County Championship season preview: How all the teams match up, star players, ones to watch
Overseas Players: Billy Stanlake (Australia - full season), Dustin Melton (Zimbabwe - full season).
Key man: Billy Stanlake – The Australian’s reputation has been forged in white-ball cricket but the 26-year-old 6'7" fast bowler is keen to show he can also deliver in the longer game.
Flies under the radar: Fynn Hudson-Prentice - bowls accurate medium pace and his unbeaten 91 in a thrilling win at Trent Bridge last year proved he can perform under pressure.
Best Player Under 24: Sam Conners – The 22-year-old right-arm pace bowler impressed Jimmy Anderson when he played against Lancashire in 2019. Took nine wickets in the Bob Willis Trophy last season.
The Season Ahead: After losing the experience and pedigree of Ravi Rampaul and Tony Palladino, a lot depends on how Stanlake leads a largely inexperienced attack. "Billy is someone who has made his name with the white ball but he's determined to show what he can do in first-class cricket," said Dave Houghton. "That hunger will be huge for us." A top order of Billy Godleman, Luis Reece, Wayne Madsen and Leus du Plooy will need to fire in a tough division if Derbyshire are to be competitive while Matt Critchley's improving leg-spin and forceful batting will be another important factor in the four day campaign.
Overseas players: Cameron Bancroft (Australia – May 13 onwards), David Bedingham (South Africa – full season), Will Young (New Zealand – 15 April – 2 May)
Key man: Scott Borthwick – Borthwick re-signed for the county from Surrey in the off-season. The 30-year-old was handed the captaincy and will be determined to lead from the front with the bat.
Flies under the radar: Alex Lees – The Yorkshireman has enjoyed two outstanding campaigns. In bowler-friendly conditions at Emirates Riverside, Lees has thrived and another standout year may catch the eye of the England selectors.
Best Player Under 24: Matty Potts – Potts had a breakthrough Vitality Blast last season, taking 13 wickets and career-best figures. The right-arm seamer now needs to channel that form with the red ball.
The Season Ahead: Durham were always playing catch-up in the Bob Willis Trophy after losing their opening two matches, finishing bottom of the North Group without a win. However, the club have continued to rebuild their squad that was dismantled following their relegation in 2016.
Scott Borthwick’s return is a huge coup, with the left-hander providing stability at the number three position that has been absent since his exit. Australia opener Cameron Bancroft will return after missing the 2020 season due to the pandemic. A top order featuring Alex Lees, Bancroft, Borthwick and David Bedingham provides a potent outlook with the bat.
Chris Rushworth will lead the bowling unit once more, supported by Ben Raine and Paul Coughlin. If Matt Salisbury and Matty Potts can find their peak form, Durham will boast a lively attack that could allow them to challenge in Group 1.
Overseas players: Peter Siddle (Australia – full season), Simon Harmer (South Africa – full season)
Key man: Simon Harmer - Off-spinner, but no longer Kolpak, Harmer has bamboozled whatever has been placed in front of him during his first four years at Chelmsford. 250 competitive red-ball wickets for Essex and counting…
Flies under the radar: Adam Wheater - Finally seems to have fully emerged from James Foster’s shadow, with valuable contributions with bat – where he topped the club averages last year – and gloves in 2020.
Best Player Under 24: Sam Cook - A crucial cog in the relentless Essex attack having taken 94 wickets in 26 competitive red ball matches for the county. Will fight the more experienced Porter and Siddle for the new ball.
The Season Ahead: Essex are the team to beat, yet again, as they aim to pick up red-ball silverware for the third successive season – something not done since Yorkshire dominated the County Championship between 1966 and 1968.
Could this be the last season to watch Sir Alastair Cook strut his stuff? The Bob Willis Trophy’s top scorer is into the last year of his post-England career contract. He provides the basis of a strong and experienced batting line-up, which includes newly capped Test batsman Dan Lawrence.
But it’s the bowling that has been instrumental to Essex’s recent successes. Simon Harmer, Jamie Porter and Sam Cook claimed 82 scalps between them in last year’s truncated tournament. Australian veteran Peter Siddle – who deferred his contract a year due to Covid – Aaron Beard and a plethora of academy graduates offer depth to make Essex a scary prospect once more, especially at Fortress Chelmsford where they haven’t lost in first-class cricket since September 2018.
Overseas players: Dane Paterson (South Africa)
Key man: Joe Clarke – Even with 17 first-class centuries to his name already - four for Nottinghamshire - the classy middle-order strokemaker can still improve and his form could be key to the county’s fortunes.
