Essex the team to beat once again

We assess the chances of the teams in Group One in our County Championship preview

The Essex players celebrated at Lord's after winning the Bob Willis Trophy in 2020  •  Getty Images

The Essex players celebrated at Lord's after winning the Bob Willis Trophy in 2020  •  Getty Images

Can Essex continue their run of red-ball dominance? Might Derbyshire or Durham spring a surprise? We cast an eye over the chances of the six teams in Group One of the County Championship. You can also read our previews for Group Two and Group Three.


Last season: 2nd in North Group
Head of cricket: Dave Houghton
Captain: Billy Godleman
Overseas: Billy Stanlake
Ins: Brooke Guest (Lancashire)
Outs: Tony Palladino, Ravi Rampaul (released)
Few clubs embraced the euphoria of last season's Bob Willis Trophy quite like Derbyshire. The glee of release was two-fold in their case, from the constraints of lockdown on the one hand, but also from their pre-ordained struggle for survival on the other, as they unleashed a hungry crop of youngsters on a host of Test-match grounds in the North Group, and were still in the hunt for a Lord's final berth ahead of their final-round loss to Lancashire.
The retention of the conference system for 2021 gives Derbyshire another dart at the big time this year - with champions Essex among their rivals in Group One - and if Billy Godleman can coax similarly ambitious displays from his squad, then there's no reason to think they can't strike a few similar blows.
Certainly, Dave Houghton has moulded a squad with many of the punch-above-weight attributes of the Zimbabwe team of his playing days. Wayne Madsen, Derbyshire's captain when they last confounded expectations to earn promotion in 2012, remains a pivotal figure at the age of 37, while the balance that Luis Reece offers while opening the batting and bowling with his left-arm angles is invaluable.
Among the coming men in Derbyshire's ranks, Leus du Plooy and Fynn Hudson-Prentice both made strides in the BWT, while Matt Critchley's emergence as a legspinning allrounder did not go unnoticed either. No Derbyshire bowler fared better than his 17 wickets at 26.88.
One to watch: If he can stay fit - and, sadly, it has been a big 'if' in recent years - then Billy Stanlake could prove to be one of the signings of the summer. His 6ft 7in cloud-snagging action offers natural attributes that make him a threat in all conditions, and his desire to prove his stamina in red-ball cricket gives an eye-catching focal point to a seam-bowling attack that was arguably Derbyshire's weak link last summer. Andrew Miller
Bet365: 33-1


Last season: 6th in North Group
Director of cricket: Marcus North
Coach: James Franklin
Captain: Scott Borthwick
Overseas players: Will Young (April-May), Cameron Bancroft (May onwards)
Ins: Scott Borthwick (Surrey)
Outs: Scott Steel (Leicestershire), James Weighell (Glamorgan), Sol Bell, Josh Coughlin, Gareth Harte, Nathan Rimmington, Ben Whitehead (all released)
Scott Borthwick's return north as Durham's Championship captain will further inspire hopes that Durham are on the up, the after-shocks of their near-bankruptcy in 2016 now departed. The regional loyalties that are at Durham's heart are also exemplified by the recent return of two bowling allrounders, Ben Raine and Paul Coughlin, but when all is said and done it is cricketing statistics that matter. Departures of two top-order batsmen, Gareth Harte and Scott Steel, have been presented as blows but Harte had a first-class average under 30 and Steel, only 21, had only played two first-class matches. Far more important is that David Bedingham, the former South Africa U-19 batsman, builds on an excellent maiden season in 2020 and that Jack Burnham, Ned Eckersley and Sean Dickson address the poor returns that saw them make only two half-centuries between them last season.
Durham look a seam bowler light so Chris Rushworth, who is 23 wickets shy of becoming Durham's most prolific first-class bowler, needs Matty Potts to take his T20 form into the four-day stuff. And then there is Borthwick's unpredictable legspin: as captain, at least he can bring himself on at the right time. Durham's toughest fixtures are up first - away trips to Nottinghamshire and Essex with the opener at Trent Bridge particularly intriguing.
One to watch: Matty Potts, a Sunderland-born seamer, became the latest homegrown product to catch the attention with a strong Vitality Blast last season and he will now hope to make a more regular impact in the Championship. David Hopps
Bet365: 50-1


