Middlesex eye swift return as Gillespie stirs Sussex

Jason Gillespie arrives at Sussex Getty Images


1 Middlesex, 2 Sussex, 3 Warwickshire, 4 Northants, 5 Leicestershire, 6 Durham, 7 Glamorgan, 8 Kent, 9 Derbyshire, 10 Gloucestershire


Last season: 7th (Division One)
Coach: Richard Scott
Captain: Dawid Malan
Overseas players: Hilton Cartwright (until 14 May)
Ins: Outs: Ryan Higgins, Harry Podmore

Champions one year, down the next. Middlesex's relegation in 2017 seemed inexplicable and their frustration boiled up during defeat on a turning pitch at Taunton in the final match when they were so incensed by conditions that there was even talk of legal action. Middlesex's more considered response as winter arrived was to abandon their habit of overseas captains and entrust the future with Dawid Malan and Sam Robson as his vice-captain.

But life is still not straightforward. Malan has been rested out of the first two matches by England, Eoin Morgan's plans for a Championship comeback have been delayed by a broken thumb and England Lion Nick Gubbins is also injured. That meant a change of mind on an overseas player - Australian allrounder Hilton Cartwright comes in till mid May - and might mean a recall for Nick Compton. Ryan Higgins is also a loss in T20, but Middlesex can still fight off adversity and win the title.

One to watch: Max Holden, a former England U19 captain, showed up well on loan at Northants last season and injuries could give him an immediate chance to make his mark.

Bet365: 2-1

Prediction: 1st


Last season: 4th
Coach: Jason Gillespie
Captain: Ben Brown
Overseas players: Ishant Sharma (April-June)
Outs: Steve Magoffin, Chris Nash

Sussex's feelgood is high with the arrival as head coach of Jason Gillespie, who became a much-loved figure as he guided Yorkshire to successive Championship titles. They should be strong promotion contenders, although their hopes have taken a blow with the absence on IPL duty of Chris Jordan and Jofra Archer, who has followed the example of his Sussex team-mate Tymal Mills in 2017 by suddenly becoming one of the IPL's most sought-after signings. With veteran Steve Magoffin also departing to Worcestershire that puts a lot of onus on the exciting but still slender paceman George Garton, plus, of course, Ishant Sharma, who is aiming to get into trim for India's midsummer Test series in England.

Chris Nash's departure to Notts also leaves question marks at the top of the order, despite impressive returns in 2017 for Luke Wells and Stiaan van Zyl. Younger players such as Harry Finch, Michael Burgess and offspinning allrounder Delray Rawlins can help fill that gap, but if they can stay in touch with the top in the first phase, they can win promotion with a late surge in September.

One to watch: Michael Burgess was released by Surrey and Leicestershire, but made a big impression when standing in as wicketkeeper for Ben Brown, capped by 146 against Notts in the final match of the season, and might just have a few more surprises in store.

Bet365: 11-2

Prediction: 2nd


Last season: 8th (Division One)
Coach: Jim Troughton
Captain: Jeetan Patel
Overseas players: Jeetan Patel
Ins: Will Rhodes, Dom Sibley
Outs: William Porterfield, Ateeq Javid, Rikki Clarke

It is hard to know what to make of Warwickshire. An ageing side showed such obvious signs of decline last season that their director of sport, Ashley Giles, had made plans to freshen up the side by mid-season, signing two batsmen in Dom Sibley and Adam Hose and an allrounder, Will Rhodes, who will make his bow this season.

If Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott stir against Division Two attacks, and Sam Hain (highly praised for a batsman with a first-class average of 31) begins to live up to his reputation, there should be runs a plenty. But it is hard to see where the wickets will come from unless Jeetan Patel has a formidable season and Olly Stone puts an injury-strewn career behind him and delivers his potential. Giles has turned down an opportunity to be in the mix for the role oif England's national selector to supervise the rebuilding of the Bears and, although there are signs of progress, his work is far from done.

One to watch: Sukhjit Singh is the first county cricketer to emerge from the Chance to Shine programme - reason enough to wish him success.

