With three teams set to go up at the end of the season, as Division One expands from 2020, there is plenty of incentive to have a good campaign. Will Lancashire go straight back up? Can 2016 champions Middlesex adjust? We size up the competition in our Division Two preview.
Last season: 8th
Coach: James Franklin
Captain: Cameron Bancroft
Overseas players: Cameron Bancroft
Ins: Alex Lees, Ben Raine
Outs: Paul Collingwood, Barry McCarthy, Ryan Davies
It's been two seasons since Durham were horsewhipped into the second division as punishment for receiving a £3.8m bail-out from the ECB. The 2017 season was a write-off, as they began it with a 48-point deduction, but they then struggled in 2018 as well. The poise and pre-eminence that carried them to three Championship titles in six seasons between 2008 and 2013 remains a distant and poignant memory.
Will 2019 be the season of rediscovery? Probably not, in all honesty, for all that they have undergone a significant rebranding this winter, in a bid to draw a line under their recent difficulties. Marcus North and James Franklin are ambitious appointments as director of cricket and head coach respectively, while Cameron Bancroft is an eyebrow-raising option as first-class and 50-over skipper, in the wake of his nine-month ban for ball-tampering.
The wisdom (or otherwise) of that appointment will reveal itself as the summer wears on, but with an Ashes looming in August and September, Bancroft has plenty incentive to give his utter commitment to the cause. But whoever had taken on the role would have been filling impossibly large boots, following last season's retirement of the ever-green Paul Collingwood - captain, leader and Riverside legend - at the age of 42.
Bancroft aside, Durham's top-order batting is full of players with points to prove. Alex Lees, the former Yorkshire prodigy whose career has stagnated at Headingley in recent seasons, has completed the move north that he began last season, as he seeks to restate his credentials aged 25. And it's likely that those two will be joined in the top three by Jack Burnham, a former England Under-19 star, who is also back in action after serving a drugs ban. As the club itself knows, the only way is up from rock bottom.
One to watch: Sunderland-born but latterly Leicestershire-honed, the exciting allrounder Ben Raine has returned to Chester-le-Street in perhaps the most significant boost to the club's regeneration. He was Leicestershire's top wicket-taker in the 2018 Championship season with 45 at 22.75 apiece, while his maiden T20 hundred was an eye-popping affair - 113 from 45 balls against Birmingham Bears, with eight fours and ten sixes. Andrew Miller
Last season: 7th
Coach: Dave Houghton
Captain: Billy Godleman
Overseas players: Logan van Beek
Ins: Tom Lace (loan), Mattie McKiernan
Outs: Hardus Viljoen, Ben Slater, Gary Wilson, Will Davies, Callum Brodrick
The Kim Barnett revolution never quite came to pass at Derbyshire, although there have been signs of traction after they finished bottom of the pile in 2016. There were again mixed results last season, despite winning their opening match against expected promotion challengers Middlesex - Derbyshire's first home victory in the Championship for almost three years - and Barnett stepped down from his advisory role midway through. The promise of an attack that featured, at various times, four international bowlers never quite coalesced into on-field success and once again the batting was reliant on Wayne Madsen, the division's second-leading run-scorer.
Still, two wins at the end of the campaign lifted them up into the comfort of mid-table, and a new coaching team headed by Dave Houghton will be looking for further improvements in pursuit of a first promotion challenge since they went up as Division Two champions in 2012. That won't be easy, having lost key performers in opener Ben Slater, Ireland international Gary Wilson, and South African Kolpak signing Hardus Viljoen, who opted out of the third year of his contract after winning an IPL deal. However, there is a good mix of young talent and experienced heads such as Madsen, Tony Palladino and Ravi Rampaul, while the return of Dominic Cork, brought in as T20 coach, should provide a lift around the County Ground.
