Cricket: The great divide: County set chase a place on cloud nine

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DERBYSHIRE

Chances of reaching cloud nine: Business as usual in the close season with every attempt made to ensure that nobody in their right mind could vote against the proposition for new motto: "Now is the winter of our discontent". In most places this would be precursor of shambolic summer, but not necessarily in the East Midlands. Seam bowling looks exceptional, especially if captain Cork rediscovers swing. Might struggle to compensate for fragile batting, particularly without Kim Barnett.

Coach: Colin Wells

Captain: Dominic Cork

Overseas player: Michael Slater

Last year: Championship 10th; NatWest finalists; B&H 4th group B; Axa 15th

This year: Championship 15th

Nickname game: The Scorpions, as they are supposed to be known (all the sides now have an official monicker), will lack a potent sting.

DURHAM

Cloud nine: Other counties may move to and fro but you could put your house on the newest first-class county being in the bottom half. There are, at last, discernible signs of improvement and their decidedly hostile bowlers - Melvyn Betts, Steve Harmison, Simon Brown - will be a handful. The batting looks weaker, although the diligent teenager Michael Gough promises much. They will be tougher - again - under David Boon, whose final season it is, but must translate potential into purposefulness.

Coach: Norman Gifford

Captain/overseas player: David Boon

Last year: C 14th; NW Rd 2; B&H q-f; Axa 17th

This year: 16th

Nickname game: Dynamos are customarily used to convert mechanical energy into electricity. Not on this occasion.

ESSEX

Cloud nine: It is impossible to contemplate a side of such apparent talent finishing bottom of the table again. But a measure of their dreadful season in 1998 is that so few players are now guaranteed a place in the team. Nor is it to their advantage that the new skipper, Nasser Hussain, was belatedly called up to England's World Cup squad and will miss at least half their matches. The young batsmen may come through, and it is vital that the bowlers stay free of injury.

Coach: Keith Fletcher

Captain: Nasser Hussain

Overseas player: Stuart Law

Last year: C 18th; NW Rd 2; B&H winners; Axa 3rd

This year: 11th

Nickname game: The Eagles have had their wings rudely clipped and will probably be soaring nowhere in particular.

GLAMORGAN

Cloud nine: The Championship which they won so thrillingly two seasons ago is probably beyond them, but their coach from that summer has returned, they have made a wise overseas signing and there is a solidity blended with emerging youth which suggests the all-important top half of the table is well within their capabilities. Steve James can be relied on for bags of runs and the bowling attack has the depth and experience on seaming pitches to cause plenty of trouble.

Coach: Duncan Fletcher

Captain: Matthew Maynard

Overseas player: Jacques Kallis

Last year: C 12th; NW Rd 2; B&H 3rd group D; Axa 10th

This year: 5th

Nickname game: The Dragons may not exactly breathe fire but they will generate enough heat to compete seriously on all fronts.

GLOUCESTERSHIRE

Cloud nine: For the previous two seasons they have surprised themselves - and everybody else - by sustaining a Championship challenge to the bitter end, but it would confound even their most stalwart followers if they were to push so hard again. They will miss the wonderful Courtney Walsh (106 wickets in 1998) and although the Victorian Ian Harvey is a genuine all-rounder, their batting still has a brittle look. Team spirit, their prize asset, may have to carry them far.

Coach: John Bracewell

Captain: Mark Alleyne

Overseas player: Ian Harvey

Last year: C 4th; NW Rd 2; B&H 4th group C; Axa 6th

This year: 12th

Nickname game: The Gladiators should provide entertainment, but it may be more redolent of the TV show than the Roman arena.

HAMPSHIRE

Cloud nine: With the man likely to be the fastest bowler around in Nixon McLean, they should prosper occasionally. The captain's batting will be central. But there are too many other imponderables - potential frailty in the rest of the order, the anticipated progress of Alex Morris and Dmitri Mascarenhas, Smith's approach to leadership - and unless they quickly establish a settled side the top division is doubtful. Adrian Aymes' wicketkeeping will be a delight as always.

Coach: Malcolm Marshall

Captain: Robin Smith

Overseas player: Nixon McLean

Last year: C 6th; NW s-f; B&H 6th group C; Axa 8th

This year: 14th

Nickname game: The Hawks may have one incisive component, but this does not mean they will consistently hunt down their prey.

