Feature

Surrey hold the crown but Lancashire looking to go one better

We assess the Division One contenders in our County Championship preview

Surrey claimed their 20th outright title in 2022  •  Getty Images

Surrey claimed their 20th outright title in 2022  •  Getty Images

Can Surrey build another dynasty, or will it be Lancashire's year? How will Notts and Middlesex fare back in the top flight? The LV= Insurance County Championship is almost upon us again, and we have run the rule over the contenders. You can read our Division Two preview here.

Essex

Last season: 4th in Division One
Head coach: Anthony McGrath
Captain: Tom Westley
Overseas: Simon Harmer, Doug Bracewell
Ins: Adam Rossington (Northants)
Outs: Adam Wheater (retired), Jack Plom (released)
Essex were nothing if not entertaining last season, in an up-and-down campaign that never really threatened to become a serious push for their sixth red-ball title in seven seasons. Two one-wicket wins - at Taunton and Headingley - as well as a 12-run margin against Hampshire showed the resilience of Tom Westley's side, which has not changed a great deal since their 2016-2020 golden period. But they only won one of their first five games and there was a fragility to the batting, never more evident than when they were bowled out for 59 chasing a target of 98 to beat Lancashire on a spicy Chelmsford deck that drew a curt verdict from the visitors.
That Alastair Cook, now in his 39th year, remains their key batter is not quite the comforting thought it once was for Essex fans - though they will be banking on at least one of Westley, Dan Lawrence and Matt Critchley averaging more than 30 this year. The club's decision-makers obviously retain their faith, having signed two overseas allrounders - the first, Will Sutherland, had to withdraw due to injury - to supplement Simon Harmer's perennial guile. The bowling looks strong, as ever, although Jamie Porter will be looking to rediscover his mojo after managing just 19 wickets at 30.89 in 2022.
One to watch: Feroze Khushi made his first-team debut as a 21-year-old in the Bob Willis Trophy but has had to keep knocking at the door. Last year, he made career-best scores in all three formats, including a maiden first-class hundred that he extended to 164 during an innings win at Canterbury. Like most of his top-order colleagues, his was plagued by inconsistency, scoring 86 runs in nine other Championship knocks - but he clearly has the talent to push for a regular starting spot. Alan Gardner
Bet365: 5/1

Hampshire

Last season: 3rd in Division One
Director of cricket: Giles White
First team manager: Adrian Birrell
Captain: James Vince
Overseas: Kyle Abbott, Mohammad Abbas
Ins: Benny Howell (Gloucestershire)
Outs: Lewis McManus (Northamptonshire)
Hampshire won more matches than any side in Division One last season (nine), although their four defeats compared with champions Surrey and Lancashire brought them undone, as shown in the 77-run loss at home to Kent in September which crushed their title hopes. So there is an air of atonement about 2023 and with an highly experienced core of James Vince, Liam Dawson, Keith Barker and overseas stars Kyle Abbott and Mohammad Abbas, they have the goods.
Throw in the return of another seasoned campaigner, Benny Howell, who began his career at Hampshire before joining Gloucestershire a decade ago, and last year's form batter Nick Gubbins, who scored centuries in both innings against a Lancashire line-up featuring none other than James Anderson, and they should be contenders again. Ben Brown made a seamless transition after moving from Sussex to be the club's fourth-highest run-scorer with an average of 38.66, while Felix Organ's move to the top of the order brought rewards - more of the same will aid Hampshire's cause.
One to watch: Will this finally be the summer that Aneurin Donald hits the big time? With two injury ravaged seasons behind him, this attacking middle-order batter is primed to deliver on the promise that saw him once thrash 234 off 136 balls as a teenager with Glamorgan. Made an encouraging 398 runs from nine outings last year but will be looking to go better. Valkerie Baynes
Bet365: 4/1

