The winner is...
Another English domestic season has drawn to a close with silverware for Lancashire, Leicestershire, Surrey and Middlesex. George Dobell, who covered the county game for ESPNcricinfo, hands out his awards for 2011
Team of the season
It's tempting to say Worcestershire. Written off before the season - one bookie offered odds of 20-1 on them suffering relegation - they somehow clawed their way to survival despite losing their first six games. That showed admirable character. But a team that lost 11 Championship games and finished bottom in their CB40 group can't be team of the season.
It can't be Somerset. Wonderfully consistent though they've been over the last couple of years, their habit of falling at the final hurdle - five losing finals in a row and a runners-up place in the 2010 Championship - is too serious to overlook. As Oscar Wilde almost put it, to lose one final might be considered unfortunate; to lose five suggests an underlying problem.
It could be Surrey. Promotion in the Championship was combined with success in the CB40 and a crop of players is emerging at The Kia Oval who could flourish at domestic and international level for years to come. Those who love to hate Surrey - and there seem to be many - had better get used to their success: it surely won't be long before they're adding to their silverware.
So, the team of the season is Lancashire. Yes, they suffered a 10th semi-final defeat in 12 years when they went out of the FL t20 but, after that famously long wait (77 years since they last claimed the title outright), a largely unheralded side featuring locally developed played - nine or 10 of the team that played the final game of the season could just about be claimed as a local - won more games than any side in either division. Despite -or perhaps because of - a lack of stars (the whole team in that last game could claim just one ODI cap between them), Lancashire showed the virtues of team spirit, shared experiences and determination to snatch the Championship title from Warwickshire on the final day of the season. It was telling that victories in both Lancashire's final games came in circumstances in which other sides might have given up. It surely won't take another 77 years to win the Championship.
The Devon Loch award for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory
No, not Somerset, but Northamptonshire take this one. Going into the T20 campaign, they stood top of the Division Two table and were unbeaten in the CB40. Indeed, in mid-June, they had won their first five CB40 games and five of their eight Championship matches. For some reason - maybe weariness, maybe a lack of unity, maybe injury - they won only one of their next seven Championship matches and one of their final seven CB40 games. They eventually missed out on promotion by a couple of points.
Coach of the season
Some - particularly those at Sussex - always thought Peter Moores was an excellent coach. For many of the rest of us, it is time to reappraise Moores' abilities. He's now led two success-starved clubs - Sussex and Lancashire - to Championship titles and, at Lancashire, he did it with a limited budget and a team roundly dismissed as the weakest Lancashire side for generations. He was calm after defeats, determined under pressure and modest in triumph. He played a huge role in Lancashire's success.
Player of the season
Alan Richardson. It says much for Richardson's determination and professionalism that, aged 36, he not only finished as the top wicket-taker in Division One of the Championship (he claimed 73 at 24 apiece), but that he played in every one of Worcestershire's Championship matches and bowled more first-class overs (and more maidens) than anyone in the country other than Monty Panesar.
In some ways, Richardson is the epitome of the journeyman county pro. He is, after all, with his fourth first-class county and won't represent England. He no longer plays limited-overs cricket, either.
But the 'journeyman' description fails to do full justice to Richardson's quality. Richardson is a high-class bowler who gains steep bounce from his high action, hits the seam and hardly ever seems to bowl a bad ball. Forced into the role of strike and stock bowler at Worcestershire, he responded with cheerful determination and bowled through numerous aches, pains, setbacks and disappointments. There's no way that Worcestershire could have survived without him.
Batsman of the season
Marcus Trescothick. He was leading run-scorer in Division One and the fourth highest run-scorer in the FLt20. He continues to dominate county attacks in a way that only Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash - of recent batsmen - could match. There are times when he makes the bowlers' job appear impossible.
There is one shadow over Trescothick's record, however. His history in domestic finals is poor and may well have contributed to Somerset's struggles to win those games. Trescothick has managed just 86 runs in five Lord's finals and, in four T20 finals has a top score of only 33.
Other batsmen to excel in 2011 included Zander de Bruyn - who proved an excellent signing for Surrey, adding calm and experience in a middle order that sometimes lacked both - Chris Rogers, Murray Goodwin, Dale Benkenstein, Ed Joyce, Tom Maynard, Jonny Bairstow, Michael Carberry and Vikram Solanki.
