The Championship, in fact, is already in its death throes, at least in its traditional format. From next season it will be contested in two divisions of nine teams each, which is why the campaign that begins today promises (for other reasons) not only to be more confusing even than last year's but to be fought in an unprecedented climate of fear.
The change - the latest in a series meant somehow to improve the fortunes of the England team - is designed to produce a greater number of meaningful matches and by consequence, the theory goes, give the domestic game a better chance of turning out Test match-ready players. What will actually happen is that more and more counties, especially those dreading a future in the second tier, will produce "result" pitches, on which mediocre bowlers will still prosper and decent batsmen will still be denied proper practice. But you cannot, I suppose, blame the ECB for trying.
The Board is, after all, in an unenviable position. Whatever anyone says, the Championship is still cricket's bedrock. It is the true test of all teams and therefore the test of players, too. As a builder of character it should never be underestimated. Abroad, it remains a competition held in the highest regard, irrespective of England's failings on the international stage. Indeed, there are few international players of any standing, past or present, who have not played Championship cricket and gained hugely from it. Those who have not would relish the opportunity.
The trouble is that it has no audience, at least in terms of bums on seats, and is therefore unsustainable on its own. Only through ECB handouts (drawn from the declining proceeds of the international game), the parallel existence of one-day knockabouts and the miracles performed by commercial offices does it survive. Yet without it there would be no game.
It needs and deserves support. No one who watched James Whitaker, a captain confined by injury to the wrong side of the fence, run on to the field at The Oval last September, overcome with joy as his Leicestershire team clinched the title, could doubt what it means to the players. If only the media at large could tune in to that and claw back a little of football's space and air-time then perhaps more sponsors would see its worth, too.
That said, the public will never come back in droves. In a quick-fix society there is no appetite for games that stretch beyond a day, no matter how cerebral. Hence a coming fixture list (of extraordinary messiness) that, even with one limited-overs competition taken away, mixes a National League, a Benson and Hedges Super Cup and a NatWest Trophy and might in future include a version of the game boiled down to 25 overs a side to appeal to even shorter concentration spans.
But the Championship will still be the pinnacle, even though the World Cup and its preliminaries will impinge for two months, robbing counties of top players. The consequences for 2000 will make it an intriguing contest, even when it dawns on counties that the split to two divisions need not be the nightmare they imagine. With three of each nine going up or down each season, most counties will have a taste of each section and provided player movement is controlled - that is, with no Bosman-style challenge to throw it all into the air - playing in a second tier need not be critically disadvantageous. Something, however, must be done about pitches.
Among the contenders expect to see Leicestershire (again), Warwickshire and Lancashire prominent, with Sussex and Glamorgan the liveliest outsiders. Above all, brace yourself for the long-awaited beating of chests in Yorkshire, winners last in 1968, whose momentum must surely get them there sooner or later.
HOW THE GAME HAS CHANGED
County Championship: The 18 counties will all play each other once in the final season of the competition in its existing format. The top nine teams will go into the First Division while the bottom nine make up the Second. There are now just 12 points for a win rather than 16 while points for a draw are increased from three to four. New sponsors, PPP Healthcare, were announced yesterday.
NatWest Trophy: There will be 60 teams taking part this season, with the first-class counties exempt until the third round. Teams from all 38 regional county boards and Denmark, Netherlands, Scotland and Ireland are taking part with matches of 50 overs per side, rather than the traditional 60. It starts earlier than usual, on 4 May, and the final is on 29 August.
CGU National League: This two-division competition replaces the Sunday League and matches will be 45 overs a side. Three go up, three go down, there are free hits for no-balls, nicknames for the sides, numbers on shirts and 20 floodlit matches.
Benson & Hedges Super Cup: The top eight teams from last season's Championship are taking part in this new 50-over knockout cup, with the final at Lord's on 1 August.