Bet365: 7-2

Prediction: 3rd


Last season: 3rd
Coach: David Ripley
Captain: Alex Wakely
Overseas players: Doug Bracewell (first month of season), Rory Kleinveldt (from mid-May)
Ins: Brett Hutton, Luke Procter, Ricardo Vasconcelos
Outs: David Murphy, Azharullah

Northants are a good thing for county cricket, a throwback to the more congenial times of old under the influence of coach David Ripley and skipper Alex Wakely, and none the worse for that if their surprise promotion challenge of 2017 is any guide - a campaign stilled only on the final day of the season at Grace Road. They have recruited well, adding two solid performers in Luke Procter and Brett Hutton, the latter a surprise capture from Notts; Ben Duckett is burning to bury memories of his Ashes soap opera with James Anderson under an avalanche of runs, and Richard Gleeson is one of the best uncapped fast bowlers in the country.

That said, it will be a challenge for this adaptable, if small, squad to match last season's efforts, especially as Max Holden has returned to Middlesex after a successful loan period. Rory Kleinveldt is also a year older, although his early-season substitute, Doug Bracewell, is a colourful and skilful replacement. Twenty20 might again be where they find their chief satisfaction.

One to watch: Brett Hutton's frustration at a lack of white-ball opportunities has led to him leaving Notts and Northants will find a strong-willed cricketer who should fit their need for value-for-money adaptable cricketers.

Bet365: 9-1

Prediction: 4th


Last season: 10th
Coach: Paul Nixon
Captain: Michael Carberry
Overseas players: Varun Aaron (late April to early June), Mohammad Abbas (first Championship game in April then from mid-June) Ins: Ateeq Javid, Michael Carberry, Tom Taylor
Outs: Clint McKay, Will Fazakerley

The finest season for years is predicted for Leicestershire, where Paul Nixon's impact might be seen most strongly later in the summer when an outstanding T20 record both as player and coach is put to the test, but initially the Championship can also deliver long-awaited progress. Nixon's first coaching opportunity in England has been a long time coming and he begins it with a pair of potent overseas signings to lead the attack: initially Pakistan seamer Mohammad Abbas and then India's Varun Aaron. If Zak Chappell's homegrown talent provides support, Grace Road could be a challenging proposition for opposing batsmen.

Whether Leicestershire's seasoned batting line-up can stir itself to make enough runs might be down to Nixon's inspirational qualities. Mark Cosgrove has relinquished the captaincy, with Michael Carberry taking over and a last hurrah from both would be a good place to start - although Carberry's 59 runs in eight knocks on loan before Leicestershire signed him anyway was a defiant response to his statistical failure. Ateeq Javid, a spin-bowling allrounder, also has a last chance to make the grade after moving from Warwickshire.

One to watch: Zak Chappell is one of the flavours of the month as far as England's next generation of pace bowlers is concerned and will need to put dents in a first-class bowling average of 51.

Bet365: 25-1 Prediction: 5th


Last season: 9th
Coach: Jon Lewis
Captain: Paul Collingwood
Overseas players: Aiden Markram (until 14 May), Tom Latham (from 18 May until mid-August), Axar Patel (from 19 August)
Ins: Will Smith, Nathan Rimmington
Outs: Paul Coughlin, Graham Onions, Keaton Jennings

Durham's daunting task is to put the horrors of 2017 behind them. Relegation and a 48-point penalty, inflicted by the ECB because Durham needed a financial bale-out, wrecked their season before it had begun and left a deep well of resentment in the northeast that will linger for many years. Their financial tribulations also contributed to the loss of three top players at the end of the season with England hopeful Keaton Jennings, veteran seamer Graham Onions and sparky allrounder Paul Coughlin all heading for pastures new. Add a season's ban for Jack Burnham for a positive drugs test and the heart has been ripped from the side.

Paul Collingwood, pushing 42, is still there, more than six years after calling time on his England career. He will look for Cameron Steel and Graham Clark to build on 2017 form and South African opening batsman Aiden Markram might just be a fine early-season gamble. They will doubtless find another seamer somewhere because essentially that is what Durham do. And that is just one of the reasons why English cricket should wish them well.

One to watch: Brydon Carse, an aggressive fast bowler, can be a fine sight when fit and in full flow.

Bet365: 16-1

Prediction: 6th


Last season: 7th
Coach: Robert Croft
Captain: Michael Hogan
Overseas players: Shaun Marsh
Outs: Jacques Rudolph, Will Bragg

Such has been the investment in Glamorgan by the ECB that the need for success is more pressing than it has been for years. Cardiff still hosts international cricket, despite giving up on Tests, and is also one of the eight venues for the proposed city-based T20 tournament in 2020, so long-term mediocrity will no longer be looked upon so benignly.