Flies under the radar: Haseeb Hameed – Fast-tracked into the Test side at 19 only for his form to disappear, the opener showed signs last season that a change of scene away from the spotlight is working for him.
Best Player Under 24: Liam Patterson-White – The truncated 2020 campaign brought frustration for the left-arm spinning all-rounder, who was unable to follow up a 20-wicket debut season in 2019 but is likely to have more opportunities this year.
The Season Ahead: Although they have not won in 27 first-class matches going back to June 2018, Nottinghamshire were unlucky not to end that dismal run in the Bob Willis Trophy last season, clocking up 20 batting bonus points - six more than any other county - and 15 for bowling, and achieving a substantial first-innings lead in all their five matches. Given a batting line-up that exudes quality from Haseeb and Ben Slater at the top through Ben Duckett, Clarke and the evergreen Samit Patel, combined with a bowling attack including a resurgent Jake Ball that is bolstered by the return of Brett Hutton and the addition of the skillful South African Dane Paterson, with spin options to boot, Nottinghamshire ought to be near the top of their group. However, the long wait for a win is a monkey on their back they need to shake off quickly.
Overseas players: Pieter Malan (South Africa – full season)
Key man: Olly Stone – Unlucky not to play more for England during the winter, Stone has much impressed around the national team and Warwickshire will look for some explosive early-season displays from him.
Flies under the radar: Will Rhodes – As captain, Rhodes’ influence will be huge, but he has also quickly become integral to the Bears batting and also an under-rated threat with the ball.
Best Player Under 24: Dan Mousley – Director of cricket Paul Farbrace believes it is only a matter of time before the classy young batsman (19) plays for England and few who have seen him play disagree.
The Season Ahead: Warwickshire have under-performed in red ball cricket in the last two years but, under new first team coach Mark Robinson, there is a belief around Edgbaston that better fortunes await this year.
Three Bears legends – Jeetan Patel, Tim Ambrose and Ian Bell – retired at the end of last season, but the club’s academy is becoming productive with Henry Brookes, Rob Yates and Dan Mousley leading the young guns’ charge into the first team.
South African batsman Pieter Malan, available for the whole season, looks a shrewd addition as overseas player while former Hampshire and Sussex spinner Danny Briggs will take on the sizeable challenge of replacing Patel.
With England pair Dom Sibley and Olly Stone likely to be available for some early games, Warwickshire are targeting a strong start on which to build a serious tilt at bringing the championship title back to Edgbaston for the first time since 2012.
Overseas players: Alzarri Joseph (West Indies – first seven matches)
Key man: Gareth Roderick – Will further bolster the batting order after his move from Gloucestershire and add more competition for places.
Flies under the radar: Ed Barnard – Consistently amongst Worcestershire’s wicket-takers in red ball cricket and also chips in with invaluable late order runs when most needed.
Best Player Under 24: Dillon Pennington – Burst on the scene in 2018 and after a difficult second season, the paceman came back strongly in 2020 and ready to fulfil his potential.
The Season Ahead: After two years in the doldrums in Championship cricket in 2018-2019, Worcestershire are confident of a further improvement after impressing in the Bob Willis Trophy and expect to challenge strongly for a top group spot in September.
Overseas players: Dan Worrall (Australia - full season), Kraigg Brathwaite (West Indies - April 8–June 6)
Key man: Chris Dent has scored consistent runs over the past five seasons and will need to do so again if Gloucestershire are to be competitive.
Flies under the radar: Tom Lace could be one to watch having followed Ryan Higgins and George Scott down the M4 from Middlesex. A highly-rated 22-year-old batsman.
Best Player Under 24: James Bracey’s talent has been obvious for some time and he’s been involved in senior England squads over the past 12 months. Signed a new three-year deal this winter.
The Season Ahead: Gloucestershire face a daunting start to the season, hosting Surrey before trips to Somerset and Hampshire. Their first-choice bowling attack is capable of taking 20 wickets regularly but their challenge is to find enough runs to be competitive against the stronger sides.
They have also had to battle some quite unresponsive pitches at Bristol in recent years with results hard to come by at Nevil Road. The increased reward for draws this season could help build their points tally.
Overseas players: Mohammad Abbas (Pakistan 8 April-30 May), Kyle Abbott (South Africa, full season)
Key man: Kyle Abbott – The big fast bowler is back after missing last season and looking to repeat his superb 2019 campaign where he took 72 wickets at 16.19.