Kent

Last season: 5th in Division One
Director of cricket: Paul Downton
Head coach: Matt Walker
Captain: Sam Billings
Overseas: George Linde, Arshdeep Singh
Ins: Joey Evison (Nottinghamshire), Michael Hogan (Glamorgan)
Outs: Ollie Robinson (Durham), Matt Milnes (Yorkshire), Harry Podmore (Glamorgan), Darren Stevens (released)
Ben Compton set Kent off on the right footing, racking up four centuries by mid-May and not scrimping on the fifties either as he made his way towards becoming the second-highest run-scorer for the season in Division One. He has extended his contract and spent the English winter playing first-class cricket in Zimbabwe. Also renewing with the club were stalwart Joe Denly, promising 22-year-old opener Tawanda Mueye, Hamid Qadri and Nathan Gilchrist, Kent's leading wicket taker in the 2022 Championship.
George Linde, the South African spin-bowling allrounder, will return for the second half of his two-year stint as an all-format overseas player in a bowling line-up bolstered by the signing of Arshdeep Singh, India's left-arm swing bowler who has agreed to play five Championship games through June-July. Allrounder Joey Evison makes it official after joining Kent midway through last season on loan as part of the Darren Stevens succession plan. He will be looking to make the most of opportunities which were thin at Nottinghamshire.
Meanwhile, the availability of captain Sam Billings from the start of the Championship after he opted out of this year's edition of the IPL could provide a big, early boost as Kent look to build on their four wins of last year.
One to watch: Tawanda Muyeye is averaging 29.57 after 10 first-class matches, having made his debut in 2021. His season-high 85 as Kent defeated Somerset by an innings and 151 runs last September was an encouraging way to end 2022, a year in which he also broke into Vitality Blast reckoning, although he may have to fight his way back into the starting XI this summer. VB
Bet365: 16/1

Lancashire

Last season: 2nd in Division One
Director of cricket performance: Mark Chilton
Head coach: Glenn Chapple
Captain: Keaton Jennings
Overseas: Dane Vilas, Colin de Grandhomme, Daryl Mitchell
Ins:
Outs: Liam Hurt (released)
There is comfort to be had for Lancashire fans at finishing second two years on the bounce - though you could argue 2022's position was not entirely accurate given they finished a point ahead of Hampshire by beating a Surrey team well into their title celebrations during the final round. Nevertheless, theirs is a squad full of red-ball campaigners with varying claims for England call-ups -and the international programme this summer is such that their depth won't face too stern a test. Even the fact they begin without Liam Livingstone and Phil Salt (both at the IPL) is tempered by the presence of James Anderson for the first six rounds, provided England don't fancy wrapping him up in cotton wool ahead of the Ashes.
Keaton Jennings, Division One's top-scorer last season, was a tourist in the operative sense in Pakistan and is unlikely to move beyond a squad opener this summer. Josh Bohanon, the next cab in the previous Test regime, has moved a little further back down the rank. Factor in the signing of Daryl Mitchell (913 in his last nine Tests, of which 538 came in England last summer from six innings) and the experience of Colin de Grandhomme, and you've pretty much got an international batting card. And we haven't mentioned Luke Wells (991 runs in 2022), Steven Croft (837) or Dane Vilas (567), who should be liberated by handing over the captaincy to Jennings.
The loss of Hasan Ali to Warwickshire is a blow though Saqib Mahmood's availability after last year's back stress fracture brings similar incisive qualities. Tom Bailey, 51 and 52 first class wickets in 2021 and 2022 respectively, will be eyeing up another half-century. The towering seamer is building a reputation not too dissimilar to his coach as one of the best operators on the circuit seemingly out of sight of the England selectors. In Kiwi Will Williams, he has the ideal front-pad targeting new-ball partner to complement his back-of-a-length ways. The county have also yet to really reap the benefits of an allrounder of Luke Wood's class. First title since 2011, anyone?
One to watch: The last 12 months have been dispiriting for Matt Parkinson. An England Test debut in June, after Jack Leach suffered concussion at Lord's, a sixth T20 cap in July against India, and then nothing. Perhaps even less than nothing: last month, after a quiet winter, Parkinson went undrafted in the Hundred. At 26, he is at a fascinating juncture in his career - once the future of English legspin and now seemingly out of sight and mind. Missing the Pakistan tour was compounded by the emergence of shiny new thing Rehan Ahmed, who has charmed hipsters and mainstream audiences alike; Parkinson only really had command over the latter. A stint in Zimbabwe for Mashonaland Eagles helped him tick over in pre-season and, armed with something to prove, expect a naturally combative cricketer to dial it up a few notches this summer. Vithushan Ehantharajah
Bet365: 5/1

