County Championship predictions: Can anyone stop Surrey’s title charge?

Surrey is once again the team to beat: PA/John Walton

The County Championship season starts on Friday and there will be plenty of quality on display, with a number of English players set to play most of the first six rounds.

Telegraph Sport’s experts predict how the season will go and which players to keep an eye on this campaign.

Championship winner

Nick Hoult
Durham ready for a serious title challenge right after you’ve been promoted. Essex did it in 2017, so why not?

Scyld Berry
Are Surrey for a hat-trick because they are simply so well stocked with batsmen and seamers.

Will Macpherson
Durham look strong, especially with Ben Stokes now more available, but it’s hard to see beyond that Surrey for a ‘three-peat’. There’s a reason why no team has done this since the 1970s, but the emotion surrounding Alec Stewart’s departure will drive Surrey.

Tim Wigmore
It will be fascinating to see how Durham fares in Division One, however SurreyThe band’s all-round quality, which will be boosted by the availability of Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes, means they are still favourites.

Demoted and promoted

Knows And Worcestershire look at the weakest teams on paper and will go down. Yorkshire And Middlesex will put their respective (and very different) problems behind them to return to the top flight. – Hoult

Knowswho just survived last year, and Worcestershirewho underperform in this format are relegated. Yorkshiresupported by Harry Brook and Joe Root in the early season, and Middlesex, who were relegated last year, to gain promotion. – BERRY

Unfortunately, Worcestershire certainly don’t have enough to stay afloat in a decent-looking top flight. Even with the excellent addition of Matt Parkinson, Knows probably miss the incision in their attack to survive. Yorkshire look at the strongest side, and Sussex might have turned a corner under Paul Farbrace. – Macpherson

Worcestershire And Knows be demoted. Yorkshire look like the standout side in Division Two; the new ball partnership of Ollie Robinson and Jayden Seales could mean that Sussex Join them. – Wigmore

Player of the season

Ollie Robinson (the Durham version). Too early for England, but at the heart of a strong team. – Hoult

County Championship predictions: Can anyone stop Surrey's title charge?County Championship predictions: Can anyone stop Surrey's title charge?

Can Durham’s Ollie Robinson break into the England team? – Getty Images/Stu Forster

Surreys Jamie Smith as a batsman, as long as he is tasked with wicketkeeping. For now, he and Ben Foakes are sitting beautifully on the same side. – BERRY

Ed Barnard just keeps putting on performances. Warwickshire don’t look that strong to me, so their all-round excellence could be the difference between survival and relegation. – Macpherson

Liam Dawson remains a formidable all-round package and should play every game for Hampshire. – Wigmore

Upcoming talent

Warwickshires Dan Mousley Didn’t make many runs for England Lions this winter, but he did impress some very good judges. – Hoult

Gloucestershires Ollie Price. The younger of the two Price brothers is a good batsman and a useful off-spinner, who has a nice temperament. – BERRY

The one from Sussex James Coles This week he finally turned 20, having made his first-class debut in 2020. Coles is a batsman who bowls left-arm spin (and works with Graeme Swann in England). Coles cemented his place last year and is ready to get going. – Macpherson

23 years old, from Kent Tawanda Muyeye can turn his abundant potential into regular County Championship runs. – Wigmore

Top scorer

Keaton Jennings, whose days in England may be behind him but remains a class act at provincial level as captain of Lancashire. – Hoult

Jake Libby as the fields in Worcestershire improve (when New Road dries out), and he will play a big role if they are to survive. – BERRY

Daan Elgar is a very smart addition to Essex now that Alastair Cook has retired. Will just pimp Alex Lees. – Macpherson

The amazing Leus du Plooy should thrive following Middlesex’s move to Derbyshire, and could compensate for the lack of an overseas signing. – Wigmore

County Championship predictions: Can anyone stop Surrey's title charge?County Championship predictions: Can anyone stop Surrey's title charge?