1998: BACC 10th; AXA 15th; B&H zonal rounds; NatWest runners-up
Captain: Dominic Cork
Coach: Colin Wells
Overseas player: Michael Slater (Aus)
Much will have to be done by those who remain to compensate for the goings- on of the winter when it was decided that they could do without the services of Kim Barnett. That was tantamount to chucking away 1,000 runs, a vital contribution if Dominic Cork is to lead his crew into the top half of the Championship table. The acquisition of prolific Australian batsman Michael Slater should go a long way to making up for that - in the short and long games - but it would have been far more reassuring to have had the pair of them on the same side. More will be needed from Robin Weston, who showed he has what it takes to compile match-winning innings, and if Adrian Rollins can remain free of injury he should be good for a few runs. The seam bowling looks strong, Kevin Dean and Trevor Smith can shake the batsmen, providing ideal back-up for Phillip DeFreitas and Cork, who can rattle the stumps. It is to be hoped that Cork can pick up where he left off last season with bat and ball, although it is to his leadership and motivational qualities that the county will look.
In: Slater (New South Wales), Michael Deane, Anthony Woolley, Stephen Titchard (Lancs).
Out: Kim Barnett (Gloucs), Andy Hayhurst (rel).
1998: BACC 14th; AXA 17th; B&H quarter-final; NatWest 2nd round.
Captain: David Boon
Coach: Norman Gifford
Overseas player: Boon (Tasmania)
Beneficiary: John Morris
Things are stirring at long last in the Championship's youngest county. Native North-easterners are beginning to come through, including the England Under-19 captain, Michael Gough, who looks perfectly capable of shouldering the mantle of opener despite his youth. David Boon will get runs, so too should Paul Collingwood. If he is not too distracted by the demands of his benefit season, John Morris could well add to the two Championship hundreds he scored towards the end of the season. It is Boon's last season and he would no doubt like to see a finish in the top half of the table; not such a far-fetched notion given the attack they possess. The spearhead, John Wood collected 61 Championship wickets last summer, and was ably backed up by Melvyn Betts - it is to be hoped he has recovered from the groin injury which cut short his England A tour - and Stephen Harmison, another A tourist.
In: Muazam Ali (MCC Young Professionals), Nick Hatch, Marc Symington (both Durham Academy), Ryan Robinson (Yorkshire Academy), Steve Chapman
Out: James Boiling (retired), Stephen Lugsden (Hants), Colin Campbell, David Cox, Stewart Hutton, Mark Saggers, Jason Searle, Alan Walker (all released), Mike Roseberry (Middx).
1998: BACC 18th; AXA 3rd; B&H Winners; NatWest 2nd round.
Captain: Nasser Hussain
Coach: Keith Fletcher
Overseas player: Stuart Law (Aus)
Beneficiary: Nasser Hussain
The belated World Cup call-up of Nasser Hussain leaves the vice-captain, Ronnie Irani, to shoulder a fair old burden at the helm. Still at least they will have Stuart Law in a batting line-up that is crying out for runs from Paul Prichard, who last summer had an uncharacteristically lean time of it and it was probably no coincidence that Essex finished bottom of the Championship for only the second time in their history. Irani could be a busy man, since his all-round skills will be in demand. He will also be able to call upon the likes of Mark Ilott, Danny Law, Graham Napier, Jamie Grove and Ashley Cowan to provide the core of the attack. But runs are what is needed. No one reached 1,000 runs in the Championship last year for the first time since 1912. Prichard surely cannot have as bad a season again, but he needs Ian Flanagan and Stephen Peters to fulfil their potential. So too should Tim Hodgson, while Robert Rollins and Barry Hyam need to add the batting dimension to their wicketkeeping. They should compete well in the one-day stuff, but the Championship has to remain a priority.
In: William Jefferson (Norfolk), James Foster.
Out: Neil Williams, Andrew Hibbert, Darren Cousins, Danny Wilson (all released).
