Essex favourites to challenge champions Warwickshire

We assess the Division One contenders in our County Championship preview

Warwickshire lifted the County Championship trophy in 2021  •  PA Images/Getty

Warwickshire lifted the County Championship trophy in 2021  •  PA Images/Getty

Can Somerset finally claim the pennant? Will Northants and Gloucestershire ruffle feathers? The County Championship reverts to two divisions for the first time since 2019, and we have run the rule over the contenders. You can read our Division Two preview here.


Last season: 1st in Division Two
Head coach: Anthony McGrath
Captain: Tom Westley
Overseas: Simon Harmer, Mark Steketee (April-May)
Ins: Matt Critchley (Derbyshire), Adam Rossington (Northamptonshire, loan)
Outs: Ryan ten Doeschate, Varun Chopra (both retired), Matt Quinn (Kent)
The most-successful red-ball side in the country over the last five years, Essex nevertheless experienced a disappointing 2021. Attempting to defend both their County Championship title (won in 2019) and the Bob Willis Trophy, Tom Westley's team could only place fourth in a tightly congested Group One - they only lost twice but those defeats, crucially, came against the top two, Nottinghamshire and eventual champions Warwickshire. Condemned to Division Two in the latter part of the campaign, there was little solace to be taken from securing the "title" with a two-day hammering of Northants in the final round. "It's not something we are actually going to celebrate," said Dan Lawrence, bluntly.
The core of the squad remains, and they will be looking to make amends. Alastair Cook has signed on for another two years of run-harvesting (his 2021 was unusually subdued, with only 165 in the penultimate game bringing his average above 30), but there will be a big hole to fill following the retirement of Ryan ten Doeschate. The return of Simon Harmer to South Africa's Test set-up will limit his availability, too, and Anthony McGrath has hinted at a change to the balance of the side: Matt Critchley, the legspinning allrounder signed from Derbyshire, is expected to have a key role in supporting a four-man seam attack, with Jamie Porter and Sam Cook once again setting the standard and Mark Steketee, the leading wicket-taker in the 2021-22 Sheffield Shield, potentially a shrewd early-season recruit.
One to watch: The departure of ten Doeschate, after nearly two decades in Essex's engine room, will likely mean opportunities for homegrown batters, including Michael Pepper, Feroze Khushi and Josh Rymell, who turned 21 this month. Rymell debuted in last season's Royal London Cup and was soon opening alongside Cook, scoring his maiden hundred in the quarter-final victory over Yorkshire and finishing the campaign with an average of 55.16.
Diversity action: Essex have long championed community outreach work in east London, and the club runs numerous engagement initiatives, around faith, ethnicity, disability and gender - examples include tape-ball cricket in Leyton, Super 1s and table cricket, an Afghan refugee programme, and events around Diwali and Ramadan. A faith and reflection room has been installed at Chelmsford, with dedicated family and non-alcohol areas at the ground. Also ongoing is an independent investigation into historic claims of racism at the club, conducted by Katherine Newton QC. Alan Gardner
Bet365: 7/2


Last season: 4th in Division One
Director of cricket: Giles White
First-team manager: Adi Birrell
Captain: James Vince
Overseas: Mohammad Abbas, Kyle Abbott
Ins: Nick Gubbins (Middlesex), Ben Brown (Sussex), Ross Whiteley (Worcestershire, white-ball contract)
Outs: Sam Northeast (Glamorgan), Ajeet Dale (Gloucestershire), Tom Scriven (Leicestershire), Brad Taylor, Ryan Stevenson (both retired), Tom Alsop (Sussex, loan), Lewis McManus (Northants, loan)
Hampshire finished fourth in Division One last year but were a wicket away from their first title since 1973. Lancashire's nerve-wracking run chase at Aigburth in late September ended in a one-wicket defeat; victory would have seen Hampshire pip Warwickshire to the pennant by half a point. They have strengthened over the winter with the addition of Ben Brown, who will keep wicket and bat in the middle order, while Mohammad Abbas will resume his new-ball partnership with Kyle Abbott.
Giles White and Adi Birrell are confident enough about the depth of their squad that Tom Alsop (Sussex) and Lewis McManus (Northants) have been allowed to leave on loan and there are a handful of young players coming through - notably Tom Prest, the England Under-19s captain, and the tall seamer Scott Currie - who are likely to come into first-team contention. As the season wears on, the spin combination of Liam Dawson and Mason Crane will come to the fore.
One to watch: Nick Gubbins arrived from Middlesex halfway through last season and, at 28, it is time for him to deliver on his obvious potential; his development has not been helped by playing home games on green seamers at Lord's but his game should be better-suited to the flatter pitches at the Ageas Bowl. Alongside James Vince, Ben Brown and Liam Dawson, he will be part of one of the strongest middle orders in the country.
Diversity action: Rod Bransgrove described allegations at a DCMS select committee that he had told fellow county chairmen that he knew understood racism because he was a white man in his 60s as "absolute nonsense". The club launched an Inner City State School Partnership over the winter and appointed a non-executive communities adviser to its board last month. Matt Roller
Bet365: 7/1


