<
>

Notts, Sussex among leading contenders

Matt Critchley has two experienced legspinners to learn from PA Photos

Derbyshire

Last season:
Championship: 9th Div 2; NatWest Blast: 7th North Group; Royal London Cup: 7th North Group
In:
Hardus Viljoen (Kolpak), Gary Wilson (Surrey), Luis Reece (Lancashire), Daryn Smit (SA, Kolpak).
Out: Neil Broom (NZ), Callum Parkinson (Leicestershire), Chesney Hughes (released), Andy Carter (retired)
Overseas: Jeevan Mendis (SL, April-June), Imran Tahir (SA, June-September), Matt Henry (NZ, T20).

2016 in a nutshell
Derbyshire had a dreadful season in 2016, finishing bottom of Division Two in the Specsavers Championship and achieving lowly group positions in both limited-overs tournaments. It led to a mid-season departure for the head coach, Graeme Welch, and although John Sadler stabilised affairs reasonably well, he also departed before the year was out. Only Tony Palladino took 30 Championship wickets in an inexperienced attack. Then there was the strange case of Chesney Hughes, who scored heavily, fell out of favour for reasons not entirely explained, and was not retained. Wayne Madsen, as ever, was a rock with the bat.

2017 prospects
Derbyshire's seam bowling must advance if they are to improve on last season's dismal showing. Hardus Viljoen, who has swopped South Africa for a Kolpak deal, is perceived as the enforcer of an attack that also needs some of its young bowlers - a fully-fit Tom Taylor perhaps - to progress. Neil Broom's return to New Zealand in the hope of an international career has been presented as a blow, but his record was a mediocre one. Gary Wilson adds experience and Luis Reece has a second chance to build a county career after his release from Lancashire.

In charge
Kim Barnett supervised one of the most successful periods in Derbyshire's history as captain in the 1980s and he returns, at the spritely age of 56, as director of cricket, committed to putting more responsibility into the hands of senior players. Barnett, who as club president presided over a review which brought a widespread coaching revamp, soon agreed the departure of Sadler, the former head coach, and has brought in England's first specialist T20 coach - a return for another old Derbyshire favourite, John Wright. Billy Godleman retains the captaincy and chairman Chris Grant is about to stand down to seek a position on the ECB Board.

Key player
Legspin will be all the rage in Derbyshire this summer - it is not often been possible to claim that - with the tyro Matt Critchley having ample chance to learn from, first, Jeevon Mendis and, from mid-season, Imran Tahir, two overseas cricketers with 71 years between them. If Mendis is a surprise packet with the ball and provides runs in the middle-order, he might just prove to be one of best-value short-term signings of the season. Derbyshire need a warm spring.

Bright young thing
Critchley's legspin was one of the most heartening aspects of Derbyshire's T20 season in 2016 and it persuaded them to offer him a new four-year contract before he spent the English winter in Australia, partly funded by the ECB. He has made less of an impression in the Championship, but further advancement will be hoped for, especially as another young spinner, Callum Parkinson, has moved on to Leicestershire.

ESPNcricinfo verdict
Barnett will not have taken up the director of cricket role lightly and, not a man for easy compromise, he will expect to see improvements. Recruitment has been sound. Nevertheless, only the most partisan Derbyshire supporter will anticipate more than modest progress. David Hopps

Bet365 odds: Specsavers Championship, Div 2: 33-1; NatWest Blast 33-1; Royal London Cup 33-1

Durham

Last season:
Championship: 4th Div 1 (relegated to Div 2 as punishment for financial mismanagement); NatWest Blast: Runners-up; Royal London Cup: 4th North Group
In: Cameron Steel (Middlesex)
Out: Scott Borthwick, Mark Stoneman (both Surrey), Asher Hart (Hampshire), Gordon Muchall (retired), Phil Mustard, Calum MacLeod, Jamie Harrison, Gurman Randhawa (all released)
Overseas: Stephen Cook (SA, April-July), Tom Latham (NZ, July-September) .

2016 in a nutshell
Last summer turned sour immediately after its completion when the full extent of Durham's financial predicament was laid bare. In return for a financial bail-out from the ECB, Durham's head was placed on a stake outside Lord's to warn other miscreants that the governing body would not be a lender of last resort: they were relegated, docked 48 points for 2017, and carried forward penalty points, too, in the limited-overs competitions. A rewarding season in which they had recovered to claim a top-four finish in the Championship and reached the final of the NatWest Blast - losing to Northants despite Keaton Jennings' finest T20 display - was entirely overshadowed.

2017 prospects
Rebellion and resentment is still in the air as Durham remain furious about their treatment from the ECB. With a swingeing 48-point penalty to offset, and the Championship season cut to 14 matches, the pessimistic view is that Durham's challenge is as good as over before it begins. One disturbing fact: if Essex, last year's Division Two champions, had been docked 48 points they would have finished fifth. Neither have Durham been helped by a host of departures, with two prolific top-order batsmen, Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick, heading for Surrey and a clutch of players jettisoned as a cost-cutting measure. Jennings might also win an England Test spot. The seam bowling remains strong, not just Graham Onions and Chris Rushworth, but Brydon Carse and Paul Coughlin, too, but if injuries bite expect Durham to be scouring the loan market.