Flies under the radar: Joe Weatherley - Made his breakthrough in last season’s Bob Willis Trophy, the 24-year-old is primed for a big summer after putting himself through a gruelling winter fitness programme.
Best player under 24: Felix Organ - At 21, the Sydney-born all-rounder already has a County Championship century and a five-wicket haul to his name.
The Season Ahead: After a third-place Division One finish in 2019, hopes were high for the 2020 season. However, with Covid-19 keeping overseas players away and a ruptured Achilles sustained by England allrounder Liam Dawson in the opening match of the Bob Willis Trophy against Middlesex, it proved to be disappointing finish in a truncated year. Abbott and the newly-signed Abbas will pose plenty of problems for opposing batsmen. But the pressure will be on Vince, Sam Northeast and the highly-rated Weatherley to provide the runs to steer the club to a first County Championship title since 1973.
Overseas players: Marcus Harris (Australia)
Key man: Colin Ackermann – The captain is also Leicestershire’s most valuable asset, a reliable source of middle-order runs who averaged 54 in the Bob Willis Trophy, a fine fielder and a handy off-spin bowler.
Flies under the radar: Hassan Azad – The buzz around the left-handed opener faded a little after modest returns in the Bob Willis Trophy, but if he can recapture his outstanding 2019 form he will frustrate many an opposition bowler.
Best Player Under 24: Harry Swindells – A young wicketkeeper-batsman of potential who has displaced Lewis Hill in the side and follows in a long line of home-grown talent to attract the interest of wealthier rival counties.
The Season Ahead: With Surrey, Somerset and Hampshire among their opponents, Leicestershire look to be in a tough group. After winning five matches in 2018 their form regressed in 2019 but they pulled off a morale-boosting win over Lancashire last season, albeit on the back of a century by the on-loan Nottinghamshire batsman Ben Slater. Coach Paul Nixon rarely lets his optimistic outlook desert him and he has assembled a squad who will not let him down in terms of attitude and effort. The permanent signing of Rishi Patel from Essex is a boost, as will be the arrival of Australian Test opener Marcus Harris as overseas player in a line-up that looks capable of building decent scores. They look a little thin on the ground in terms of wicket-taking bowlers, however, which is a concern.
Overseas players: Peter Handscomb (Australia – full season)
Key man: In addition to his leadership experience, Middlesex will hope Handscomb can bring some ballast to a batting order that has looked fragile at times.
Flies under the radar: Martin Andersson, who rounded off Middlesex’s Bob Willis Trophy campaign with successive four-wicket hauls last year, is continuing to mature into a genuine all-rounder.
Best Player Under 24: Left-hander Max Holden has added a gritty element to his attacking strokeplay and looks to have cemented his position as Sam Robson’s opening partner.
The Season Ahead: Even after Miguel Cummins’ departure, Middlesex still possess formidable depth to their pool of seamers, with Tim Murtagh, Toby Roland-Jones, Steven Finn, Tom Helm and James Harris all vying for places.
Throw promising youngsters such as Ethan Bamber and Blake Cullen into the mix and the Seaxes should find a way to bowl opponents out twice on a regular basis. However, the batting line-up – which has been largely unchanged over the past four years – provides greater cause for concern, with Middlesex frequently struggling to put 300-plus totals on the board.
If new skipper Peter Handscomb can ease that headache, both through his own run-scoring contribution and by getting more out of his senior batsmen, the team look at least capable of holding their own.
Overseas players: Marchant de Lange (South Africa - full season)
Key man: Tom Abell has grown into a confident leader and added an impressive haul of runs to his captaincy last season, proving leadership is not a distraction to his own development.
Flies under the radar: Despite over 13,000 first-class runs, Steven Davies doesn’t attract as many headlines as the younger talent but his experience and ability remain a keystone of the dressing room.
Best Player Under 24: Tom Lammonby made an incredible start to his career with three centuries in six innings and the 20-year-old appears to have a big future.
The Season Ahead: We ask again – “will this be Somerset’s season?” Despite coming so close to that elusive pennant in the past five years, Somerset have found other counties producing a more complete campaign.
They win a lot of tight matches – a good habit – but some that go the other way have been costly and they need to find more runs to control more matches.
That could be tricky if pitches at Taunton continue to be dominated by bowlers, either spin or, last season, seam. The emergence of Tom Lammonby, and Tom Abell’s form last year, will certainly help. Nothing less than qualifying for Division One in September will do.
Overseas players: Hashim Amla (South Africa – full season), Kemar Roach (West Indies – April & May).