Last season: 1st in South Group, BWT winners
Coach: Anthony McGrath
Captain: Tom Westley
Overseas: Simon Harmer, Peter Siddle
Outs: Rishi Patel (Leicestershire)
Defending County Champions from 2019, Essex also pocketed "the Bob" during last year's truncated season and will go into the summer as the team to beat in red-ball cricket. The strategy that underpins their success is deceptively simple: a largely homegrown squad, blending youth and experience, spearheaded by one of the most potent attacks on the circuit. Over the last four seasons of Championship and Bob Willis Trophy cricket, no bowlers can touch Simon Harmer (250 wickets) and Jamie Porter (208) at the top of the tree; Sam Cook and Aaron Beard, two 23-year-olds, provide sharp support and the return of Peter Siddle, once his involvement with Tasmania in the Sheffield is concluded, will add further cutting edge.
Stability has also been a key feature of their success. Tom Westley succeeded Ryan ten Doeschate as captain last year, but of the group that won the 2017 Championship, the only significant departures have been Ravi Bopara (now at Sussex) and James Foster (retirement). Alastair Cook continues into the third year of his contract post-England, Dan Lawrence will be looking to burnish his Test credentials after showing glimpses of his ability on the winter tours of Sri Lanka and India, and the familiar outlines of Nick Browne, Westley and ten Doeschate will help fill out the batting order. Worryingly for the rest, their appetite to extend the title-winning dynasty at Chelmsford seems as strong as ever.
One to watch: Feroze Khushi received unwanted attention after having beer poured over him during last year's Bob Willis Trophy celebrations (Khushi is a Muslim), but the 21-year-old batsman had caught the eye with a couple of attractive innings in victories over Kent and Surrey, and will be looking to force his way into Essex's settled top order. Alan Gardner
Bet365: 11-2


Last season: 4th in North Group
Director of cricket: Mick Newell
Coach: Peter Moores
Captain: Steven Mullaney
Overseas players: Dane Paterson
Ins: Brett Hutton (Northamptonshire), Lyndon James (academy), Toby Pettman, Dane Schadendorf
Outs: Chris Nash, Jack Blatherwick (Lancashire)
June 23, 2018 is etched into the minds of Nottinghamshire members: the date they last felt the joy of victory in a first-class match. They are winless in 27 fixtures since that victory at Chelmsford, and as a result, any optimism for the 2021 season should be cautious in the extreme. There were glimmers of hope in the BWT last summer, with runs for recent recruits Ben Slater, Haseeb Hameed, Ben Duckett and Joe Clarke - who are likely to form the top four at the start of this season - but they were unfortunate with the weather and lacked a ruthless streak in crunch moments, most notably in the defeat against Derbyshire.
The club have built a deep pool of seamers too, both homegrown and imported. Zak Chappell and Jake Ball were both in the wickets last summer and Stuart Broad is likely to play a handful of early-season fixtures. Dane Paterson - eventually signed as an overseas player after 12 months in limbo - looks like a smart pick-up, while the underrated Brett Hutton has returned from Northants. For all the club's white-ball success during the Peter Moores era, the first thing to tick off this season will be that elusive four-day victory.
One to watch: Samit Patel has not officially retired from red-ball cricket, but is not expected to feature in the Championship this season unless injury strikes. As a result, there is a vacancy for a left-arm spinner who can hold a bat, and Liam Patterson-White is the ideal candidate to fill it. He will play a holding role in the early rounds, but a pre-season five-for against Warwickshire suggests he will have no trouble running through the tail when required. Matt Roller
Bet365: 8-1