In charge
Paul Collingwood, one of the grittiest cricketers of his generation, skippers Durham's Championship and T20 sides side in his 21st and final first-class season. Jennings, identified by England as a leader of potential, takes charge over 50 overs. Sir Ian Botham, a new chairman, played in Durham's inaugural season as a first-class county 25 years ago, when he did not entirely live up to his billing as "The Messiah". He has promised to trim back his outdoor pursuits a little, vowing last month: "We have a club and a club that will prosper; we will get ourselves back in the black." Botham, a one-time scourge of administrators, has sounded more philosophical than most about Durham's punishment, which just goes to show that age is a funny thing.

Key player
With Stoneman and Borthwick having fled the nest, it is down to Jack Burnham to put his teenage years firmly behind him and score heavily at No. 4, fulfilling the promise that Collingwood identified when he invited him to fill the role a year ago.

Bright young thing
Asher Hart might have been nominated as Durham's bright young thing but this young allrounder has decamped to Hampshire with what many in the northeast view as indecent haste: Hampshire have not only pilfered Durham's first division place. Instead, much attention will be lavished upon Coughlin, whose 231 against Middlesex as Durham won the 2nd XI Championship brought rave reviews from his coach Neil Killeen. Coughlin has been on the England Pace Programme this winter and played in the North-South series and, at 24, deserves to put prolonged back trouble behind him.

ESPNcricinfo verdict
If a sense of grievance was the only ingredient for sporting success then Durham would leave opponents floundering in their wake because fury still runs high in the northeast over their treatment by the ECB. Even allowing for that driver, to keep the performance levels high in a small squad until September will need all of Collingwood's leadership nous. David Hopps

Bet365 odds: Specsavers Championship, Div 2: 33-1; NatWest Blast 16-1; Royal London Cup 16-1

Glamorgan

Last season:
Championship: 8th Div 2; NatWest Blast: QF; Royal London Cup: 7th South Group
In: Marchant de Lange (SA, Kolpak), Harry Podmore (short-term loan, Middlesex)
Out: James Kettleborough, Dewi Penrhyn Jones (both released), Mark Wallace, Dean Cosker (both retired)
Overseas: Jacques Rudolph (SA)

2016 in a nutshell
Robert Croft's first season as head coach was a difficult affair as Glamorgan finished only one place above the wooden spoonists, Derbyshire, but at least by the end of the season there were a clutch of impressive performances from young players in which to take pride. Aneurin Donald, who struck 15 sixes in his 234 against Derbyshire at Colwyn Bay; Kiran Carlson, who became the youngest Glamorgan century-maker, at 18 years 119 days, when he reached three figures against Essex; and Owen Morgan, who made a maiden first-class hundred as nightwatchman against Worcestershire, were just three whose flashes of individual brilliance brought hope. Glamorgan's best team moments were reserved for the NatWest Blast, in which Colin Ingram struck a record-equalling 29 sixes before Yorkshire ousted them in the quarter-finals.

2017 prospects
Glamorgan's securing of a visa for Marchant de Lange only days before the start of the season was a huge relief for a county that without him would have been desperately short of bowling stocks. De Lange, a South African who can generate much pace off a short run, qualifies by virtue of his wife's British passport. He supplements the veteran Australian Michael Hogan, who will seek to squeeze out one more good season as he approaches 36, having expressed fears that he has lost some of his zip, and Netherlands' Timm van der Gugten, who took 56 wickets in his first Championship summer. The absence of two stalwarts, wicketkeeper Mark Wallace and indefatigable left-arm spinner Dean Cosker, will also test resources elsewhere. There is a stronger Welsh flavour in the batting. Top-order batsman Chris Cooke will assume Wallace's wicketkeeping role and Morgan will have a golden opportunity to nail down the left-arm spinner's role. More consistency from Glamorgan's young batsmen should at least help their runs tally - and the fact that Ingram is fit enough this season to play all formats is a huge positive.

In charge
Jacques Rudolph continues as captain for the third successive season despite a personally disappointing 2016 with the bat, when he averaged only 24.40 in the Championship. He will hope for considerably better results in his 20th season in the first-class game. Croft's priority is to continue his excellent work with Glamorgan's homegrown players. There is just as big a challenge for chief executive Hugh Morris and his marketing team as they seek to build enough enthusiasm for cricket in south Wales to fill their international stadium not just when England visit (or the British Lions as Croft prefers to regard them) but also for NatWest Blast nights. An operating loss of £308,000 in 2016 after considerable debt write downs the previous year illustrates the extent of the task.

Key player
Cooke missed the last two months of last season with a back injury, which must cause slight misgivings as he prepares to step into the wicketkeeping role vacated by Wallace. Wallace, who ended an 18-year career last month to become a PCA development and welfare manager, made his Glamorgan debut at 17 and went on to become their most successful wicketkeeper-batsman. Cooke, who finished in the top three of Glamorgan's batting averages in all formats, will aim to maintain that form as well as allowing the club to make light of Wallace's absence behind the sticks.