KENT

Cloud nine: In appointing a captain deemed to be more in the characteristic county mould they might have done themselves more harm than good. No cricketer in the land is more enthusiastic or eager than Matthew Fleming, but this does not mean he is either a tactical genius or an all-rounder always worth his place in the four-day side. Their batting has been woeful for two seasons and Ed Smith, who promised much, and Robert Key, likewise, must now train on in their differing styles. The overseas player is a shrewd signing.

Coach: John Wright

Captain: Matthew Fleming

Overseas player: Andrew Symonds

Last year: C 11th; NW Rd 2; B&H q-f; Axa 5th

This year: 8th

Nickname game: First of all refused to have a sobriquet, now are refusing to reveal it. White horses won't drag it out of them.

LANCASHIRE

Cloud nine: Since 1934 they have been trying and failing to take the Championship back to Old Trafford. History and one-day madness are still against them but they have the depth to come close again. Presumably, with Muralitharan they will build spinning pitches, which should help the young leg-spinner Chris Schofield. Runs should not be hard to come by with Michael Atherton and John Crawley both reduced to the ranks - for probably the whole season and perhaps for good.

Coach: Dav Whatmore

Captain: John Crawley

Overseas player: Muttiah Muralitharan

Last year: C 2nd; NW winners; B&H q-f; Axa winners

This year: 2nd

Nickname game: Lightning has failed to strike again for 65 years so is not in any hurry, but expect a bolt for one-day silverware again.

LEICESTERSHIRE

Cloud nine: With the canniest coach, the most inspirational captain and a side who, unfathomably, remain unsung, the champions will not be easily toppled. It has been said that they are without stars, but each component is aware of his job and does it. In the likely prolonged absence of Alan Mullally they will need David Millns to keep his 34-year-old fast bowling joints well-oiled and James Ormond to reveal more of his speedy promise. If the batting isn't spectacular, it is enviably sound.

Coach: Jack Birkenshaw

Captain: James Whitaker

Overseas player: Mike Kasprowicz

Last year: C winners; NW s-f; B&H, finalists; Axa 4th

This year: 3rd

Nickname game: The Foxes take their name from their ancient emblem, but it also perfectly matches their wily leadership.

MIDDLESEX

Cloud nine: From fourth to 17th was among the bigger falls in Championship history (two sides have plummeted 15 places, two have slipped 14 and now six have dropped 13, reveals Wisden) and recovering all that lost ground will not be straightforward. The new coach-captain partnership might turn out to be a dream team (the latter will be away for only four Tests), and their first onerous task will be to instil a sense of responsibility into the younger element. It will be fascinating to see how the returning Mike Roseberry performs.

Coach: Mike Gatting

Captain: Mark Ramprakash

Overseas player: Justin Langer

Last year: C 17th; NW q-f; B&H q-f; Axa 12th

This year: 10th

Nickname game: The Crusaders could hardly have a better cause than the campaign to free themselves from the shackles of mediocrity.

NORTHAMPTONSHIRE

Cloud nine: They have forsaken a big-name coach (John Emburey) for a fastidious former local boy (Bob Carter) who will not only seek to improve techniques but infuse some pride. A hard-nosed Aussie captain can only help, and the top-order batsmen ought to achieve, but unless Devon Malcolm is revitalised the bowling may need a spinners' summer. Twenty-year-old off-breaking all-rounder, Graeme Swann, looks the right stuff - unfazed, cocky and cheerful.

Coach: Bob Carter

Captain/overseas player: Matthew Hayden

Last year: C15th; NW Rd 1; B&H 5th group A; Axa 13th

This year: 13th

Nickname game: The new name - Steelbacks - is a misnomer on most recent form, but the football team up the road already has the obvious nickname.

NOTTINGHAMSHIRE

Cloud nine. The call has gone out for the former hero, Clive Rice, to save the county from interminable ordinariness. He will have his work cut out to turn things round quickly. The batting has lacked both grit and sparkle for long enough (Tim Robinson, 40, and Paul Johnson, 34, will be essential to any improvement), and the bowling is steady, but hardly incisive - as is their overseas player. Watch out for the wicketkeeper Chris Read being blooded by England at 20.

Coach: Clive Rice

Captain: Jason Gallian

Overseas player: Vasbert Drakes

Last year: C 16th; NatWest q-f; B&H 4th group A; Axa 11th

This year: 18th

Nickname game: Outlaws round here once took from the rich to give to the poor, but this lot will be hard-pushed to rob points anywhere.