Last season: 2nd in Division Two
Head coach: Dale Benkenstein
Captain: Graeme van Buuren
Overseas: Marcus Harris, Naseem Shah, Zafar Gohar
Ins: Ajeet Dale (Hampshire), Paul van Meekeren (Durham)
Outs: George Hankins, Harry Hankins (both released)
No team in the country won as many Championship games as Gloucestershire last summer but three defeats in four games at the end of the conference stage saw them miss out on the top division. This season, they have the chance to prove their mettle in Division One, belatedly taking their place in the top flight for the first time since 2005 after two years in which the format was affected by Covid.
They do so with a new coach in Dale Benkenstein and a new captain, with Graeme van Buuren taking the reins after he was granted British citizenship at the end of last year following a season in limbo. They have recruited well, bringing in Marcus Harris after his success with Leicestershire last summer, while Chris Dent and James Bracey will expect to contribute with the bat after stepping back from the captaincy and overcoming a disappointing first taste of international cricket respectively. Ryan Higgins and David Payne will lead the attack again and hope to prove they can be as effective against the country's best batters.
One to watch: Naseem Shah is among the most exciting young fast bowlers in the global game, as evidenced by his reverse-swing masterclass against Australia in Lahore last month. This is his first taste of county cricket - he is due to be available for the first half of the season though selection for Pakistan's ODI series against West Indies might cut his time short - and while he struggled against England two summers ago, his pace will make him a handful at county level.
Diversity action: Ebony Rainford-Brent's African-Caribbean Engagement programme launched in Bristol last year and several England players have been involved in coaching sessions over the winter. The club invited Afghan refugees to play at the County Ground in late 2021. David "Syd" Lawrence was offered an "unreserved apology" after recounting abuse he suffered while playing for the club in the 1980s. MR
Bet365: 16/1


Last season: 1st in Division Three
Director of cricket: Paul Downton
Head coach: Matt Walker
Captain: Sam Billings
Overseas: George Linde, Jackson Bird (April-May), Matt Henry (July-Sept)
Ins: Matt Quinn (Essex), Ben Compton (Nottinghamshire)
While being able to call themselves "Division Three champions" - as things stand a unique accolade in the history of the Championship - might not quite rank alongside their Vitality Blast success, there were reasons for Kent to feel encouraged by their red-ball form come the end of the summer. That said, having held their own on their return to Division One in 2019 and finished second to eventual champions Essex in the Bob Willis Trophy South Group a year later, it was undoubtedly a disappointment to find themselves scrapping it out in the bottom tier once the conference system had played out in the first half of 2021.
Three defeats in their opening four games - to Yorkshire, Lancashire and Glamorgan - meant they were in trouble from the outset, and in July they were forced to summon an entire replacement squad for the home fixture against Sussex after a Covid-19 outbreak. Nevertheless, they shored things up to go unbeaten through the rest of the summer, winning four games out of four in Division Three to pip Middlesex to top spot on the final day. Despite a disjointed campaign, there was plenty of talent to pick from, including encouraging displays from youngsters such as Nathan Gilchrist and Tawanda Muyeye, and the sempiternal brilliance of Darren Stevens, who finished as leading wicket-taker and third-highest run-scorer. His three hundreds included a whirlwind 190 off 149 balls against Glamorgan, and the ink was dry on another one-year contract extension by late June.
One to watch: Born in Zimbabwe but arriving in the UK as a teenage asylum seeker, Muyeye was being talked about in exalted terms even before he signed for Kent at the beginning of last summer. Muyeye was named Wisden Schoolboy Cricket of the Year in 2020 for his run-scoring feats at Eastbourne College, and gave an indication of his talents with a composed 89 as Kent chased 372 in the fourth innings against Middlesex to seal top spot in the final round.
Diversity action: Kent are one of a number of clubs to have benefited from increased central funding from the ECB for Rainford-Brent's ACE programme, which is to be rolled out in the county's Greenwich and Lewisham catchment areas. AG
Bet365: 14/1