One to watch: In seeking an overseas signing who would be available for a full season, Derbyshire alighted on Logan van Beek - a 28-year-old allrounder who has yet to be capped by New Zealand, the country of his birth, but has played international cricket for Netherlands, including appearing at two World T20s. An impressive county campaign could help push his Black Caps case. Alan Gardner
Last season: 10th
Coach: Matt Maynard
Captain: Chris Cooke
Overseas players: Marnus Labuschagne, Shaun Marsh
Ins: Billy Root, Charlie Hemphrey, Callum Taylor, Kazi Szymanski, Jamie McIlroy
Outs: Aneurin Donald
After one of their most miserable seasons in recent memory, surely the only way is up? Only two wins were forthcoming in the Championship, bookending 10 defeats and two draws as Glamorgan claimed the wooden spoon by a distance; and there was no solace in the white-ball competitions, either. Hugh Morris acknowledged the need for things to change, commissioning an external review that led to him stepping down as director of cricket - a role he combined with being chief executive. Robert Croft also lost his job as head coach, with Matthew Maynard taking over in an interim capacity.
Another local legend in the form of former captain and wicketkeeper Mark Wallace has now taken charge as director of cricket, just two years after retiring from the game. One of his first moves was to hand the captaincy to Chris Cooke - a batsman-keeper in the same mould - in part to manage the workload of 37-year-old Michael Hogan, Glamorgan's leading wicket-taker in 2018. The signings of Billy Root and Charlie Hemphrey (an Englishman who made a name for himself in Queensland) could prove shrewd in bolstering the batting, and the maturing of the club's strong Welsh core may help improve fortunes.
One to watch: A tall, patient left-hander, Jack Murphy has progressed from seam-bowling allrounder (he opened the bowling on first-class debut) to potential top-order lynchpin. He only averaged 25.38 in the Championship in 2018 but no Glamorgan player faced as many as his tally of 1316 balls. Another local talent of whom there are high hopes. AG
Last season: 5th
Coach: Richard Dawson
Captain: Chris Dent
Ins: Stuart Whittingham
Outs: Liam Norwell, Craig Miles
Although they were some way off the promotion pace, Gloucestershire were the side to push Division Two's big four - Warwickshire, Kent, Sussex and Middlesex - closest in 2018. Under Richard Dawson, the west countrymen have tended to prioritise progress in the limited-overs competitions - they won the Royal London Cup in 2015 - above the more draining route march of a successful Championship campaign. Such pragmatism is understandable for a county that has not been in the top flight for over a decade, though Dawson is hopeful of improvement. "We've probably fallen short as a collective in four-day cricket," he admitted this week.
Bristol has a reputation as one of the flattest decks in the country, but a bowler-friendly summer in the UK meant no Gloucestershire batsman averaged more than 36 last year. Captain Chris Dent remains the likeliest candidate to score 1000 runs, while plenty is expected of young talents George Hankins, James Bracey and Miles Hammond. The bowling will have inevitably taken a hit after the departures of Liam Norwell and Craig Miles to Warwickshire, but Australia international Dan Worrall will hope for a productive campaign, after injury curtailed his 2018 stint, and former Sussex seamer Stuart Whittingham should go well. Unfancied they may be but Dawson has assembled a tight squad that could spring a few surprises.
One to watch: Teenager Ben Charlesworth was granted time off from studying for his A-Levels in order to make his first-class debut last summer. A seam-bowling allrounder, the 17-year-old struck an unbeaten 77 in only his third match - going to fifty with a six - and then claimed a three-wicket haul against promotion-chasing Middlesex. Still a schoolboy but plenty is expected. AG
Last season: 7th
Captain: Dane Vilas
Overseas players: Joe Burns (April to mid-July), Glenn Maxwell (July-September)
Ins:Richard Gleeson, Mark Footitt (loan), George Lavelle, George Balderson, Tom Hartley, Jack Morley
Outs: Jordan Clark, Simon Kerrigan, Karl Brown, Arron Lilley, Mark Watt
Lancashire are expected to begin their quest for a third promotion in seven seasons with the services of international stars James Anderson and Glenn Maxwell available to face Middlesex. Anderson could play as many as 10 Championship fixtures before the Ashes come around, but Lancashire have the bowlers to cope without him, with Tom Bailey's 64 wickets the best of any bowler in Division One last season followed by Graham Onions's 57, putting him equal fourth. The arrival of Mark Footitt on a month's loan from Notts is also a boost.
Batting-wise, however, they could miss Maxwell, who scored 71, 98 and 70 in consecutive innings during Australia's recent ODI series against Pakistan. Lancashire's leading run-scorer for 2018 was Dane Vilas with 792 runs at 37.71, followed by Alex Davies' 732, while Keaton Jennings - a man looking for every opportunity to press his England case - scored 709 runs in the 10 matches he played. That is where Joe Burns comes in, keen to press his own claims for an Ashes berth after giving himself a glimmer of hope by scoring 180 against Sri Lanka in February.