Middlesex

Last season: 2nd in Division Two
Head of men's cricket: Alan Coleman
First team coach: Richard Johnson
Captain: Toby Roland-Jones
Overseas: Pieter Malan
Ins: Ryan Higgins (Gloucestershire)
Outs: Eoin Morgan (retired), Nathan Sowter (Durham)
A season of heightened scrutiny would appear to be on the cards following Middlesex's admission of financial difficulties - the legacy of both the pandemic and an error in pension payments. But if the chief executive Andrew Cornish's optimistic outlook is to be believed, then that is in no small part down to the endeavours of the playing staff, who helped to swell the coffers in forging a path back to the top flight last season, for the first time since 2017.
Whether their squad is strong enough to stay there is a different matter, however. The signing of South Africa's Keshav Maharaj could have offered a seasoned spin option to their seam-dominant attack, but he suffered a dramatic Achilles tendon rupture while celebrating a wicket against West Indies last month, and is out for the foreseeable. In his absence, the likes of Thilan Walallawita and Luke Hollman may need to step up. Toby Roland-Jones offers a wise old head as the new red-ball captain, with Tim Murtagh moving into a player-coaching role, while the likes of Tom Helm, Ethan Bamber and Blake Cullen should ensure that the wicket-taking side of the bargain is met.
With the bat, the former England openers Sam Robson and Mark Stoneman make a compelling alliance, alongside Stephen Eskinazi, whose recent Hundred deal was confirmation of the extent to which his stock has risen in recent years, and Middlesex's other South African import, Pieter Malan, retained after his role in the 2022 promotion push.
One to watch: Ryan Higgins' departure from Middlesex in 2017 was symptomatic of the club's post-Championship-winning malaise - a hugely promising young allrounder, frustrated by a lack of opportunities, and seeking pastures new while the team slumped towards relegation. He's proven his point in the intervening seasons, driving Gloucestershire's promotion push in 2019 as well as their T20 Finals run in 2020, but now - after a loan spell last summer - he's back at Lord's for good, and this time as a seasoned pro at the age of 28. His established middle-order flair and attack-balancing medium-pace could be just the tonic the squad needs.
Bet365: 20/1

Northamptonshire

Last season: 6th in Division One
Head coach: John Sadler
Captain: Luke Procter
Overseas: Sam Whiteman, Chris Tremain, Lance Morris
Ins: David Willey (Yorkshire), Ollie Sale (Somerset)
Outs: Brandon Glover (Durham), Nathan Buck, Ben Curran, Charlie Thurston (all released)
Northamptonshire have been a fascinating red-ball outfit in the last 10 years: engaging and cavalier bordering on reckless. Crap shooters with big hearts, both traits admirable though hardly conducive to sustaining themselves in the top-flight. That was until last season when, for the first time in four attempts, they were able to survive after earning promotion from Division Two.
Achieving that feat relied upon taking fewer chances. Wantage Road was deliberately flat - in turn, Northants picked up six of their seven draws at home. At the same time, you could see they were adopting a more workmanlike approach to their red-ball cricket, almost in the image of Luke Procter, who leads them into the new campaign after Ricardo Vasconcelos stepped down midway through last season. The former enjoyed stellar form with the bat (961 runs at 53.38) while the latter (576 at 25.04) dramatically underperformed for his undoubted talent and will hope less weight on the shoulders will lead to freer arms. The reliability of their seam bowling is carried by the relentless Ben Sanderson and late bloomer Jack White, the pair combining for 78 wickets between them.
The club have recruited well on the overseas front, exclusively with Australians: prolific Sheffield Shield run-scorer Sam Whiteman is on board until August, while Chris Tremain (first three games) and exciting speedster Lance Morris (the next three) will reinforce the bowling stocks. Surviving another season in Division One will be tough, but Northants love nothing more than sticking it to the doubters.
One to watch: This could easily have been a section reserved for Emilio Gay, an exciting left-handed batter who looks ready to step up and make some big noise after a breakthrough 825 runs last season. But with Gay out until the middle of May following surgery on a stress fracture of his left knee cap, let's talk about Rob Keogh. Yes, there's the 1570 runs split fairly evenly over the last two summers. But it's his spin bowling that warrants inclusion in this section. He finished as Northants' third-highest wicket-taker in 2022, with 34 dismissals at a respectable average of 30.23 for a guy who hasn't always taken the craft seriously. Observers note his action is stronger, tactics more refined as per his 5 for 31 which helped beat Kent last July for one of Northants' two wins. VE
Bet365: 25/1