Essex signed Dean Elgar on a three-year contract. -Getty Images/Alex Davidson

Leading wicket taker

It doesn’t matter what time of year the game is played, Simon Harmer picks up wickets. A phenomenon for Essex. – Hoult

There is only one chef left in Essex, but Sam Cook is among the most consistent seams in the country. – BERRY

Noordants’ Jac White took 50 wickets in Division One last year, and will take more in Division Two. The latest in their line of excellent late flowering seams. – Macpherson

Simon Harmer: A boring answer, but no man of his quality can expect to play that many games, or be guaranteed such a big role. – Wigmore

The start of the county season will see a return to England Test stars in abundance

Top-level sport is all about the big names and personalities, and even though the county championship ranks below international level, it will take on a shine this season that it has not had in recent years due to the presence of English Test players.

Normally the Indian Premier League consumes England’s best cricketers and eats the championship throughout April and May, but not this year. If Jonny Bairstow reads the boards before the first Test against the West Indies on July 10, and withdraws from this format, all of England’s current Test players will play for their counties at some point in the coming weeks.

Joe Root will miss Yorkshire’s opening match at Headingley against Leicestershire, but he will play his second Championship game in Bristol against Gloucestershire, and five in total for England. Given such a boost and the availability of Harry Brook for the first half of the Championship, and without a major points deduction this season, Yorkshire should promote themselves back to Division One, without excuses.

As well as playing booming cover drives for Kent, Zak Crawley will also pick up ones and twos behind the point with softer hands, as he learned over the winter. Ben Duckett could have a single ball hit for Nottinghamshire; Ollie Pope could learn how to start an innings calmly. Even Ben Stokes is expected to play a few games for Durham, and to keep them in Division One he will no doubt be tempted to bowl more and more.

to craft. There is always tinkering going on: four rounds of this season will be played with a Kookaburra ball, the points for a draw will be increased from five to eight, but the most important thing, and not just for the spectators, is that the English players return to the dressing rooms of their province, where they pass on their international knowledge and inspire successors, so that the higher echelons of the game are knitted together again.

Another change will be the use of hybrid pitches in the championship. A mixture of natural grass and artificial grass – and therefore a fairly standardized surface – is accepted for white ball county matches. But if England want to encourage their younger spinners such as Tom Hartley, Rehan Ahmed and Shoaib Bashir, it would be far better to use pitches that have already been used earlier in the season, even if only for a practice match, and which in some places have no grass. not at all, so that spinners can play with some wear and tear in April.

County Championship predictions: Can anyone stop Surrey's title charge?County Championship predictions: Can anyone stop Surrey's title charge?

Shoaib Bashir is back in action for Somerset after impressing in India for England – Getty Images/Harry Trump

It makes for a wonderful prospect. But English cricket will still miss a repeat of what was perhaps the most delightful event of last winter’s series in India: for what was more delightful than the way Kuldeep Yadav bewildered England’s right-handers with the ball that dived from outside and tore back from the stump? He bowled Crawley more than once with everything a cricket ball can do, and dismissed Bairstow LBW more than once, pinned in his crease. The only feat of equal beauty in cricket is a left-hander’s leg break, as the late Shane Warne would unleash on Sir Andrew Strauss.

The sight of the Indian spinners scoring an over in two minutes should have whetted the appetite in England and Wales. The prevailing style for the next two months will consist of fast to medium Sears bowling at a speed of 80 miles per hour, at a rate of four minutes per over, for about 85 of the 90 overs per day.

Does it have to be this way? No, because the red-ball rulers of English cricket – Rob Key, Brendon McCullum, Ben Stokes – have made it clear they are not interested in 80mph seamers, with Key telling Telegraph Sport that 85-88mph bowlers – those with an extra meter pace – are wanted for the test team. The routine of six fast to medium balls nibbling outside the stump is the last thing England want, so why make this the staple diet of the county championship?

The future of our domestic game will be decided this season: the Hundred will be put back in the box for a small part, determined as it is to replace the wheel with a pentagon, if the five-ball set can be called that. It should have dawned on someone’s brain at the ECB by now that downgrading the over-50s competition to almost second-eleventh status was not the way to preserve the hard-fought 2019 World Cup. And the future of the championship – a first division of 10 counties and eight in the second as now, with 14 matches? – is up for debate.

But despite the ongoing structural problems of the English county game, the standard on the pitch should be refreshingly high.

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