SOMERSET

Cloud nine: There are three Tasmanian imports this summer - this one is as tough as teak (like the others), and might eventually turn out to be the best. Jamie Cox is utterly unfamiliar with England, but he will lead his side from the front and expect his troops to be constantly combative. Somerset's biggest weapon - and England's biggest loss - is Andrew Caddick, a truly penetrative fast bowler whose heart resembles in texture and size neither marshmallow nor pea as some have suggested. He can bowl his team into the first division.

Coach: Dermot Reeve

Captain/overseas player: Jamie Cox

Last year: C 9th; NW Rd 2; B&H 3rd group C; Axa 14th.

This year: 9th.

Nickname game: The Sabres might be rattling down in the west, though this is still one of those sobriquets that seems utterly meaningless.

SURREY

Cloud nine: Last year they had the chance to put behind them seasons of under-achievement, but after leading for most of the way they fell badly at the last. That setback alone might be difficult to recover from, and the probable constant loss of players to England will again test their depth. And does changing the team to accommodate so many returning internationals work? An important season for Ben Hollioake after his disappointments in Australia. If he responds it will be the making of him.

Coach: Keith Medlycott

Captain: Adam Hollioake

Overseas player: Saqlain Mushtaq (to be confirmed)

Last year: C 5th; NW q-f; B&H s-f; Axa 18th

This year: 7th

Nickname game: Lions do not always have to roar to demonstrate their power, but it does help if they can avoid folding up like pussycats.

SUSSEX

Cloud nine: The loss, albeit for one season, of Michael Bevan, could prove crucial. Michael Di Venuto comes as replacement after a fairly lean Australian domestic season. But there is a changed aura on the coast these days, and Chris Adams is proving to be a thrustful, positive captain capable of carrying his charges if necessary. Their bowlers will need to stay fit, but if they do so they will be a proficient enough unit to reach the top half of the table. Umer Rashid, the left-arm spinner acquired from Middlesex, promises something.

Coach: Peter Moores

Captain: Chris Adams

Overseas player: Michael Di Venuto

Last year: C 7th; NW Rd 1; B&H 4th group D; Axa 16th

This year: 6th

Nickname game: The Sharks may not devour all before them this summer, but they will not be hooked lightly.

WARWICKSHIRE

Cloud nine: It is difficult, bordering on impossible, to follow what they managed earlier in the decade - and Warwickshire will not do it this summer. But they retain a potent mix of forceful all-rounders. The younger specialist batsmen may have to come through quickly for there to be sufficient runs at the top of the order. An attack later in the summer of Donald, Giddins and Munton will not have many peers elsewhere and their fielding will again be ahead of most.

Coach: Phil Neale

Captain: Neil Smith

Overseas player: Allan Donald

Last year: C 8th; NW q-f; B&H 3rd group A; Axa 2nd

This year: 4th

Nickname game: Bears, as we all know, are certain to do things in woods and this set, properly titled after their traditional nickname, are just as certain to qualify for the first division.

WORCESTERSHIRE

Cloud nine: Their bowling already looked on the lean side of thin and now that both the captain, Tom Moody, and his vice-captain, Graeme Hick, are in the World Cup, they will be under severe pressure from the start. Expect them to recover some momentum later on, but even then it is difficult to see where regular wickets will come from in terms of consistently bowling out the opposition twice. Unless they show uncommon bonding as a team this could be their most unrewarding summer since the early Nineties.

Coach: Bill Athey

Captain/overseas player: Tom Moody

Last year: C 13th; NW Rd 1; B&H 3rd group B; Axa 7th

This year: 17th

Nickname game: Royals has a certain nobility about it, though it is a name likely to match the lovely setting at New Road rather more than the playing standards.

YORKSHIRE

Cloud nine: It has been 31 long years, more seasons than they have won Championships, since they last took the title. Lamentable times they have been, too, but under a strong, sensible captain and an unfamiliar, rational approach among the rest of the leadership, internecine strife is behind them. They have built a powerful side painstakingly. Even without Darren Gough their seam bowling ought to be formidable (boy, is Matthew Hoggard quick) and their batting has an all-round feeling of calm and solidity.

Coach: Martyn Moxon

Captain: David Byas

Overseas player: Greg Blewett

Last year: C 3rd; NW Rd 2; B&H s-f; Axa 9th

This year: Champions

Nickname game: Phoenix will rise from the ashes of their shambolic recent past and take their once-familiar place atop English cricket.

GUIDE BY STEPHEN BRENKLEY

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