Bowler of the season
David Masters. Like Richardson, Masters might lack the glamour of James Anderson or Stuart Broad but, for day-in, day-out consistency, the 33-year-old is hard to better.
Masters claimed 93 first-class wickets this season. That's more than any English-qualified bowler since Andy Caddick in 1998. He's not blessed with great pace, but bowls an excellent line and length and gains just enough movement to trouble the best. Just as importantly, he keeps going. Up or down the hill, into the wind or with it behind him, Masters is a captain's dream.
There's a caveat, however. Masters - like other medium-fast seamers Tim Murtagh (80 first-class wickets this season) and Tim Linely (73 wickets) - claimed his victims with the Tiflex ball. The ball, with its pronounced seam and propensity to offer excessive assistance for the first 40 overs of its use, was introduced to Division Two as the ECB sought to bring competition to the market place and focus the mind of Dukes. While there's some logic in the idea, in practise the Tiflex ball hasn't proved up to standard. It provided too much help to moderate seamers (when Darren Stevens takes 7 for 21 you have to start asking questions) and, by then becoming soft, did little to help spinners. It'll be nothing less than a scandal if the ECB allow it to be used again next year.
It's a shame such considerations will somewhat compromise Masters' excellence. He would have taken wickets with a Dukes, Tiflex or Kookaburra ball. It's worth noting that the next highest first-class wicket-taker at Essex was Reece Topley. And he claimed just 34.
Shoaib Akhtar award for worst overseas player
Lonwabo Tsotsobe. The South African's stint as Essex's overseas player ended unhappily. Three first-class games brought just five wickets at an average of 77 and caused him to vent his feeling on Twitter. "Ths is the worst two mnths of my life [sic]" he wrote. "Its just impossible to work in ths environment."
Essex were unimpressed. The coach, Paul Grayson, described Tsotsobe's comments as "downright rude" and suggested "he has got to look at himself. We gave him a great chance to come and play some county cicket and he has not made the most of it."
Spinner of the season
General opinion seems to be that England has a good crop of emerging young spinners. Maybe. Or maybe there are a good crop of limited-overs spinners emerging. The vast majority of those lauded during the 2011 season will never make an impact at Test level.
Monty Panesar was the leading wicket-taker among spin bowlers. He delivered more overs than anyone in first-class cricket, claimed 69 wickets and suffered a remarkable number of dropped chances; over 20 according to some close observers. He was also forced into the role of stock bowler by a Sussex team whose seam attack sometimes leaked runs. Perhaps that explains the continuing lack of variety in Panesar's bowling?
Gary Keedy has a good claim, too. The 36-year-old played a huge role in Lancashire's Championship triumph with 61 wickets and, with his excellent control, lured many a batsman into a mistake.
But Simon Kerrigan was the one who stood out. Yes, the 22-year-old only played in five first-class matches. But he provided match-winning performances in two of them (nine for 51 against Hampshire and five for seven against Warwickshire) and, given any assistance, looks as dangerous a bowler as anyone in the county game. He delivers the ball at a sharper pace than most, generating turn on even the most benign surfaces, and in partnership with the patient Keedy, who frustrates batsmen with his variations and control, forms a potent spin attack for Lancashire. Kerrigan has now taken five five-wicket hauls in his 18 first-class games and must be in the selectors' minds when the tour squads are chosen.
Michael Carberry. A year ago, Carberry missed out on a place on the Ashes tour by the skin of his teeth. Far more serious trouble followed, however, as he was diagnosed with a blood clot on his lungs that threatened not just his career, but his long-term health. It took several months before he was cleared to play but he responded with three centuries in nine games, including an unbeaten 300 against Yorkshire (he added 523 for the third-wicket with Neil McKenzie) and 182 against Somerset (when he added 373 with Jimmy Adams). His form played a large role in Hampshire's resurgence and suggested that, aged 30, Carberry may yet come again at international level. Should either Cook or Strauss suffer injury, Carberry is among the next in line.
