The new County Championship season is upon us. April means red ball cricket in England, even though we’re just a few weeks removed from some heavy snow across the country.
Jumpers will take precedent over sunglasses as the 2018 season begins. That’s nothing new for the hardened county pros, of course, who are more than familiar with the chilled weather of early spring.
A rejigged schedule might shift the balance of the County Championship this season, with matches played predominantly outside of the summer months. Here are a few thoughts on the domestic red ball season as a whole…
Reigning champions Essex are the pre-season favourites in Division One. Last season’s head coach, Chris Silverwood, has departed for a job with England, but concerns are limited with Anthony McGrath a more than capable replacement.
The most notable change, then, is the arrival of Matt Coles from Kent. Team harmony was evidently important during their title run last season, and Coles could jeopardise that. His talent is undoubtable, though, and he adds balance to an already strong group.
The overseas recruits for this season, Peter Siddle and Neil Wagner, bolster a bowling attack led by the impressive Jamie Porter.
The 3/1 price is a good one. If the focus remains on the red ball format, Essex should be around the title conversation come the end of the season.
We head to the north west for the next team in the market. Lancashire sit at 9/2 ahead of the season following their second place in 2017.
The Red Rose’s chances for 2018 look good. Even if the England duo of James Anderson and Jos Buttler don’t feature in the County Championship all year, they have possibly the strongest side on paper.
The biggest threat to their imposing batting line-up is England call-ups. Captain Liam Livingston is already with the national team, while good form for Haseeb Hameed or new signing Keaton Jennings could see them recalled, too.
The other offseason arrival, Graham Onions, is perhaps the most important player this season, though, with their seam bowling looking a little thin.
Lancashire’s bitter rivals follow at 5/1. Despite a dodgy red ball term in 2017, Yorkshire are expected to bounce back. That price is still on the low side in my opinion.
The White Rose were only a slither short of relegation last season and have made no significant additions this offseason. Adil Rashid has opted to focus on the limited overs game, too, which further weakens a bowling attack that is creaking after the glorious 2014 and 2015 seasons.
After a third place finish in 2017, Surrey are my favourite bet in Division One at 11/2.
Kumar Sangakarra is no longer treating the Kia Oval crowd to his brilliance, but Surrey have plenty of batting, which is complemented by a balanced bowling attack. Even with Mark Stoneman and Jason Roy likely to miss time on England duty, I expect Surrey to be competing for the title into the latter weeks of the campaign.
It will be interesting to see if their price drops significantly once they clear up an overseas signing. Australian all-rounder Mitch Marsh was originally pencilled in, but he has suffered an injury that has forced the decision-makers at the Oval to rethink.
The beauty of County Championship cricket is that any team has a realistic shot of the title. I like the price on Surrey before a ball is bowled, but there’s value to be found outside of the four favourites.
If it’s a longer shot bet you’re after, Somerset are a decent price at 12/1. Wouldn’t it be great to see Marcus Trescothick finally get his title?
Relegated Middlesex are the unsurprising favourites at 2/1. The low price makes sense given their resources.
England pair Dawid Malan and Eoin Morgan – who intends to return to the County Championship after a lengthy absence – could play together relatively frequently, joining an already a strong batting group. Sam Robson and Nick Gubbins could both play their way towards the Test team this season.
The seam attack, when fit, remains as good as any in the country. Toby Roland-Jones, Steven Finn and Tim Murtagh should all have good seasons in Division Two and will benefit from playing every red ball home match at Lord’s.
Sussex are just behind Middlesex at 9/2. Having lost Chris Nash and Ed Joyce during the winter, the batting looks too weak for there to be any value in that price. Combine that with the absence of the sensational Jofra Archer for the first five matches and this season could quickly become white ball focused.
The second relegated team are somehow also at 9/2. A dire 2017 for Warwickshire might have contributed to that, but the Bears look a far stronger side than Sussex as we head into this season.
No player had a worse season than Ian Bell. The former England batsman resigned from the captaincy last year, but there’s a reason ‘class is permanent’ is a thing. He and Jonathan Trott will score bags of runs in Division Two.
A lot of responsibility falls on captain Jeetan Patel with the ball. Luckily for the Edgbaston faithful, the wily veteran almost always delivers. I like the 9/2 price, but without Chris Woakes I wonder if this Warwickshire attack can take 20 wickets on a regular basis.
Even after losing Matt Coles to Essex and Sam Northeast to Hampshire, Kent are 7/1 to win Division Two in 2018.
The burden falls on Sam Billings – who is now captain in all formats – but the England international is set to miss the first few matches with Indian Premier League commitments. Despite the departures of two key men, Kent have done good work this winter, including the arrivals of Matt Henry, Heino Kuhn and Adam Milne.
Joe Denly, Billings and opener Sean Dickson need to produce if Kent are to have any hope of promotion. The management have done a good job on paper; now the stalwarts need to deliver.
Kent are my pick of the teams in Division Two. While I find it hard to see any team beating Middlesex over the course of the season, there just isn’t much value in 2/1 when there are so many variables during a county season.
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*