Nottinghamshire

Last season: 1st in Division Two
Head coach: Peter Moores
Captain: Steven Mullaney
Overseas: Dane Paterson
Ins: Olly Stone (Warwickshire), Tom Loten (Yorkshire)
Outs: Joey Evison (Kent), Zak Chappell (Derbyshire), Sol Budinger (Leicestershire)
In the midst of his international career revival, Ben Duckett seems likely to start the season for Notts in his familiar No. 3 spot despite looking set to open for England against Ireland at Lord's in June. With opener Haseeb Hameed second on the Division Two run charts last season and Duckett and captain Steven Mullaney also in the top 10, Nottinghamshire are solid with the bat - albeit that they will be tested more concertedly and for longer in the top tier.
South Africa seamer Dane Paterson was right up there in the bowling department along with Liam Patterson-White, who enjoyed a standout 2022 as the division's most successful spinner, taking 41 wickets at 27.95. The county's successful bid for promotion came after two winless years in 2019 and 2020 and a gut-wrenching third-place finish under the conference system used in 2021 - Notts shook off the demotion on the return to two divisions and produced a campaign that brooked no arguments. They are a side that have consistently show they are on the up and, if they can call on the formidable Stuart Broad when England Test duties allow, their trajectory looks even better.
One to watch: A wretched run of injuries puts Olly Stone under the microscope - not least from an England point of view. His comeback from a back stress fracture was punctuated by a finger injury and followed up with a move from Warwickshire, with whom he couldn't secure a long-term extension. But he showed glimpses of a return to form with England and at the SA20 over the winter and will hope early season contributions for his new county can put him in the Ashes frame. VB
Bet365: 8/1

Somerset

Last season: 7th in Division One
Head coach: Jason Kerr
Captain: Tom Abell
Overseas: Peter Siddle, Matt Henry, Cameron Bancroft
Ins: Tom Kohler-Cadmore (Yorkshire), Sean Dickson (Durham), Shoaib Bashir (unattached)
Outs: Marchant de Lange (Gloucs), Ollie Sale (Northants), James Hildreth, Max Waller (retired)
There was an end-of-era feel to Somerset's 2022 campaign. So near and yet so far over the previous decade and more, last summer they were left scrambling for salvation in a Championship campaign that began with three consecutive defeats and would surely have resulted in relegation but for the steadfast leadership of Tom Abell. His five centuries dragged them kicking and screaming out of the bottom two and, had it not been for injury, he would have been rewarded over the winter with an England cap.
Instead, his primary mission is to galvanise a rejigged team, one that will - for the first time in 20 seasons - be lacking the services of James Hildreth following his retirement last autumn. Tom Kohler-Cadmore, eager to impress after his departure from Yorkshire, is an excellent candidate to fill his sizeable shoes, while Sean Dickson - latterly a Durham stalwart - is another shrewd signing. On the bowling front, Peter Siddle and Matt Henry offer a potent Antipodean pairing, to give extra heft to a seam attack also featuring Craig Overton, Lewis Gregory and the ever-improving left-arm allsorts of Tom Lammonby.
One to watch: As Rehan Ahmed has already demonstrated, the talent lurking within England's age-group set-up is itching to break into the big time, and few batters come with a higher standing than James Rew. His 95 in last year's Under-19 World Cup final rescued his team from a sickly 91 for 7 against the eventual champions, India, and he's since gone on to feature for the England Lions in Sri Lanka. Though still only 19, the timing of Somerset's reboot could well work in his favour. Andrew Miller
Bet365: 12/1