Last season: 2nd in Division One
Director of Cricket: Mark Chilton
Coach: Glen Chapple
Captain: Dane Vilas
Overseas players: Dane Vilas (South Africa), Hasan Ali (Pakistan, until May 22)
Ins: Phil Salt (Sussex)
Outs: Taylor Cornall (Worcestershire), Alex Davies (Warwickshire)
The last time James Anderson bowled in a county fixture, at Old Trafford in July last summer, he ripped out his career-best figures of 7 for 19 against Kent… and he didn't even have a burning desire for vengeance that day. Anderson's axing by England, and his clear determination to prove the folly of that decision, could be the impetus that Lancashire need to go one step beyond their spirited title bid last summer, and land their first title since 2011. Certainly his early-season alliance with Pakistan's Hasan Ali, and with Saqib Mahmood eager to cement his own status after the tour of the Caribbean, promises one of the most potent pace attacks on the circuit.
On the batting front, there may be a similar urge to impress from the highly rated Josh Bohannon - a gritty batter whose consistent excellence over the past few seasons had put him in the frame for a Test call-up in the Caribbean. A similarly solid run of scores in April and May could yet propel him into the mix before New Zealand arrive. Phil Salt is another one to watch - nominally a white-ball signing after moving north from Sussex, he's expressed a desire to give the red-ball game a good go.
One to watch: It may not feel like the ideal weather for his art right now, but in 2021, Matt Parkinson set about demonstrating that April need not be the cruellest month for legspinners with a startling "ball of the century" clone to Adam Rossington, in his first Championship appearance since 2019. "Sack it, I'm going to try and rip it," was his plan after a frustrating winter in England's bio-bubbles in Sri Lanka and India… you suspect he might be feeling a similar desire to let off steam after his nearly-man status in the Caribbean.
Diversity action: Manchester is one of the target cities for the expanded ACE programme. In terms of meeting the ECB's targets for 30% female representation at boardroom level, Lancashire are closer than most counties, but still have work to do. Six of the 16 attendees at their board meetings are women, but only two of eight are full members. Andrew Miller
Bet365: 9/2


Last season: 4th in Division Two
Coach: John Sadler
Captain: Ricardo Vasconcelos
Overseas: Will Young, Matt Kelly (April-May)
Ins: Lewis McManus (Hampshire, loan)
Outs: Adam Rossington (Essex, loan), Richard Levi (released)
Northants will finally get to enjoy the fruits of their 2019 promotion, though the perennial juggling around playing resources at Wantage Road means new head coach, John Sadler, faces a significant challenge in attempting to keep them up (they have been relegated straight away on three previous campaigns in Division One). Sadler, who took over from the long-serving David Ripley at the end of last season, has already stirred things up by deciding to change the captaincy - a decision that caused a rift with Adam Rossington, the man who led them up three summers ago, and prompted a move to Essex on loan three days before the start of the season.
Ripley's Northants always had something of 1990s Wimbledon about them, and the "Crazy Gang" nearly managed a significant upset in last year's conference system; in the end, a heartbreaking one-run defeat to Yorkshire at Headingley at the start of May was the difference between them ousting the White Rose and claiming one of the top two spots in Group Three. But being skittled for 81 and 45 at Chelmsford in the final game of the season - the shortest four-day Championship contest on record - was a rude reminder of their position in the pecking order. Squad depth could be a problem but Ricardo Vasconcelos, the new red-ball captain, is a prolific run-scorer at the top of the order and Ben Sanderson (287 first-class wickets at 20.89) is one of the nibbliest county seamers around.
One to watch: Dynamic allrounder, England Under-19 talent, son of a local legend? James Sales ticks all three boxes but "Mini Jumble" - after his father, David - will be looking to make a name for himself this summer. Has already made his first-class and List A debuts, and was part of the England team that reached the ICC U19 World Cup final in February.
Diversity action: Northants have launched the Luton Steelbacks Cricket Academy, a joint partnership with The Shared Learning Trust and run by Ripley, in an attempt to better tap into secondary schools; a similar scheme is being run in Peterborough. Free cricket sessions are also offered to those on free school meals. The club has made EDI a priority for its welfare group and also established a whistleblowing and complaints procedure. AG
Bet365: 20/1