Bright young thing
While Glamorgan's young batsmen attract the bulk of the attention, hopes are also high for Lukas Carey after a four-wicket debut against Northants last August. Croft went back to his local club, Pontarddulais, on the outskirts of Swansea to find Carey, whose grandfather Stuart played amateur cricket for Wales. Carey totted up 13 wickets in three first-class matches and Glamorgan, although wary to ask too much at 19, will be eager to see further signs of progress.

ESPNcricinfo verdict
Glamorgan's young players have promise, but they will need strong performances from senior men if they are to find the stability in which they can flourish. Twenty years after their Championship win, the county have more modest ambitions. A tough season lies ahead, especially in the Championship. David Hopps

Bet365 odds: Specsavers Championship, Div 2: 16-1; NatWest Blast 20-1; Royal London Cup 25-1

Gloucestershire

Last season:
Championship: 6th Div 2; NatWest Blast: QF; Royal London Cup: 8th South Group
In: Phil Mustard (Durham)
Out: Tom Hampton (released), Hamish Marshall
Overseas: Michael Klinger, Cameron Bancroft, Andrew Tye (T20) (all Aus).

2016 in a nutshell
Gloucestershire looked unstoppable in the group stages of the NatWest Blast only to lose their best chance of a trophy by falling to Durham in a home quarter-final in Bristol on a night when Mark Wood's fast bowling was at his most explosive. Their Royal London Cup standards were disappointing, especially after winning the trophy the previous year, and they finished sixth in Division Two of the Championship, despite the satisfaction of beating the eventual winners Essex at Cheltenham, a campaign in which they suffered most markedly for the lack of an influential allrounder. Chris Dent was the mainstay of the batting in the Championship and Benny Howell's sleight of hand made him a stand-out bowler in the Blast.

2017 prospects
Gloucestershire's head coach Richard Dawson makes no bones about the fact that the absence of the prolific Michael Klinger, who will play only limited-overs formats this season, and Hamish Marshall, who retired from county cricket at the end of last season, will put the club's Championship batting under immense strain. Australian Cameron Bancroft, a short-term replacement for Klinger last season, will hope for better things as he returns for the whole season and Phil Mustard, signed from Durham as a wicketkeeper-batsman, has a big challenge ahead of him. Twenty20 again seems to be their strongest suit.

In charge
Dawson made an immediate impact at Gloucestershire as they won the Royal London Cup in his first year and followed up with a strong performance in T20, but third time of asking could be his biggest test. Australian Ian Harvey is his assistant. Klinger, finally selected by Australia this winter at 36 when he played three T20Is - and successfully too - leads in both one-day formats. The toughest challenge faces wicketkeeper-batsman Gareth Roderick who oversees the four-day side. It would ease the weight on his shoulders if Mustard held down a Championship spot.

Key player
Mustard was a crowd-pleaser during his time at Durham, a dishevelled and somewhat untamed force with bat and gloves, and there was much sorrow in the northeast when he was moved on. Whether "The Colonel" can win such approval in Bristol remains to be seen. When he left Durham in July, he had not played in the Championship for the county for more than a year, and had not played well in four-day cricket for even longer. He put that right at the end of 2016 to win a contract at Gloucestershire, but expect his greatest impact to come in the limited-overs formats where his appetite remains strong.

Bright young thing
Matt Taylor, a powerful left-arm quick, has spent time this winter with England's Pace Programme in South Africa. Taylor, younger brother of Jack, who is also on the books, had an excellent NatWest T20 Blast campaign in 2016, even managing a collector's item by bowling a maiden at Chris Gayle. Not many can claim to have done that. One of several seam bowlers who Gloucestershire need to progress once more.

ESPNcricinfo verdict
Gloucestershire make the best of their resources under Dawson, and as long as Klinger's potency remains they will also be dangerous in Twenty20, but it is hard to make much of a case in the Championship unless their young seamers hit the jackpot all at once. David Hopps

Bet365 odds: Specsavers Championship, Div 2: 12-1; NatWest Blast: 16-1; Royal London Cup: 20-1

Kent

Last season:
Championship: 2nd Div 2; NatWest Blast: 7th South Group; Royal London Cup: QF
In: Will Gidman (Nottinghamshire), Joe Weatherley (Hampshire, loan), James Harris (Middlesex, loan)
Out: Fabian Cowdrey (retired), David Griffith, Sam Weller (both released)
Overseas:

2016 in a nutshell
Kent had more than one cause for grievance at the end of the season. Having pushed Essex almost all of the way, they unexpectedly lost their penultimate game - against Northamptonshire at Beckenham - and missed out on the chance of a final-round showdown against the eventual champions at Canterbury. That, too, after Kent's opening Championship fixture at New Road was washed out despite three days of sunshine. While finishing second would have been enough for promotion in any other season, Kent felt they were denied twice over, as Durham's subsequent demotion by the ECB led to a reprieve for Hampshire instead. In the white-ball competitions, standards slipped slightly from an impressive 2015 but they still managed a quarter-final appearance in the Royal London Cup.