Key man: Jamie Overton – Signed from Somerset on a three-year contract last August, the 6ft 5in tall paceman – capable of 90mph-plus speeds – sees his move as a potential stepping stone to England honours.
Flies under the radar: Jordan Clark - In 52 first-class appearances, the strapping all-rounder averages almost 28 with the bat and 34 with the ball. Expect more still from him this season in all formats.
Best Player Under 24: Ollie Pope – At 23 Pope already has 17 Test caps and averages 50 in first-class cricket. Available for all Surrey’s early-season championship cricket, he will be looking to score big runs at number four.
The Season Ahead: Surrey look strong in all departments and the early-season signing of West Indies fast bowler Kemar Roach, as a second overseas player behind South African batting great Hashim Amla, adds even more firepower to a seam attack also featuring the raw pace of Jamie Overton and Conor McKerr, plus the wiles of evergreen Rikki Clarke. The Curran brothers, Sam and Tom, are initially away at the IPL but Surrey’s squad is deep, there is an exciting and significant spin threat from Amar Virdi and Dan Moriarty – the young pair shared 39 Bob Willis Trophy wickets last year – and a guarantee of top-order runs from the likes of Amla, Rory Burns, Ollie Pope, Ben Foakes and Mark Stoneman.
Overseas Players: Andy Balbirne (Ireland – April); Marnus Labuschagne (Australia - May until end of season), Michael Neser (Australia – May until end of season).
Key man: Marnus Labuschagne – The Australian brings his unorthodox style back to Glamorgan where his ascent to one of the world’s most prolific batsman gathered pace two summers ago.
Flies under the radar: Dan Douthwaite – The 24-year-old was Glamorgan’s leading wicket-taker in the Bob Willis Trophy and with veteran all-rounder Graham Wagg leaving the club he has the opportunity and potential to make another step forward in his career.
Best Play Under 24: Callum Taylor – Confirmed his promise with a debut first-class century against Northants last summer. Born in Newport, although he grew up in Queensland, he bowls handy off-spin to mark him as a talent to watch.
The Season Ahead: The group-stage format has ensured Glamorgan start the summer with the opportunity to win the County Championship title for the first time in 15 years.
They have, however, been handed a tough group in which every other county, aside from Sussex, would have been in Division One but for the pandemic.
The delayed arrival Marnus Labuschagne and Michael Neser is not ideal, but when they do arrive Glamorgan have a strong argument for the best international signings in the County Championship.
The cornerstone of their ambition will be in the likes of David Lloyd, who returns to the top of the order after an injury-riddled 2020. Lloyd adds stability to a batting order that struggled for first-innings runs last term and will lean on the consistency of Chris Cooke, Billy Root and Nick Selman in addition to the star dust of Labuschagne.
Overseas players: Heino Kuhn (South Africa – full season), Miguel Cummins (West Indies – 8 April-6 June)
Key man: Daniel Bell-Drummond - Sam Billings’ limited availability means the vice-captain could be in charge for much of the campaign. Scored heavily in pre-season and the extra responsibility may be the making of him.
Flies under the radar: Darren Stevens - When he makes the news it’s invariably for his age, but Stevens, who’ll be 45 on 30 April, has been surprising batsmen since 1997 and carried the attack last year.
Best Player Under 24: Jordan Cox - The Margate-born wicketkeeper-batsman is arguably the pick of an emerging crop, finishing as leading run scorer in red-ball cricket, thanks largely to an unbeaten 238 against Sussex.
The Season Ahead: Walker is buoyant, believing he has a glut of “hungry” young players, all desperate to play for England and equally desperate to win silverware for Kent into the bargain. “This is the best squad we’ve had for a very, very long time,” he said. “I’m very, very excited for this group. The challenge is to go on and win something and they genuinely believe they can do it.”
If there’s a weakness it could be in the bowling department, which relied heavily on Stevens last year.
Overseas players: Dane Vilas (South Africa - full season), Jackson Bird (Australia - six Championship matches from April 22)
Key man: Saqib Mahmood - Fast bowler with devastating pace and skill, injury has stunted his development. But a full summer of cricket could see him guide Lancashire to silverware and maybe even secure Ashes and T20 World Cup selection.
Flies under the radar: Rob Jones - Home-grown former England Under 19s batsman who has two hundreds in 30 first-class matches.
Best player under 24: Josh Bohannon - Batting all-rounder, 23, elevated to number three in four-day cricket in late 2019, scoring one career hundred. A touch of class mixed with fierce determination.