Last season: 3rd in Central Group
Director of cricket: Paul Farbrace
Coach: Mark Robinson
Captain: Will Rhodes
Overseas: Pieter Malan
Ins: Danny Briggs (Sussex), Manraj Johal, Jacob Bethell (both academy), Jacob Lintott
Outs: Jeetan Patel, Ian Bell, Tim Ambrose (all retired), Liam Banks (released)
This is the start of a new age at Warwickshire. With a host of familiar faces - Bell, Ambrose, Patel, Jim Troughton and Jonathan Trott among them - having departed in recent years, there is a new look to the playing and coaching staff. So, while some experience has been brought in - Pieter Malan (or Hanuma Vihari) should add some solidity to the batting, Danny Briggs the bowling and Tim Bresnan a bit of both - there is still a green look to the batting, in particular. But Warwickshire, a club whose youth system has underachieved for a long time, feel that in the likes of Dan Mousley, Rob Yates and Matt Lamb they have the nucleus of a team that could build into something pretty exciting.
At full strength, the seam department boasts impressive pace and promise. But Henry Brookes, Ryan Sidebottom and Olly Stone will rarely play together so Briggs, the man charged with replacing Patel, and Oliver Hannon-Dalby will be relied upon to hold things together.
There's a new head coach in Mark Robinson and a nearly new captain in Will Rhodes, too. So while Warwickshire will hope to improve on some pretty modest Championship form over the last few years - they have only won one Division One or BWT match at Edgbaston since September 2016 - it will probably pay for supporters to retain modest ambitions in the short term. This is a rebuilding process that could take a while.
One to watch: Dayle Hadlee famously once described Ian Bell as "the best 16-year-old I've ever seen". Well, now it's Bell's turn. He has described Jacob Bethell as "the best 17-year-old" he has ever seen. A Barbadian, Bethell's primary skill is his batting but his left-arm spin is highly rated, too. He might have to wait for an opportunity, but he really is an exciting prospect. George Dobell
Bet365: 14-1.


Last season: 2nd in Central Group
Coach: Alex Gidman
Captain: Joe Leach
Overseas: Alzarri Joseph
Ins: Alzarri Joseph, Gareth Roderick (Gloucestershire)
Outs: Wayne Parnell (Northants), George Scrimshaw (Derbyshire), Ben Twohig, Olly Westbury (both released)
Worcestershire go into the Championship season with a bit to prove. Although they had a decent BWT, they finished ninth in Division Two in 2019. Even without Josh Tongue and Pat Brown, who are unlikely to feature before May as they come back from injury, they look to have an impressive seam attack with Alzarri Joseph, available for the first seven Championship games, adding pace with the ball and the prospect of lower-order runs. Adam Finch, who impressed on loan at Surrey, should challenge some more established seamers for a place, too.
The spin bowling is less strong. With Keshav Maharaj having pulled out of a deal and Moeen Ali's availability severely limited, Brett D'Oliveira will be required to provide the spin option and avoid over-rate fines. The club may well recruit an overseas spinner later in the campaign.
Gareth Roderick, who is expected to bat at No. 3, should add some solidity to a batting line-up that was noticeably improved by the recruitment of Jake Libby last year. The likes of Jack Haynes and Rikki Wessels, in the last year of his contract, may be fighting it out for the final batting spot, though the number of bowling allrounders - Leach, Joseph and Ed Barnard among them - should provide lower-order runs.
While qualifying for Division One will, no doubt, be the aim, reaching Division Two would probably represent a season of progress.
One to watch: Kane Williamson and Morne Morkel were among those impressed by Dillon Pennington's first season in 2018. And while a foot injury appeared to rob him of his outswing and slow his progress the following year, he has looked back to his best in pre-season. Strong, sharp and blessed with an ability to move the ball away from the right-hander, he has the potential to enjoy a long career. GD
Bet365: 12-1