2017 prospects
There has been a change in management at Canterbury, after five years under Jimmy Adams, but the goals remain pretty much the same. Matt Walker, a former Kent stalwart who served as assistant under Adams, has targeted promotion and the club also has enough talent in the shorter formats to hope for a tilt at a title. Sam Northeast thrived on the captaincy in 2016, scoring 1337 Championship runs with five hundreds, and at 27 he should be hitting his peak years; Daniel Bell-Drummond and Sam Billings are also older and wiser after productive winters. Kent's bowling looks a little creaky, with Mitchell Claydon and Darren Stevens combining for 74 years' life experience, but the arrival of James Harris on loan for the start of the season offers extra potency alongside Will Gidman and Matt Coles. The lack of an overseas player (although they have been linked with Adam Milne for the Blast) and Fabian Cowdrey's retirement at 24 might stretch their resources.

In charge
Kent promoted Walker during the off-season and he has already had a chance to get to grips with the role after overseeing the club's participation in the West Indies' Regional Super 50 competition. More intriguing is the identity of Walker's sidekick: Jason Gillespie, a two-time Championship-winning coach and the man who led Yorkshire to Division Two promotion in 2012, will fill the role initially, while permanent appointee Allan Donald works towards the coaching badge required for his visa. Northeast continues as captain in all formats, looking to take the side to new heights after T20 and 50-over quarter-final appearances and a Championship near-miss over the last two years.

Key player
Much will rest on Northeast's ability to continue his rich batting form while captaining in all formats, particularly with Bell-Drummond and Billings likely to miss chunks of the season on Lions/England/IPL duty. At least the arrival of Gidman on a permanent deal, after a successful loan last season, will ease the all-round burden on Stevens. Now 32, Gidman has significant pedigree at this level, as shown over four seasons at Gloucestershire; things did not go so well at Notts but he will have the chance to show them what they missed out on after their relegation to Division Two. Stellar first-class averages of 40.08 (batting) and 23.63 (bowling) tell a compelling story and he struck a List A career-best 94 during the Regional Super 50 last month.

Bright young thing
Kent have a strong record of bringing through their own but they could do with a young bowler or two stepping up to regular 1st XI action. Ivan Thomas, Hugh Bernard and Matt Hunn are among the seamers who will hope to benefit from the wisdom of Gillespie and Donald over the course of the season, while Imran Qayyum could push through as James Tredwell's spin-bowling deputy. Qayyum, a tall slow left-armer who cites Shahid Afridi as his favourite sportsman, made his List A debut in the Regional Super 50 and may benefit from Adam Riley's struggles since his own breakthrough three seasons ago.

ESPNcricinfo verdict
Will Walker be able to finish off the job Adams started and get Kent back into Division One for the first time since 2010? Have Kent got enough depth in their squad to battle Nottinghamshire, Sussex and Worcestershire while remaining a force in the limited-overs competitions? Can Northeast continue to pile on runs without being whisked away by England? How long can Stevens go on for? So much delicious uncertainty - and the arrival of Harris could tip the balance - but regular pilgrims to Canterbury are hopeful that this season will provide a memorable tale for the telling. Alan Gardner

Bet365 odds: Specsavers Championship, Div 2: 4-1; NatWest Blast: 18-1; Royal London Cup: 20-1

Leicestershire

Last season:
Championship: 7th Div 2; NatWest Blast: 9th North Group; Royal London Cup: 8th North Group
In: Gareth Griffiths (Lancashire), Callum Parkinson (Derbyshire), Richard Jones (Warwickshire), James Burke (loan, Surrey), Dieter Klein, Colin Ackermann (both European passport)
Out: Jigar Naik, Ollie Freckingham, Michael Burgess, Atif Sheikh, Rob Taylor, Niall O'Brien (all released)
Overseas: Clint McKay (Aus), Cameron Delport (SA, T20), Luke Ronchi (NZ, T20).

2016 in a nutshell
For a while, towards the end of July, it seemed Leicestershire may have turned a corner. Strengthened by the recruitment of several experienced players, they had won three Championship matches and been defeated only twice. They were fourth in the table and only 11 points off the top. A promotion challenge seemed possible. If that sounds modest, it is worth reflecting on the lack of success they had endured in previous years. This looked genuinely encouraging. But then they fell away. They won only one of their final six Championship matches (and lost two by an innings), finished seventh and went backwards in white-ball cricket. Furthermore, they lost their highly rated head coach, Andrew McDonald, to a job in his native Australia. But it wasn't just the results that disappointed; it was the relative lack of opportunities provided to young players and the over-reliance on imports. For years the club had been able to answer the question "What's the point of Leicestershire?" by pointing to the impressive list of talent (James Taylor, Luke Wright, Harry Gurney, Stuart Broad and others) developed at the club. In 2016, even that argument became hard to sustain. The release of locals such as Jigar Naik, Ollie Freckingham and, to an extent, Atif Sheikh (who is from Derbyshire) just as the club signed Colin Ackermann, Dieter Klein (both on European passports) and the registration of Mark Cosgrove, a fair dinkum Aussie if ever there was one, on a UK passport rather underlined the impression.

