Lancashire in the mood for glory
It's the sort of detail that can slip off the radar, especially amid the hat-trick-garlanded euphoria of a series victory in the Caribbean, but later this week - some 24 hours before the fourth and final Test in Antigua - the 2004 English domestic season gets underway at Lord's.
There have been one or two clues that a new season was on the horizon - the moving-forward of the clocks, the occasional whiff of freshly mown grass; oh, and today's publication of the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack. But after another winter of non-stop action, it still comes as something of a surprise to be back so soon.
Last year provided one of the great moments in the history of the County Championship, when the perennial bridesmaids, Sussex, finally claimed the title that had eluded them since their formation in 1839. It was a triumph that was underwritten by their two overseas stars, Murray Goodwin and Mushtaq Ahmed, and overseen by their battle-hardened captain, Chris Adams, who has subsequently been honoured as one of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year.
All three men return for the defence of their title, but this time round, Sussex will not have the luxury of anonymity. With that in mind, they have recruited one of county cricket's most prolific campaigners to boost their competitive edge. Ian Ward may lead a double life as a Sky Sports anchorman, but he nonetheless cracked three centuries and 856 runs for Surrey last season, and still hopes that a move south will improve his prospects of an England recall.
No-one will be taking Sussex quite so lightly this season, but it is improbable that they will be quite so feared as their wounded arch-rivals in South-East London. As the self-styled "Manchester United of cricket", Surrey's 2003 season had a curiously familiar ring to it - fading to third just when the pundits assumed they had the title race in the bag.
In a winter of upheaval, Surrey have since lost their coach Keith Medlycott, while Alec Stewart's retirement and Adam Hollioake's resignation leaves the captain's armband and wicketkeeping gloves in the hands of perhaps the least celebrated name in the squad - Jonathan Batty. He has an astonishingly stiff task on his hands if he is to reunite a discordant dressing-room and deliver the trophies that Surrey have come to expect as if by right.
But Sussex and Surrey's contrasting anxieties could spell good news for Lancashire, second in Division One last season, and the smart-money bet for the title this time around. Their off-field issues have centred around a possible move from Old Trafford, but on the pitch they have a more settled squad than at any stage since the early 1990s. Warren Hegg and Mike Watkinson have a fine rapport as captain and coach, and in Carl Hooper and Stuart Law, Lancashire possess two of the most destructive middle-order batsmen in county cricket.
Add to that the emerging pace-bowling talents of Sajid Mahmood, and the up-and-at-'em attitude of Dominic Cork - who has made a high-profile move from Derbyshire - and all the ingredients are in place for a long-overdue season of success. What is more, they may even enjoy regular point-to-prove appearances from last year's boy wonder, James Anderson, who has suddenly found himself surplus to England's requirements at Test level.
Another side whose prospects are on the up are Warwickshire, who will have been watching Heath Streak's falling-out with the Zimbabwe Cricket Union with keen interest. Zimbabwe's loss would be Warwickshire's gain, and with Nick Knight in charge of a troupe of players with England ambitions - including Michael Powell, Ian Bell and Jim Troughton - Edgbaston may be revisiting the early-1990s glory days come September.
Andrew Strauss is another being spoken of in dispatches from the ECB headquarters, but while a Test call-up is not out of the question this summer, his primary concern will be leading Middlesex out of their recent slough. He will be helped on his way by one of the more explosive overseas pairings this season, South Africa's Lance Klusener and Nantie Hayward.
Hayward's arrival at Lord's is a blow to his former club Worcestershire, whom he helped out of the second division last year with some terrifically quick spells of bowling. But in Andy Bichel, Worcestershire have recruited a proven county performer who is sure to have been fired up by his omission from Australia's Test and ODI plans this year. He typifies a squad that is unlikely to be greatly affected by international call-ups, but has the talent to push some of the bigger teams to the limit.
Gloucestershire are another side that have become used to punching above their weight, particularly in one-day cricket, where in 2003 they won the C&G Trophy for the third time in five years. Mark Alleyne has since retired from first-class cricket to become their coach, with the four-day captaincy passing to Chris Taylor, but it is the loss of their influential overseas player - and Wisden Cricketer of the Year - Ian Harvey which will be the bitterest blow to their prospects of staying in the top flight.
Influential Aussies, however, don't come much more influential that Northamptonshire's Mike Hussey, whose gargantuan tally of 1697 runs included a third triple-century in as many seasons. But he has opted to take a year away from county cricket to concentrate on building a Test career. David Sales, his replacement, could not have a harder act to follow, although in Usman Afzaal, Northants have at least recruited a player of hunger and talent.