batsmen to score 1,000 Division One runs. They were a force in List A cricket, too, reaching the final of the CB40. While the T20 campaign was a disappointment, the level of rain disruption provided some mitigation.
2013 prospects: There seems little reason to doubt Warwickshire will again feature prominently in this year's Championship title race. Most of the architects of last year's success remain, with youth on their side and the added incentive of international ambitions to fulfil. The attack is impressively well balanced, with pace, swing and left-arm variety and the batting, despite a fragility towards the top, is so deep (15 players on the staff have first-class centuries to their name) that it affords the opportunity to fight back from poor starts. If all the key seamers - Woakes, Wright, Barker, Rankin and Rikki Clarke - are available, Warwickshire will have an enviable opportunity to rest and rotate. If there is a weakness, it could be the top-order batting. More will be required from the likes of William Porterfield, Jim Troughton and Darren Maddy if Warwickshire are to fulfil their talk of creating a new legacy at Edgbaston to match that achieved by the team of the mid-1990s. Warwickshire have often looked the fittest squad in the county game in recent years, with their minimum fitness levels 10% above that of the England sides.
Perhaps Warwickshire's biggest threat is becoming a victim of their own success. Apart from losing their director of cricket, Ashley Giles, to England, they could also be without up to six players at times this summer as England and Lions call-ups bite into their resources. The other possible weakness is the overreliance on Tim Ambrose, who has a history of hip trouble, as the only other keeper on the staff is 18-year-old Peter McKay. They remain favourites to retain the Championship title, though, and should remain dangerous in the limited-overs competitions.
Key player: Clarke balances this side. A fast bowler, middle-order batsman and irreplaceable slip fielder, Clarke has finally developed into the allrounder his talent always suggested he could be. It should be of some concern to Warwickshire that he is out of contract at the end of the season.
Bright young thing: Keith Barker played his first full season in 2012 but he ended it with a reputation as arguably the best left-arm new-ball bowler in the county game. If he can find some extra pace - and his physique suggests he can - he will be of interest to England. The 17-year-old batsman Sam Hain is unlikely to play in the first team this year but looks to be a young man with a bright future.
Captain/coach: Dougie Brown has replaced Giles as director of cricket and, alongside the captain, Troughton, forms a leadership that is steeped in the history of the club. It surely bodes well that they will understand one another and have shared goals and values. It is worth noting that Brown was not the first choice of many in the dressing room, though. Many of the players would have plumped for Graeme Welch, who remains as assistant coach and bowling coach.
ESPNcricinfo verdict: Justifiably favourites to retain the Championship title. Such is the depth and age-profile of this squad that they should challenge consistently for the foreseeable future.
Last year: 2nd (promoted), CC Div 2; Finalists, T20; 5th, CB40 Group C
2012 in a nutshell: The only side in either division to finish unbeaten in the Championship, Yorkshire won promotion back to Division One, reached the final of the FLt20 and saw another of their young players - Joe Root - progress into the England squad. It was not as straightforward as it sounds, though, with Yorkshire requiring a late run - they won their last three games - to break into the top two. Between May 12, when they completed the second largest run-chase in their history (400) to beat Gloucestershire, and August 31 they didn't win a game. Steve Patterson, not fast but tall and disciplined, led the way with the ball, with Adam Lyth, Jonny Bairstow and Anthony McGrath contributing with the bat. Their T20 campaign was boosted by the signing of Mitchell Starc (21 wickets at 10.38) and David Miller, who averaged 48.75 with the bat. Gerard Brophy and Oliver Hannon-Dalby were released at the end of the season; Ajmal Shahzad during it amid accusations that he was not committed to the team cause.
2013 prospects: Having failed to persuade James Harris to join them, Yorkshire underlined their desire to strengthen the bowling by signing Liam Plunkett and Jack Brooks. Both have a great deal to prove: Brooks has only taken 19 List A wickets in his whole career and claimed only 23 Championship wickets at 35.69 last year, while Plunkett's form deserted him so completely that he played just one Championship match for Durham in 2012. The batting has been weakened, with Anthony McGrath's retirement through injury and the possible absence of Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root, in particular, due to England commitments. The availability of Tim Bresnan remains unclear, too: if he is fully fit, Yorkshire may well lose him, but if he is unable to make a full recovery after his second elbow operation, they may see far more of him. In Adam Lyth, Gary Ballance and Phil Jaques they have some fine batsmen, but they will require more from Andrew Gale, Adil Rashid and Andrew Hodd if they are to survive at the higher level. The bowling still seems to lack a bit of pace, too, despite the two new signings.
Key player: Given only a slight twist of fate, it may have been Lyth, not Joe Root representing England this winter. Lyth, a naturally positive opener, can often appear the more eye-catching player but lost form horribly in 2011. He was back somewhere near his best in 2012 and, in averaging 53.64, ensured several good starts. Yorkshire will require similar success from his this year.
Bright young thing: Azeem Rafiq has the skill and the temperament to flourish. An aggressive offspinner, he can also bat and appears to thrive in the pressure situations that often separate the wheat from the chaff. Only 22, he has already captained the club and could be the sort of cricketer the side is built around for the next 10 years.
Captain/coach: Gale has impressed as captain, though he could do with contributing more with the bat after only passing 50 twice in the Championship last year. Jason Gillespie is quickly gaining a good reputation as head coach, while Martyn Moxon remains as director of cricket.
ESPNcricinfo verdict: There is just a hint of desperation about the new signings and a concern that the absences in the batting order could weaken them severely. Avoiding relegation should be considered a successful season.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
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