2017 prospects
While it might be unrealistic to expect promotion or silverware, especially after suffering a 16-point penalty in the Championship on the eve of the season, there is the prospect of tangible improvement this year. With the new coach, Pierre de Bruyn, promising a better balance between relying on the experience of older players and providing more opportunities for young players, there is no reason Leicestershire shouldn't progress in all formats and also see some players press for higher honours. The recruitment of Ackermann, a former South Africa U-19 player and the leading run-scorer in the Sunfoil Series (the South African first-class competition) over the 2016-17 season, looks especially significant, though Klein, a sharp left-arm bowler who joined at the end of last year, also looks a fine cricketer. In Callum Parkinson they have one of the most promising young left-arm spinners in the land, though spin played a peripheral role at Grace Road in 2016, while Ned Eckersley remains a potential England wicketkeeper-batsman, though a few are in front of him at present. Indeed, he may even come under pressure from Lewis Hill, who looks the better keeper at present. A top-half-of-the-table finish is certainly within them, as is progression to the knockout stages of a white-ball competition.

In charge
De Bruyn has rattled a few since his appointment. Making it very clear that he will not accept mediocrity, he has challenged experienced players to justify their places and made it clear that young players will be given an opportunity. There have been grumblings under the surface, though, with some feeling his approach is a little too abrasive. And you really don't have to go very far in Leicester to find an example of clubs where senior players forced a manager into an impossible position. A tough opening game against a strong Nottinghamshire may provide an early test to dressing room morale. Certainly his relationship with his captains - Cosgrove in the Championship and Clint McKay in white-ball cricket - will be key. Graeme Welch, the assistant coach, and John Sadler (2nd XI) complete the coaching line-up, while the chief executive, Wasim Khan, has assured supporters he will remain with the club despite murmurs that he could be lured elsewhere.

Key player
Nobody bowled more overs for Leicestershire across the three competitions in 2016 than McKay. He played all but one Championship match, all but one T20 match and every Royal London match, finishing as the most economical regular seamer in both white-ball formats and the only man at the club to claim 50 wickets in the Championship. While the willing Ben Raine and apparently ageless Charlie Shreck will continue to lend admirable support, Leicestershire will lean heavily upon McKay's broad shoulders. It's quite a burden for a 34-year-old who only played T20 cricket during the Australian season. The other fear is that McKay's fairly laidback approach may jar with de Bruyn's somewhat intense attitude, so it will be fascinating to watch how their relationship develops and whether a harmonious environment can be built in which players can develop without distraction.

Bright young thing
In Zak Chappell Leicestershire have a gem. A 20-year-old allrounder of England potential, Chappell is a tall fast bowler with the ability to generate impressive pace and an attractive strokemaker who was good enough to set a batting record on debut (the highest score - 96 - by a Leicestershire No. 10). He is already gaining avaricious looks from other counties.

ESPNcricinfo verdict
Leicestershire don't necessarily have to win trophies to fulfil a valuable function for English cricket. As long as they are providing opportunities for young players and at least competing on the pitch, they justify their position in the grand scheme of things. Quite rightly they have aspirations to achieve more than that. They have made some progress over the last two years, but there is a huge distance still to travel. Given sustained dressing room morale, this year should provide evidence of further improvement, but few will be expecting them to be celebrating silverware by the end of September. George Dobell

Bet365 odds: Specsavers Championship, Div 2: 14-1; NatWest Blast: 20-1 ; Royal London Cup: 33-1

Nottinghamshire

Last season:
Championship: 9th Div 1; NatWest Blast: SF; Royal London Cup: 6th North Group
In: Ben Kitt, Billy Root, Jack Blatherwick
Out: Will Gidman (Kent), James Taylor (retired), Sam Wood (released)
Overseas: Daniel Christian (Aus, T20), Ish Sodhi (NZ, T20), James Pattinson (Aus, April-June)

2016 in a nutshell
Bitterly disappointing. Perhaps unsettled by the trauma of James Taylor's illness in the opening days of the season, Nottinghamshire underperformed dramatically as they finished bottom of Division One in the Championship and failed to progress from the group stages in the Royal London Cup. While their T20 campaign contained much to admire, they were eventually undone at the semi-final stage by a Ben Duckett-inspired Northants. It was, in general, the batting that let Notts down. They failed to win a Championship match after April 13 - the first game of the season - and no other side in either division suffered as many as their nine losses. It wasn't all grim: Jake Ball, with an immaculate length and a yard of extra pace, bowled as well as anyone in the country and both Steven Mullaney and Harry Gurney enjoyed decent seasons, but for a squad as talented as this to find themselves at the bottom of the table could only be considered a significant underachievement. Mick Newell, coach since 2002, announced he would cede first-team responsibility to Peter Moores and move into the more strategic director of cricket role.