Ijaz Butt award for buffoon of the season
Adrian Shankar. Some think the Arsenal-playing, British tennis ace who graduated from Cambridge University at a younger age than Doogie Howser and went on to rewrite (literally) records in Sri Lankan domestic cricket and the Central Lancashire League is something of a fantasist. Others (well him, mainly) insist that he has been vilified as part of some conspiracy presumably motivated by jealousy.
As if being caught out having lied about his record and his age was not bad enough, Shankar's defence was staggering. Shankar claimed he had been "stillborn" and spent several years in an incubator. Well, that clears that up then. He was last seen riding a unicorn up the side of a rainbow. Or something.
Jonny Bairstow deservedly won The Cricket Writers'Club young player of the year award, but there were several other contenders. Such has been Chris Woakes' success at Warwickshire that it could easily be overlooked that he is just 22. Topley, the tall left-arm swing bowler from Essex who made an immediate impact as a 17-year-old, also stood out, as did Simon Kerrigan, James Harris, Jos Buttler, Joe Root, Luke Wells, Tom Maynard, James Taylor, Sam Robson, Gary Ballance, Alex Hales and Jason Roy.
Of all the young players in the English game, however, none has the promise to achieve so much as Ben Stokes. The 20-year-old was hindered this season by a badly broken finger, but still managed three centuries before the end of May. He also thrashed five sixes from the first five balls of an over (Hampshire's Liam Dawson was the unfortunate bowler) and claimed career-best 6 for 68 in the same game. There are no guarantees, of course, but Stokes is certainly one to watch.
Will Gidman. The 26-year-old all-rounder became the first man to take 50 first-class wickets and score 1,000 first-class runs in a season since West Indian Phil Simmons did so for Leicestershire in 1996. The last England-qualified player to achieve such a 'double' was David Capel, of Northamptonshire, in 1989.
To make his achievement all the more remarkable, Gidman was in his first full season. When he joined Gloucestershire from Durham at the end of last season, he had played just one first-class game. All of a sudden, a fair few counties are taking an interest in him.
Varun Chopra is worth a mention, too. The 24-year-old had a modest record at the start of the season, but soon stroked two sparkling double-centuries and was Warwickshire's leading scorer in both List A and Championship cricket. Forcing a way into the England set-up isn't easy right now - particularly as an opener - but Chopra suggested there are reinforcements if required.
There was another quietly significant breakthrough when Moeen Ali became the first British-born Muslim to captain a first-class county. The English game hasn't always managed to coax the best out of its Asian cricketers. Moeen's example will do no harm at all.
Rikki Clarke. Whether it's at second slip - as it usually is during Championship matches - or patrolling the outfield in limited-overs cricket, Clarke is arguably the best catcher in the game at the moment. He claimed 39 catches in the 2011 first-class season, including seven in an innings - equalling the world record - in the match against Lancashire at Liverpool. There are times when it appears he could pluck swallows from the sky.
The Lancashire physio. When Glen Chapple limped off the pitch on the first morning of Lancashire's final game of the season with a suspected hamstring tear, it seemed he could take no further part in the game. Somehow, however, thanks to some excellent strapping, determination and the judicious use of pain killers, Chapple emerged to not just bowl but bowl with pace and hostility. It was typical of the importance of the backroom team in the modern game and testament to their skill and professionalism.
The band of commentators - mainly BBC commentators - that provide coverage of the majority of domestic games also deserve a mention. Despite BBC cuts and the short-sightedness of a few counties, these commentators persuaded their managers to continue this excellent service and ensured thousands of county followers were kept up to date with every ball of the action. They do a fine job.
Ali Brown, holder of the world record for the highest List A score (a still fairly unbelievable 268 against Glamorgan in 2002), is one of those calling it a day. So, too, is Mark Wagh, an elegant batsman who won Championships with two counties, stroked a sublime triple-century at Lord's and missed out on an England call due to injury, and Steffan Jones, who was as strong as a bull and just as determined. Dominic Cork, a veteran of three counties who claimed 7 for 43 on Test debut in 1995 and briefly threatened to be the best bowler in the world, also retires, aged 40, despite interest from other counties. Paul Nixon also retired after a fine career that included two Championship and three T20 titles as well as belated England recognition. All will be missed.