Glamorgan's commitment to a young side with a Welsh flavour has won them new admirers but such pride does not always translate into on-field success. It is now time for players such as batsmen such as Kiran Carlson and Aneurin Donald and the pace bowler Lukas Carey to turn potential into regular success. South African Kolpak Colin Ingram has opted for a white-ball deal, but the presence of Australian Shaun Marsh, who did not win an IPL contract, offers a guiding hand to Glamorgan's youngsters, as does the return of Matthew Maynard as batting coach after his departure from Somerset.

One to watch: Lukas Carey is a young fast-medium bowler from Pontarddulais with a smooth action who made a good impression in his debut season.

Bet365: 14-1

Prediction: 7th


Last season: 5th
Coach: Matt Walker
Captain: Sam Billings
Overseas players: Matt Henry (first half of season)
Ins: Ollie Robinson, Heino Kuhn, Matt Henry, Harry Podmore
Outs: Adam Ball, Hugh Bernard, Charlie Hartley, Matt Coles, Sam Northeast

Paul Downton endured a torrid time as managing director of England, lasting only 14 months in the role, and his return to the county game as Kent's first director of cricket will be no easy task. A fading Kent promotion challenge for the second year in a row in 2017 culminated in a curious sequence in which Sam Northeast lost the captaincy because he would not commit to a new contract in 2019 - he chose Hampshire among a posse of admirers - and was then replaced by Sam Billings even though he will miss the first phase of the Championship season because of the IPL.

With Kent also losing bucolic allrounder Matt Coles to Essex, an ageing group of senior players are left alongside a group of younger professionals who have so far failed to make much of an impact. Joe Denly, as vice captain, steps in for Billings in the early weeks and even the arrival of the South African batsman Heino Kuhn on a Kolpak deal and seamer Harry Podmore can suppress the feeling that Kent's next promotion opportunity may be a while.

One to watch: Kent will hope that Grant Stewart, a burly Australian with an EU passport, will prove a capable substitute for the departed Matt Coles.

Bet365: 7-1

Prediction: 8th


Last season: 8th
Coach:Stephen Stubbings
Captain: Billy Godleman
Overseas players: Duanne Olivier (first half of season)
Ins: Ravi Rampaul
Outs: Tom Wood, Greg Cork, Shiv Thakor, Rob Hemmings, Tom Taylor, Tom Milnes, Ben Cotton, Matt Henry, Charlie Macdonell

Derbyshire have finished in the bottom three in Division Two for three successive seasons and their response has been an impatient one. The message from Kim Barnett, as he undertakes a final year as director of cricket, is that the county will no longer wait forever for young players to fulfil their talent: Tom Milnes, Tom Taylor and Ben Cotton have all been released when many Derbyshire set-ups in the past would have allowed more time for homegrown players to prove their worth.

The loss of the talented allrounder Shiv Thakor, after he was found guilty of indecent exposure, is another blow for Derbyshire. Their batting remains in the familiar hands of Wayne Madsen, Billy Godleman and Alex Hughes and they will expect a big season for legspinner/batsman Matt Critchley. As for the bowling, the pace of South African Duanne Olivier and canny contributions of Ravi Rampaul will be vital, and blooding of teenaged seamers is inevitable.

One to watch: More opportunities for Afghanistan-born offie Hamidullah Qadri would stir interest beyond Derbyshire

Bet365: 20-1

Prediction: 9th


Last season:6th
Coach: Richard Dawson
Captain: Chris Dent
Overseas players: Daniel Worrall (until 2 July)
Ins: Ryan Higgins
Outs: Patrick Grieshaber, Brandon Gilmour, Phil Mustard

Since finishing at the bottom of the table in 2012, sixth place has been an invisible hurdle for Gloucestershire (they have finished there in four of the past five seasons). The departure of experienced former England keeper Phil Mustard by mutual consent on the eve of the season leaves a hole. They will also be without Cameron Bancroft who was signed by Somerset for 2018 - only to be withdrawn from the Championship after he was embroiled in Australia's ball-tampering scandal.

Gloucestershire will have a local boy in charge after Chris Dent was made captain, following a season in which he led the way with the bat, scoring almost 900 runs. The bowling was carried by Liam Norwell, who bagged 59 wickets averaging 17.38, but the rest was under-strength. They will hope that their overseas signing Daniel Worrall, the Australian paceman who has a solid first class record with South Australia, can make an impact straightaway. He may need to.

One to watch: Ryan Higgins, a hard-hitting T20 all-rounder who impressed while with Middlesex, will be looking for further opportunities after moving west.

Bet365: 14-1

Prediction: 10th