2017 prospects
Anything less than promotion must be considered unacceptable. An attack that will, for a few weeks at the start of the season, include Stuart Broad, Ball and James Pattinson (who replaces the injured Peter Siddle as overseas player until the end of June) and a batting line-up set to be boosted by the return of Alex Hales (now in the middle order) for much of the season really should be strong enough to dominate in Division Two. A few senior batsmen, notably Michael Lumb, have something of a point to prove after modest 2016 campaigns and, with the likes of Billy Root and Tom Moores pushing for more opportunity, it might prove to be a season of transition for the top order. Ben Kitt and Jack Blatherwick are young seamers with pace and time on their side.

In charge
The evidence of Moores' approach is already apparent in a squad that looks noticeably fitter than it has for some time. While Moores was a batting consultant last year - and it was the batting that let Notts down - this is the first season in which he has had the opportunity to create his own team environment. Luke Fletcher and Brendan Taylor have both shed significant amounts of weight and, under the guidance of physio James Pipe (the former keeper who has joined from Derbyshire), the squad have been working to improve their fielding - throwing, in particular - which, judged by the highest standards, has been modest in recent years. Paul Franks is the new assistant coach, with Ant Botha having joined primarily to look after the 2nd XI. Chris Read, in his final season, has been persuaded by Moores to continue as club captain, though it is anticipated that Dan Christian will lead in T20.

Key player
Top-order batting at Trent Bridge has been demanding for several years. But Mullaney was good enough to make 1000 Championship runs in the top division last year and will have a valuable role to play if Notts are to win promotion this year. While he might lack the England pedigree of some of his colleagues, he has the technique to cope with the new ball, can contribute with bat and ball in limited-overs cricket and drives as pleasingly as anyone in the county game. If Notts' middle-order are to prosper, they will rely on the solid starts provided by Mullaney.

Bright young thing
Luke Wood hardly played last year and may struggle to find a place this season. But he is a gifted left-arm swing bowler who, aged only 21, could make rapid strides in the game if he can force his way into a side blessed with outstanding seam bowling depth. He can bat, too. Jake Libby, a batsman who bowls offspin, is another worth watching. He has enjoyed a good pre-season in Barbados and is one who could solve Notts' problem at the top of the order.

ESPNcricinfo verdict
A squad as talented as this should never have found itself in Division Two and shouldn't stay there for long. There will be disruption caused by England calls, but Notts have the depth to cope better than most. Strong favourites for promotion and likely to prove dangerous in the white-ball formats. George Dobell

Bet365 odds: Specsavers Championship, Div 2: 7-4; NatWest Blast: 8-1; Royal London Cup: 12-1

Northamptonshire

Last season:
Championship: 5th Div 2; NatWest Blast: Winners; Royal London Cup: QF
In: Nathan Buck (Lancashire), Max Holden (loan, Middlesex)
Out: Olly Stone (Warwickshire)
Overseas: Rory Kleinveldt (SA), Seekkuge Prasanna (T20)

2016 in a nutshell
Northamptonshire had what some critics are calling "their most Northamptonshire season ever" in 2016. They went in with barely 15 men on the playing staff, faced continued uncertainty over their financial position ("we're counting every loo roll," said the chairman in May), recovered from a turgid start to finish mid-table in the Championship, lost a thrilling Royal London quarter-final by one wicket off the final ball of the match and lifted the NatWest Blast trophy for the second time in four seasons. Ben Duckett epitomised Northants' uninhibited approach to the uncertainties around the club, plundering more than 2700 runs in all formats and walking off with the PCA Player of the Year and CWC Young Player awards. The highlight was T20 Finals Day, when their Moneyball approach (perhaps that should be "no-Moneyball") saw them triumph against the odds once again.

2017 prospects
Could well be another rollercoaster. Promising young fast bowler Olly Stone has left for Warwickshire (though he missed most of last season with injury anyway) but Nathan Buck has come in from Lancashire and may prove an inspired signing - still only 25, he was on the radar of England Lions five years ago. What Northamptonshire lack in squad numbers they will attempt to make up for in camaraderie, with continued success in white-ball cricket the primary focus, highlighted by the recruitment of former England batsman James Taylor as a consultant for the Royal London Cup. No team has managed to retain the T20 title but, if Northants can become the first, they will also draw level with Leicestershire on most wins (three). Championship success looks less likely, although they did finish 2016 impressively with four wins out of their last six.

In charge
Since taking over in 2012, things have seldom been easy for David Ripley but he has achieved some extraordinary successes. An unexpected Championship promotion came the following year, as well as a first T20 title (Northants' first trophy in 21 years) as the club began to embrace a data-driven approach to the format, led by their "statto" head coach. Alongside the shrewd captaincy of Alex Wakely, Northants seems to have found an ideal blend, encompassing modern tactics, attention to detail and old-fashioned team bonding. Along with bringing Taylor on board for 50-over cricket, former Wantage Road favourite David Sales is now helping out part-time as batting coach.