The season ahead: Pre-Coronavirus, Lancashire were confident of mounting a Championship title challenge in 2020 having only just been promoted. Injury and unavailability wrecked those chances, however, when things finally did get underway and they never threatened the Bob Willis Trophy title. But, with cricketing life seemingly more settled now, that confidence has returned. They will start the summer as favourites to qualify out of Group 3 alongside Roses rivals Yorkshire. If the Red Rose batting can click, including new signing Luke Wells from Sussex, they should live up to that tag given the obvious seam bowling strength led by Saqib Mahmood, Jackson Bird, Tom Bailey and Jimmy Anderson at stages as he builds up to England’s opening Test against New Zealand in early June.
Overseas Player: Wayne Parnell (South Africa – full season)
Key Man: Ben Sanderson - The Sheffield-born paceman remains the spearhead of the Steelbacks’ seam attack. His 244 first-class wickets at less than 20 underline his skills which constantly put opponents under pressure.
Flies under the radar: Curtley-Jack White - White emerged from an injury-plagued 2019 to take 13 wickets in last year’s Bob Willis Trophy, suggesting he might not be under the radar for much longer.
Best Player Under 24: Emilio Gay - The 20-year-old opener endured a tough Bob Willis Trophy campaign last season, but a match-winning 77 not out against Glamorgan signalled the potential of this academy graduate.
The Season Ahead: Thanks to Ben Sanderson and Curtley-Jack White in particular, Northants look well placed to bowl sides out, all the more so now South African international all-rounder Wayne Parnell has been recruited to complement the seam bowling department.
In what looks a tough LV= Insurance County Championship group boasting northern powerhouses Lancashire and Yorkshire the challenge for Adam Rossington’s side will be making sufficient runs. In last season’s Bob Willis Trophy, they only passed 300 once in the first innings in the only game they won against Glamorgan, thanks to the talented Charlie Thurston’s century.
Thurston aside, Northants will need Rossington to regain his red-ball form of 2019 and significant contributions from Ricardo Vasconcelos, Ben Curran, Emilio Gay and others if they are to seize the initiative in games rather than playing catch up.
Overseas players: Travis Head (Australia from end of April), Stiaan van Zyl.
Key man: Ollie Robinson – One of the most skilful bowlers on the circuit, he has taken 166 wickets at 17.74 since 2018. At 27, he is coming into his prime and a Test debut surely awaits if he maintains his consistency.
Flies under the radar: George Garton – Having overcome injury problems, Garton showed his all-round skills in 2020 as a threatening left-arm quick and accomplished middle-order batsman. If he stays fit he will play a big part this season.
Best Player Under 24: Jack Carson – The 20-year-old Irish off-spinner broke through in 2020 when he was Sussex’s leading wicket-taker.
The Season Ahead: With a new head coach in Ian Salisbury and some highly regarded young players emerging from the academy, there is a fresh feel at Hove. Skipper Ben Brown feels there is a good blend of young talent like Jack Carson and players such as Phil Salt and Ollie Robinson who have become consistent performers. It might be too much to expect a county in the throes of rebuilding to challenge for the title, but Sussex could be an outside bet for a top-two finish in Group Three.
Overseas players: Duanne Olivier (South Africa - full season), Mathew Pillans (South Africa - full season)
Key man: Ben Coad - New ball seamer who has a bit of “genius” about him, according to Andrew Gale. If he can stay fit throughout 2021, Yorkshire will have no problems taking 20 wickets.
Flies under the radar: Jonny Tattersall - Impressive rise from non-keeper to first choice gloveman in three years. Scores important middle order runs, but will be hoping to post his maiden hundred against county opposition this summer.
Best player under 24: Harry Brook - Pips a host of contenders, including new signing Dom Bess. A batsman, aged 22, with all the shots who is starting to string telling performances together.
The season ahead: Yorkshire are convinced this is their year for silverware, and not just in the LV= Insurance County Championship. Since going close to three successive four-day titles, four years of transition ensued. But their younger plays are starting to show consistency, highlighted by last year’s top-placed finish in the Bob Willis North Group. Chief executive Mark Arthur recently told the club’s members, at their online AGM, that he believes this is the strongest White Rose squad assembled in his nine years at Emerald Headingley. In that time, the county won back-to-back Championship titles in 2014 and 2015. They would seem to have all bases covered and are boosted by the return of linchpin batsman Gary Ballance, who missed the whole of 2020 through illness. His availability, alongside that of Joe Root for at least the opening two games, offsets the loss of Dawid Malan to IPL duty.