One to watch: Fast bowler Saqib Mahmood has been on the England radar for some time, having made his U-19s debut at just 17 and signed his first pro contract with Lancashire in 2015. Now 22, there is a sense he is ready to take the next step in his development, given the chance. Valkerie Baynes
Last season: 6th
Coach: Paul Nixon
Captain: Paul Horton
Overseas players: Mohammad Abbas
Ins: Chris Wright, Will Davis, Arron Lilley
Outs: Ben Raine, Zak Chappell, Ned Eckersley, Mark Pettini, Rob Sayer, Tom Wells, Richard Jones, Michael Carberry, Cameron Delport
Karen Rothery, who joins Leicestershire on April 23 as the new chief executive, might be forgiven for wondering what she's got herself in for. Recent reports state that the club is on the brink of seeking an ECB bail-out for an outstanding £1.3m debt. In an era of county haves and have nots, few clubs feel more in a more precarious situation. At least in Paul Nixon, Leicestershire have an eternal optimist at the helm as head coach, and he'll need to be just that, given that the first-team squad stretches to a mere 19 players, offering little leeway for injury or form.
It's been another winter of mass exodus at Grace Road. Michael Carberry's ill-starred stint came to a sticky end in October, five months after he had been stripped of the captaincy and stood down from a playing role, while Ben Raine's move back to Durham - another club that has seen hard times - was a particularly painful loss. Mark Cosgrove, whose 440 runs at 18.33 in 2018 were the worst figures of his first-class career, was one of a raft of batsmen who never got going last season - between them, they managed just the one hundred - a startling innings of 196 not out from Colin Ackermann against Middlesex (who still recovered to win by one wicket).
In spite of this, Leicestershire did manage to pull together five victories last season, thanks in no small part to the indefatigable Mohammad Abbas, whose 64 wickets at 17.56 included five five-wicket hauls and ten in the match against Durham in September.
One to watch: He's an old'un, but a good'un. Chris Wright was the mainstay of Warwickshire's Championship triumph in 2012, and at the age of 33, he could provide an ideal injection of know-how to an attack that can't rely on Abbas alone. AM
Last season: 4th
Coach: Stuart Law
Captain: Dawid Malan
Ins: Jack Davies
Outs: Ryan Patel, James Fuller, Nick Compton, James Franklin, Tom Lace, Ashton Agar
It says something about the ambition that resides at Lord's that Middlesex were able to persuade the former Australia batsman Stuart Law to pack in his role as West Indies coach ahead of what would prove to be a seminal Test series win against England, and instead set out his stall for four years in North London.
There's plenty to work with at the club as well. Their bid for a swift return to Division One stalled last season, but they begin this campaign as second-favourites for the title, and having undergone a significant change of personnel in the off-season, including the departure of two of their senior players of recent seasons, captain James Franklin and former England batsman Nick Compton.
It's in the fast-bowling department where Middlesex will hope to make early-season inroads, however. Toby Roland-Jones is returning to fitness and will be eager to regain the form that made him an automatic Test selection at the back end of 2017, while Steven Finn - who has just turned 30 - has reportedly been steaming in in pre-season. With Tom Helm facing a pivotal season, and the likes of Tim Murtagh and James Harris providing old-school nous in spades, Middlesex should be a challenge for any line-up on England's early-season decks.
The batting, however, has little choice but to progress from a lethargic 2018 season. Dawid Malan, shunned by England in recent months, is one of many with a massive incentive to make his presence known before the Ashes, as is Nick Gubbins - a man accustomed to being mentioned in Test dispatches without getting much further into the selectors' thoughts than that.