Key player
Rory Kleinveldt, back for a third season as overseas player, has become symbolic of performance trumping perceptions at Northants. Kleinveldt's brief international career is now behind him and, although his kit size looks a little closer to XL these days, he is still a vastly effective allrounder at county level. He has taken 124 wickets across all formats for the club, to go along with more than 1200 runs, and is a respected voice in the dressing room where what you can do is valued more than how you look.

Bright young thing
Duckett blazed a trail from talented youngster to England international in little more than a season, while 18-year-old allrounder Saif Zaib has long been highly regarded in Northants circles. Hopeful of making a big impact will be Middlesex loanee Max Holden, a year older than Zaib but yet to make his senior debut. A left-handed opener, Holden captains England U-19s in the long format and, on their tour of India earlier this year, scored 170 as part of a record 321-run stand with Somerset's George Bartlett. Ripley has been a fan for years, having tried to sign him for Northants' academy in 2011.

ESPNcricinfo verdict
When it gets down to brass tacks, you've got to credit the Steelbacks. They won't be much fancied, as the betting suggests, but that will not bother Ripley and Wakely as they look to mastermind further success on a shoestring. The question of whether Duckett finds his groove again, after a mixed winter away with England, might determine how far they go in the white-ball formats and a lack of depth could limit their Championship chances - but for county cricket's version of the Wimbledon "Crazy Gang", up against it is how they like it. Alan Gardner

Bet365 odds: Specsavers Championship, Div 2: 14-1; NatWest Blast: 12-1; Royal London Cup: 16-1

Sussex

Last season:
Championship: 4th Div 2; NatWest Blast: 6th South Group; Royal London Cup: 9th South Group
In: Laurie Evans (Warwickshire), Jofra Archer (UK passport), Stiaan van Zyl, David Wiese (both Kolpak)
Out: Craig Cachopa, Fynn Hudson-Prentice (both released), Lewis Hatchett (retired)
Overseas: Vernon Philander (SA, April-June), Ross Taylor (NZ, T20)

2016 in a nutshell
Destined to be quickly forgotten. Sussex's relegation on the final day of the 2015 season was a shock to the system at Hove but many expected them to mount a serious challenge to go straight back up. Their second match in Division Two was a mini-classic against the eventual champions, Essex, who batted out for a draw on 266 for 7 having been set 329 to win; these two, surely, would be battling each other to the end. Sussex's push never truly materialised, however. They drew their opening five games and suffered badly with injuries - captain, Luke Wright, did not play in the Championship until June, while the pace attack was severely depleted. In the T20 Blast, meanwhile, Tymal Mills' eye-catching contributions could not get Sussex into the quarter-finals and they finished bottom of their Royal London Cup group.

2017 prospects
Sussex have been active over the winter in strengthening their squad, which has an increased South African flavour thanks to the Kolpak signings of Stiaan van Zyl and David Wiese. Their compatriot Vernon Philander will also be available for the first few weeks of the season and Sussex will hope his incisive swing bowling can help get them off to a better start. Laurie Evans has come in from Warwickshire and ought to prove a classy addition in Division Two, while Ross Taylor is expected back for the T20 Blast, having been their leading run-scorer in the competition last year. They will be unable to lean on former captain Ed Joyce as much as in previous seasons, however, as he embarks on a novel job-sharing arrangement with Ireland, while Chris Jordan will miss the start of the season at the IPL.

In charge
After a testing first year in charge, Mark Davis will be hoping for better this time around. Succeeding Mark Robinson was always likely to be tough but the extent of Sussex's decline, particularly in white-ball cricket, has become increasingly apparent. In Wright, they have a captain committed to turning things around - doubly so after the disappointment of last season - and capable of leading from the front with his performances. Former England fly-half Rob Andrew has taken over as chief executive but Mike Yardy's return as batting coach may prove equally significant in reviving fortunes.

Key player
Without the certainty of Joyce's runs at the top of the order, Sussex need someone to step up and ensure there is a not a shortfall. Chris Nash showed the benefit of working with Gary Kirsten by scoring 1256 runs last year, while van Zyl comes into the county season on the back of 709 runs at 55.39 in South Africa's Sunfoil Series, putting him fifth on the charts. Van Zyl made a century on Test debut two winters ago and while choosing to go down the Kolpak route has ended his international career, his three-year deal with Sussex could prove mutually beneficial.

Bright young thing
Like fellow Bajan Jordan, Jofra Archer has the attributes to become a star down in Hove. Five wickets on debut against the touring Pakistan side in the middle of last summer signalled Sussex had a talent on their hands (one with a UK passport, too) and he finished the season behind only the redoubtable Steve Magoffin for Championship poles, as well as scoring a maiden fifty while adding 140 in partnership with Jordan at Colchester. Also look out for Bermuda allrounder Delray Rawlins, who made an impression on England Under-19s' winter tour of India.