Last season: 6th in Division One
Director of cricket: Andy Hurry
Head coach: Jason Kerr
Captain: Tom Abell
Overseas: Marchant de Lange, Matthew Renshaw, Peter Siddle
Outs: Eddie Byrom (Glamorgan)
After topping a strong initial conference last season despite an eight-point deduction, Somerset were given a reality check in the final weeks of the summer. They lost four games in a row - two by an innings, another by ten wickets - to finish bottom of Division One as it became apparent that their young batters were still a work in progress. The return of Matthew Renshaw - who will arrive in time for their second game against Essex on April 14 - should strengthen their top order but Tom Lammonby, George Bartlett and Tom Banton will be expected to step up after lean summers last year. Banton suffering a broken finger in pre-season training won't help his cause.
Craig Overton and Jack Leach are both rested for the first round after England's tour to the Caribbean but should be available for much of the season, while Peter Siddle will be expected to lead the attack in their absence. Tom Abell, who turned 28 last month, is already in his sixth season as captain and a strong start to the season will see him mentioned as an England contender.
One to watch: Lammonby caught England's eye with three consecutive hundreds in the Bob Willis Trophy in 2020 but his form fell off a cliff last summer and he ended the season averaging 19.60 in the Championship despite a shot-a-ball century against Lancashire. Now 21, he spent the winter playing club cricket in Sydney and had a brief taste of franchise cricket but needs early-season runs to get his red-ball career back on track.
Diversity action: One of two counties, along with Durham, with no non-white players or coaching staff, reflecting both the demographics of the region and the club's reliance on its private-school production line. Reprimanded Jack Brooks over the winter, following revelation of historic racist tweets and involvement in nicknaming Cheteshwar Pujara "Steve" while at Yorkshire. MR
Bet365: 13/2


Last season: 5th in Division Two
Director of Cricket: Alec Stewart
Coach:Gareth Batty
Captain:Rory Burns
Overseas players: Kemar Roach, Hashim Amla
Ins: Chris Jordan (Sussex), Cameron Steel (Durham), Dan Worrall (Gloucestershire)
Outs: Mark Stoneman (Middlesex), Jade Dernbach, Liam Plunkett (both released), Gareth Batty, Rikki Clarke (both retired)
There was talk of "dynasties" when Surrey romped to the Championship in 2018 - a feature of their record tally of 19 titles has been their tendency to win big for seasons on end whenever they get on top. But that triumph remains an outlier for coming up to 20 seasons now, and after a deeply unimpressive mid-ranking finish in 2021, an end to the drought doesn't feel entirely imminent.
A glut of old stagers have cleared their lockers in the off-season. Liam Plunkett has upped sticks to the USA, Jade Dernbach has moved across the river to take up a coaching role at Middlesex, and Rikki Clarke is now putting schoolboys through their paces as head of cricket at King Edward's, Witley. Gareth Batty, meanwhile, has moved upstairs, straight off the pitch and into Vikram Solanki's hot seat as head coach, after the lure of the IPL became too strong.
For the start of the season at least, there will be plenty of players with some urgent points to prove - none more so than the Ashes casualties, Rory Burns and Ollie Pope, and to a lesser degree, Ben Foakes, whose long-awaited recall as England wicketkeeper in the Caribbean didn't quite turn into the coronation that had been envisaged. Sam Curran, returning from a stress fracture and missing the IPL as a consequence, has a rare chance to major on his red-ball batting. Hashim Amla and Kemar Roach offer quality and experience in abundance as the overseas pros.
One to watch: Amid the furore of Anderson's and Broad's sackings, Burns was the forgotten fall-guy of the Ashes disaster. The indignity of his first-ball duck at Brisbane was a hard one to endure, and there was a sense that his quirky technique had deserted him by the back-end of a miserable tour, on which mutterings about his attitude also lingered. But no England opener since Alastair Cook has looked a longer-term bet than Burns. If his game is back on track, then it's not too late for the same to happen with his England career.
Diversity action: The ACE programme was pioneered at Surrey by Rainford-Brent, and last week it went nationwide with overdue funding from the ECB. The Surrey Cricket Foundation continues to push opportunities for young and disadvantaged people in South London, with almost 11,000 children benefitting from a range of junior programmes in 2021. AM
Bet365: 8/1