One to watch: After missing the last Ashes tour with a stress fracture of the back, and suffering a relapse the following spring, Roland-Jones has endured a long and lonely season of rehabilitation. But in his absence, no one among England's emerging seamers has truly matched the potential that he showed in his first four Tests against South Africa and West Indies in 2017. Prior to that, of course, he capped the 2016 season by taking a hat-trick against Yorkshire to secure Middlesex's first Championship for 23 years. His fitness and availability will be crucial to their promotion challenge. AM
Last season: 9th
Coach: David Ripley
Captain: Alex Wakely
Overseas players: Jason Holder (April-May), Temba Bavuma (May-July)
Ins: Blessing Muzarabani, Ben Cotton, Luke Wood (loan)
Outs: Ben Duckett, Richard Gleeson, Steven Crook
For the Wantage Road "Crazy Gang", there was not too much to celebrate in 2018. The Championship side struggled to string together consistent performances, while they lost their T20 mojo, too, winning just two of 14 games in the Blast. Having been run on a shoestring for some time, marshalling their limited resources to good effect, Northamptonshire's good fortune ran out as injuries bit into a small playing squad. Towards the end of the season, they gave up the fight to keep Ben Duckett, while Richard Gleeson was lured back to his native Lancashire and talismanic allrounder Steven Crook announced his retirement.
Those gaps will be hard to fill, although they have acquired a couple of high-quality overseas players to help compensate: Jason Holder - totem of West Indies' remarkable Test series victory over England - is expected to feature twice in the Championship, before Temba Bavuma joins for the middle chunk of the season. Zimbabwean quick Blessing Muzarabani, signed on a Kolpak deal, also looks an exciting prospect and should complement a strong seam attack led by Ben Sanderson and Ben Hutton. Finding runs from somewhere remains the major challenge as Northants seek to push for one of the three promotion spots on offer.
One to watch: The Curran family have benefited England to the tune of two international bowlers, but the third brother is a top-order batsman looking to make his mark at county level. Ben Curran may never get quite as far as Tom and Sam, but having won a contract at Northants last year, he finished the season in good form and will be aiming to kick on. AG
Last season: 3rd (Div. 2)
Coach: Jason Gillespie
Captain: Ben Brown
Overseas players: Mir Hamza (April-July), Will Sheffield
Outs: Stuart Whittingham
Much interest at Hove centres on exciting Barbados-born allrounders Jofra Archer and Chris Jordan, both of whom could be missing for chunks of the season, with Archer at the IPL and in the frame for a World Cup berth, having secured the right to play for England, and Jordan having done no harm to his World Cup chances with a Player-of-the-Series performance in England's T20s against West Indies. Archer was Sussex's second-highest wicket-taker last season with 42 from the eight games he played at 17.85.
Ollie Robinson's haul of 74 wickets was second only to New Zealand international Matt Henry at Kent as Robinson thrived under the guidance of coach Jason Gillespie. Sussex are a largely settled side, with Gillespie returning and overseas signing Mir Hamza and youth pathway graduate Will Sheffield the only new arrivals, while Stuart Whittingham has departed for Gloucestershire. With three promotion places up for grabs, Sussex are bound to be in the mix.
One to watch: Phil Salt's 739 runs last season put him second for the club behind captain Ben Brown and included 148 off 138 balls against Derbyshire, his second century in an eye-catching first full season with Sussex. VB
Last season: 8th
Coach: Alex Gidman
Captain: Joe Leach
Overseas players: Hamish Rutherford (April), Callum Ferguson (May-Sept)
Ins: Wayne Parnell, Adam Finch, Riki Wessels
Outs: Steve Magoffin, Joe Clarke, Alex Hepburn
The recruitment of Riki Wessels from Nottinghamshire looks even more promising after he blasted 97 off 51 in a pre-season game against Warwickshire. Also amongst the runs were Ross Whiteley, Alex Milton and Ed Barnard in possible signs of things to come, and that is without considering the impact overseas player Callum Ferguson is expected to have following his successful white-ball stint last season, which yielded three centuries, including 192 against Leicestershire on his Royal London Cup debut.
Securing Wayne Parnell on a Kolpak deal freed up the overseas spot for Ferguson but also locked in a valuable allrounder for a side expecting to miss Moeen Ali for much of the season to England duty. Parnell can contribute strongly to a bowling attack led by Barnard and boosted by the return of previously injured fellow seamers Joe Leach, the team's workhorse captain, and rising star Josh Tongue.
One to watch: While still a teenager, Dillon Pennington emerged last season to play eight matches and become his team's fourth-highest wicket-taker with 22 at 35.36. Having "blown away" Surrey's Morne Morkel when their sides met, Pennington - now 20 - has height, strength and speed to make serious inroads as a regular in the bowling line-up. VB