ESPNcricinfo verdict
There is a good breadth of ability and experience in Sussex's squad and their first-choice Championship XI might only be rivalled by Nottinghamshire in Division Two. However, they need performances on the pitch, not paper - as well as some luck with injuries. If Philander can get their campaign off to a flyer and the likes of Archer, George Garton and Ollie Robinson step up to provide support for Magoffin, they should push for promotion. Restoring their limited-overs prowess might have to take a backseat, though. Alan Gardner

Bet365 odds: Specsavers Championship, Div 2: 10-3; NatWest Blast: 16-1; Royal London Cup: 12-1

Worcestershire

Last season:
Championship: 3rd Div 2; NatWest Blast: 8th North Group; Royal London Cup: QF
In:
Out: Chris Russell (released)
Overseas: John Hastings (Aus), Mitchell Santner (T20, NZ)

2016 in a nutshell
Ten games into the Championship season, Worcestershire were only seven points off the top of the table. But losses at Kent and Glamorgan hurt their promotion hopes and, despite three wins from their last four games, they had to be content with a third-placed finish. There were several impressive performances, though: chasing 401 in the fourth innings at five-an-over to beat Northants was particularly memorable, while Joe Leach scored a century and took a five-for in the victory over Derbyshire and Miguel Cummins claimed 12 wickets in the win over Derbyshire. Joe Clarke made five Championship centuries and Leach took 65 wickets but, on some desperately flat home pitches, the other bowlers struggled with Charlie Morris and Jack Shantry both claiming their wickets at a cost of more than 50 apiece. A decent run in the Royal London Cup ended in a limp quarter-final performance against Somerset while, after winning their first three games in the NatWest Blast, they faded badly. There was encouragement in the emergence of Brett D'Oliveira as an opening batsman at the start of the season and the return of Tom Fell after treatment for cancer, but when Daryl Mitchell was replaced by Leach as captain at the end of the season it underlined the impression that slightly more had been expected.

2017 prospects
It will take a colossal effort to achieve promotion in a tough division, but Worcestershire certainly have it in them to finish in the top four. The absence of a proven spinner remains a significant weakness but, in the likes of Fell, Clarke, Tom Kohler-Cadmore and Ben Cox, who has developed into one of the best keepers in the land and is an underrated batsman, they have a young, strong and locally developed middle-order that compares with the best in the division. After a couple of years when the seam attack has looked overly reliant on two or three bowlers, it has a bit more depth now with John Hastings joining Leach, Morris (who has remodelled his action), Shantry and Ed Barnard. If they are to improve in limited-overs cricket - the bookies make them rank outsiders in both white-ball formats - much more will be required of Ross Whiteley but progression to the knockout stages is not unrealistic. Off the pitch, the county face a fight to retain Moeen Ali (who is out of contract in October) and perhaps Clarke (who is not), as well as to reap the rewards for their ground redevelopment over recent years. At present it has created more debt than revenue.

In charge
While some might have been reflecting on a quietly satisfactory season last September, director of cricket Steve Rhodes made it clear that he wasn't satisfied by making the shock decision to change the captaincy. While such refusal to accept the status quo is admirable, it also threatened to unsettle the dressing-room stability of a cosy club where team spirit is vital. To Mitchell's credit, he admitted his disappointment but committed himself to the cause, while Leach will give his all with bat and ball and expect his team-mates to do the same. Rhodes, meanwhile, may need to demonstrate further improvement if he is not to find his own position stirred up in a similar way to the captaincy. The relatively new CEO, Tom Scott, has made it clear that Worcestershire should set their sights beyond being just a breeding ground for players and should expect to challenge for promotion and trophies. After all, if Northants can do it, why not Worcestershire?

Key player
Leach was not only the leading bowler last year - he took more than double the wickets of any of his team-mates in both the Championship and the Blast - but the fifth-highest run-scorer in the Championship and fourth in the Royal London Cup. He took to opening the batting in limited-overs cricket with some success and, such was his drive, he had add the captaincy added to his responsibilities at the end of the season. It's a huge ask, but Leach has broad shoulders in every sense and appears to relish the challenge. Much will be required of Hastings, too. How his knee stands up to the demands of a full county season may go a long way to defining Worcestershire's campaign.

Bright young thing
Clarke is the obvious answer here but, such has been his progress, he must already be considered a senior player at the age of 20. Watch out for Barnard, too. He has, to date, impressed more as a skilful seamer but he has considerable ability with the bat. Aged 21, he looks an allrounder of considerable promise. And there is Josh Tongue. While Worcestershire have, of late, produced more batsman than bowlers, Tongue is a tall seamer who has been in the youth set-up since he was six and promises better times in the future. Aged 19, he may struggle for opportunities this year, but is worth keeping an eye upon.

ESPNcricinfo verdict
The life of a Worcestershire supporter is especially frustrating. From a low base at the end of the last decade, they have rebuilt admirably, discovering young players that could go on to represent England. But each time they appear ready to enjoy some success, it seems a richer county swoops in and reaps the benefit of their hard work. They could push for promotion this year but, up against the likes of Notts and Sussex, it would be a huge achievement. George Dobell

Bet365 odds: Specsavers Championship, Div 2: 15-2; NatWest Blast: 25-1; Royal London Cup: 20-1

Editor's note: Glamorgan and Kent have been updated to take account of recent signings