A promotion battle royal
Slowly but surely, county cricket's two-divisional system is separating the wheat from the chaff. But the chaff is not going without a fight. The focus may be on the top flight, but this season promises a promotion battle royal between several big teams with even bigger points to prove.
Without question, the second division's biggest drawcard will be found down at Hampshire's Rose Bowl, where Shane Warne is making his fashionably late return to county cricket, and as captain as well. His appointment is further weighty evidence of Hampshire's ambition, although it will take all of Warne's nous to galvanise a weak squad. He will at least be assisted in his endeavours by two fellow Aussies, Michael Clarke and Shane Watson, whose youthful talents ought to mix well with the rest of the dressing-room.
Talking of Aussies, Ricky Ponting's arrival at Somerset is quite a coup, and even though his availability will be strictly rationed, his mere presence ought to lift a side that, last summer, was threatened with the collective sack by their chief executive, Peter Anderson. On another positive note, Andrew Caddick may be around rather more often than has been the case in recent years. He still expects to walk back into the Test team when he recovers from his back injury, but England's successes in the Caribbean mean he'll have a point or ten to prove in the Championship first.
There's only one man on the county circuit who can match Warne and Ponting in the box-office stakes. Darren Gough's much-publicised move to Essex is undoubtedly a risk, given that only one of his knees still functions, but with the fiery Scott Brant and Danish Kaneria's wiles to complement the bowling attack, Gough should be spared too much donkey-work. Furthermore, he will be reunited with his kindred spirit Ronnie Irani, and his former Test captain, Nasser Hussain, so there should at least be a bubbly atmosphere down at Chelmsford.
Like Essex, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire are two other sides whose pedigree alone suggests they ought to be in the top flight. But dressing-room harmony was in short supply for either team last year. Notts have at least buried the hatchet with the prolific Kevin Pietersen - which could be the single most important achievement of the winter - but they have made some wise signings in the off-season as well, after their instant relegation in 2003.
Mark Ealham is one of the more prominent new faces at Trent Bridge, where his canny medium-pace and lusty lower-order hitting are sure to fit in nicely. Other changes include Ryan Sidebottom, who has moved south from Headingley, while David Hussey - the younger brother of the prolific Mike - is an astute overseas acquisition who is unlikely to be called up by Australia ... just yet.
Yorkshire have signalled the start of yet another era, by calling David Byas back into the fold as coach, and passing the captaincy to the unassuming and diplomatic figure of Craig White. Darren Lehmann's return is sure to make a huge impact, international appearances permitting, but their biggest coup was the poaching of Ian Harvey from Gloucestershire. Harvey, one of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year, achieved just about as much as he humanly could while at Gloucestershire, but the challenge of carrying Yorkshire back to Division One could bring out the very best of his mercurial talents.
Leicestershire are another side whose underachievements have been underpinned by internal strife, but unlike Yorkshire and Notts, they have very little to work with after a winter spent scouring the bargain basement. The former Test cricketers, Claude Henderson and Ottis Gibson, are two intriguing signings, especially given that they are not classified as overseas players, although the Essex pair of Darren Robinson and Jon Dakin are not names to set the world alight.
With a settled squad and two familiar overseas players in Matthew Elliott and Mike Kasprowicz, Glamorgan should be among the favourites for promotion this season. Although Steve James was forced to admit defeat last year and bowed out of the game with a persistent knee injury, Glamorgan's new captain, Robert Croft, will be available throughout the season after retiring (again) from Test cricket. Matthew Maynard, meanwhile, is a hugely influential sidekick.
Like Glamorgan, Durham are another unfashionable club with big prospects this season. In Shoaib Akhtar and Herschelle Gibbs, they have signed two of the most explosive performers in world cricket, and a timely performance from either of them could propel Durham to victory on any given day. And, every once in a while, they will also be able to call on Steve Harmison to share the new ball with Shoaib - a particularly mouthwatering prospect.
Gavin Hamilton's arrival from Yorkshire is intriguing - a change of scenery could be just what he needs after his game was devastated by a dose of the yips two years ago - but as yet Durham are not quite the finished article. They have made significant strides under Martyn Moxon, but promotion might just be out of reach this season.
Which leaves us with Derbyshire, county cricket's perennial whipping boys, who haven't even got Dominic Cork in their ranks to whip a young and put-upon squad into shape. Another serious blow was dealt to Derbyshire's hopes when Michael Di Venuto pulled out with a long-term injury. As a former captain and coach of Zimbabwe, Dave Houghton is used to getting the best out of embattled teams, but he is sure to have his hands full this season.