Last season: Champions
Director of Sport: Paul Farbrace
First team coach: Mark Robinson
Captain: Will Rhodes
Overseas: Nathan McAndrew
Ins: Alex Davies (Lancs)
Outs: Ed Pollock (Worcestershire), Alex Thomson (Derbyshire), Tim Bresnan (retired)
Sensible, safety-conscious cricket, with consistency and a strong team ethic at its core, was the basis of Warwickshire's surprising Championship success in 2021. They were hardly the most flamboyant side, and their matches could be a grind, but they displayed many of the qualities that have been sorely lacking by England at Test level. They do not strike you as a flash in the pan. Once again, Warwickshire will take some bowling out twice. Dom Sibley's front-on stance was ultimately found out at Test level, but if England reject his limited, obdurate ways, Warwickshire could reap the benefit at the top of the order, although if Rob Yates repeats last season's success at No. 3 (Alex Davies, signed from Lancashire is expected to open as well as rival Michael Burgess for the keeper's gloves) England might give him the once-over instead. Jonathan Trott, now installed as an assistant coach, will observe their willingness to bat time with delight.
Warwickshire took some time before announcing an overseas signing and they have settled on Nathan McAndrew, a South Australian medium-paced allrounder who neatly fills the gap left by Tim Bresnan's retirement. McAndrew, much less experienced, has shown an ability to take top-order wickets and Paul Farbrace, Warwickshire's director of sport, believes that he will revel in English conditions. Warwickshire's pace attack owes much to the ability of the former Gloucestershire pair, Craig Miles and Liam Norwell, to kick on their careers at Edgbaston. They took 86 wickets between them and, even with the addition of McAndrew, Warwickshire could do with some contributions at some point over the summer from England's Chris Woakes or the talented young quick Henry Brookes if he can put injury problems behind him.
One to watch: England reached the final of the U19s Men's World Cup for the first time since 1998 before losing to India and, in allrounder Jacob Bethell, they possessed one of the most eye-catching players of the tournament. Bethell's 88 off 42 deliveries in England's quarter-final win against South Africa had plaudits pouring in. In Birmingham, this came as no surprise. An impact in one-day cricket is more likely, but signs are good.
Diversity action: Where to start? A multifaith charter, open trials, an Edgbaston for Everyone strategy, prayer rooms, alcohol-free zones, diverse food outlets, the second year of the Ramadan Midnight Cricket League and a GLOW Festival for girls as part of the South Asian Core Cities programme: Warwickshire's commitment to diversity sets the standard. David Hopps
Bet365: 6/1


Last season: 5th in Division One
MD of cricket: Darren Gough
Head coach: Ottis Gibson
Captain: Steve Patterson
Overseas: Haris Rauf
Outs: Matt Pillans (released)
The ebullient figure of Darren Gough has never been more needed by Yorkshire as he fulfils an interim role as MD of cricket in the wake of Azeem Rafiq's racism allegations. Gough has trodden an intelligent line by underlining that diversity problems are not exclusive to Yorkshire, but that the uproar has served county cricket well by drawing attention to widespread issues in the game. Work is also proceeding to ensure a talented dressing room will find a cutting edge on the field rather than in dressing room verbals. Much day-to-day responsibility rests, though, with the head coach Ottis Gibson and he will be anxious that his skipper, Steve Patterson, 38 now and sedate of pace, has a contented season; Dom Bess has been appointed captain over 50 overs and appears to be the likeliest successor. In a season when the support staff will be under particular scrutiny, initially at least, Kabir Ali and Alastair Maiden also come in as bowling and batting coaches.
Yorkshire's greatest concern will be top-order runs, especially with Gary Ballance (who had committed to a diversity education programme) absent again because of mental health issues. Tom Kohler-Cadmore's return is also uncertain because of lingering concussion. Dawid Malan's availability helps, Joe Root might pop in by the end of April and a long-batting order will be essential. Ben Coad is eight short of reaching 200 first-class wickets with one of the best averages of modern times, and the departure of Duanne Olivier, so destructive at Test level but who operated several rungs below in the daily grind of the Championship, is not about to displease many Yorkshire supporters.
One to watch: George Hill, slight of build and not particularly powerful of stroke, does sell his wicket dearly and, in view of England's recent travails, there is much to admire in such an attribute. A bit of early-season obduracy will not go amiss. He bowls useful medium pace, too.
Diversity action: Yorkshire are interviewing complainants who told a whistleblowing hotline that they faced racial discrimination in their dealings with the club. The enquiry is being led by Mohinderpal Sethi QC, of London law firm Littleton Chambers, the chair of the Employment Law Bar Association and a specialist in discrimination cases. DH
Bet365: 7/1