Surrey

Last season: 1st in Division One
Director of cricket: Alec Stewart
Head coach: Gareth Batty
Captain: Rory Burns
Overseas: Kemar Roach, Sean Abbott, Tom Latham
Ins: Dom Sibley (Warwickshire)
Outs: Hashim Amla (retired)
Squad depth to the Nth degree saw Surrey triumph in 2022, but the defence will test just how strong and deep the reserves truly are. The loss of Hashim Amla to retirement and Jamie Overton for most of the summer to injury robs them of a consistent performer and a difference-maker, respectively. Will Jacks will also begin the season on the sidelines, nursing a thigh injury picked up on England duty. They are also without Sam Curran until June, and maybe further afield if England call.
Dom Sibley returns home to fill the Amla-shaped gap. The move away from south London in 2017 was ultimately through a lack of opportunities and there is something quite neat about Sibley coming back with greater respect on his name. The time away could not have been more productive: 3875 first class runs, 12 centuries and an average of 44.03 for Warwickshire, as well as 22 England caps. The availability of Ollie Pope (who will bat at No. 3) and Ben Foakes for the first six rounds before the first Test of the summer against Ireland at the start of June is also a boost. By that stage of last season, Surrey had three wins and three draws - two with full bonus points - establishing a 16-point lead at the top. Given Surrey play Lancashire (2nd in 2022) and Hampshire (3rd) twice - who only play each other once - a similar start is required if they are to go back-to-back.
An Overton-less pace attack does lack a bit of oomph, though Sean Abbott could plug that gap. The absence of Jacks, whose emergence as a handy offspinning allrounder resulted in an England Test call, disrupts what had been an enviable balance. The lack of a Curran - Sam is at the IPL, Tom injured after announcing an indefinite break from red-ball cricket - and uncertainty over how much Championship cricket is on the agenda for Reece Topley chips away at options. After a fine start to his Surrey career as leader of the attack, Dan Worrall will have more on his shoulders this time around.
One to watch: It may seem contradictory to talk of a 25-year-old's career just getting started, but fast bowlers get that leeway and Gus Atkinson is just that. How fast? Well, fast enough. He earned wider repute for Desert Vipers in his 10 appearances at the ILT20, building on his Blast form with Surrey. But there is plenty to excite the traditionalists with a strong, repeatable action, a natural away-swinger and a developing ability to manipulate his lengths without too much of a tell. He has played just nine first class matches, but the last four in 2022 reaped 13 Championship dismissals at 28.84. It felt like the beginning of a coming-of-age story for a player who has had an unfair share of injuries. Recently added to a scouting longlist of prospective England players, there is every chance he moves further up it this summer. VE
Bet365: 10/3

Warwickshire

Last season: 8th Division One
Performance director: Gavin Larsen
Head coach: Mark Robinson
Captain: Will Rhodes
Overseas: Hasan Ali
Ins: Moeen Ali, Ed Barnard (both Worcestershire), Chris Rushworth (Durham)
Outs: Dom Sibley (Surrey), Olly Stone (Nottinghamshire), Adam Hose (Worcs), Matt Lamb (Derbyshire), Ryan Sidebottom (released)
They survived the drop by the very skin of the teeth in 2022, with Liam Norwell's stunning final-day nine-for clawing the club over the line against Hampshire at Edgbaston, and so condemning Yorkshire to relegation instead. But the euphoria of that get-out could not distract from a worryingly limp campaign from the reigning champions, especially given that Norwell himself managed just four matches in another injury-plagued season. Bowling reinforcements have arrived in the off-season, with the surprise signing of Durham legend Chris Rushworth offering a quick fix as he approaches the last hurrah of his fine career, and allrounder Ed Barnard joining his team-mate Moeen Ali in making the trip up from New Road - although Moeen, of course, is a white-ball-only signing. However, the arrival of Pakistan's Hasan Ali, following his telling displays for Lancashire last summer, is perhaps the strongest statement of intent from a club that expects much more than previously delivered.
With Paul Farbrace transferring his duties down to Sussex, New Zealand's Gavin Larsen takes over as performance director, and plenty of focus will be on Warwickshire's batting too, which leant heavily on Sam Hain's 1137 runs last summer but has been shorn of Dom Sibley's services following his return to Surrey. In Sibley's absence, Will Rhodes and Rob Yates are likely to resume their Championship-winning opening partnership, while Jacob Bethell and Dan Mousley - bit-part campaigners last year but England Under-19 starlets of recent vintage - may be among those expected to step up.
One to watch: In the summer of 2021, Rob Yates looked the real deal at the top of Warwickshire's order. His 907 runs at 39.43 included five teak-tough centuries, including an outstanding unbeaten 120 against Essex in April that involved blunting the deadly Simon Harmer to seal a fourth-innings run-chase. Last year, however, his form fell off a cliff … right up until the moment it mattered most when, in the final match of the campaign, he produced a third of his season's runs in a single innings of 104 against Hampshire, to set up the win that saved Warwickshire's bacon. At the age of 23, time is very much on his side to reaffirm his credentials, but there's no time like the present to make the case. AM
Bet365: 14/1