1998: BACC 13th; AXA 10th; B&H zonal rounds; NatWest 2nd round
Captain: Matthew Maynard
Coach: Duncan Fletcher
Overseas player: Jacques Kallis (SA)
There is every chance that the final season of the 20th century will see Glamorgan pushing for honours in the Championship. For a start, Duncan Fletcher is back to direct coaching operations. The Zimbabwean master- minded their Championship-winning summer of '97. And again, England, it seems, are only interested in Robert Croft, leaving a core of seam bowlers and stroke-makers to do a lot better than they managed last year. When their overseas player Jacques Kallis joins them after the World Cup he may wonder why he is there. That captain Matthew Maynard failed to pass 1,000 runs in a season for only the second time in 13 summers can have been but a temporary glitch. Opener Steve James is the most prolific scorer around and in all first-class cricket he notched up 1,500 runs for the second successive season. Michael Powell, Wayne Law and Adrian Dale should be able to build on their form and Alun Evans and Adrian Shaw are bets for their maiden Championship hundreds. The attack will be led by Darren Thomas and Steve Watkin.
In: Kallis (Western Province), Keith Newell (Sussex), Mark Wallace.
Out: Tony Cottey (Sussex), Gary Butcher (Surrey), Waqar Younis (released).
1998: BACC 4th; AXA 6th; B&H zonal rounds; NatWest 2nd round.
Captain: Mark Alleyne
Coach: John Bracewell
Overseas player: Ian Harvey (Australia)
There is a buzz of anticipation in the wake of the departure of Courtney Walsh. The Victorian batsman Ian Harvey has arrived on the heels of his reputation as a big hitter - he is credited with Australia's fastest one- day fifty, an innings of 26 balls. But it is the Championship which matters. Walsh's 106 wickets went a long way to lifting the county to fourth place. They will need even bigger contributions from Mike Smith and Jonathan Lewis, who managed 145 between them last year. Jeremy Snape will bolster a spin department, where previously Martyn Ball was the sole occupant. The batting, when it fired, did well, but there were still eight bonus- points blanks, albeit some due to the weather. Captain Alleyne was one of three to pass 1,000 runs in the Championship, along with Tim Hancock and Matt Windows. The arrival of Kim Barnett should go a long way to guaranteeing runs, but Bobby Dawson, Robert Cunliffe and Dominic Hewson need to show more application. It is hard to see the county finishing out of the top six, but without Walsh they will have to work to better last summer.
In: Harvey (Victoria), Kim Barnett (Derbys), Jeremy Snape (Northants), Mark Hardinges.
Out: Courtney Walsh (released), Tony Wright (retired).
1998: BACC 6th; AXA 8th; B&H zonal rounds; NatWest semi-final.
Captain: Robin Smith
Coach: Malcolm Marshall
Overseas player: Nixon McLean (WI)
Beneficiary: Kevan James
The attack went a long way to turning them into a top-six side. Pity about the batting. No one reached four figures in the Championship, although the vastly improved Giles White did get his 1,000 for the summer and looked good value for his four first-class hundreds. John Stephenson began to emerge from the shadows and was looking more like his old self, captain Smith was not the reliable run-maker he has been in the past, but wicketkeeper Adrian Aymes, Dimitri Mascarenhas, Kevan James and, to a lesser extent, Shaun Udal, all produced key innings at critical moments and a lot more runs than might have been expected at the start of the season. All that is needed now is for everyone to go that much further and provide more batting points and bigger targets for the opposition to chase, then a top-three place would not be out of the question. The bowling, in contrast, was all effort. Nixon McLean was fantastic value for his 60-odd wickets, while Alex Morris grew in confidence and was a model of consistency. Mascarenhas moved a step nearer becoming a genuine all-rounder.
In: Stephen Lugsden (Durham).
Out: Raj Maru (retired), Cardigan Connor (retired from first class, but retained for one-day matches).
1998: BACC 11th; AXA 5th; B&H quarter final; NatWest 2nd round.
Captain: Matthew Fleming
Coach: John Wright
Overseas player: Andrew Symonds (Aus)
Beneficiary: Trevor Ward
It will need more than a change in captaincy to turn around their fortunes. Fleming, having taken over from Steve Marsh, will have his work cut out on and off the pitch. Fleming has never tapped the deep well of talent that is his. Now he has to coerce and encourage the talented squad around him as well. They will be helped by the arrival of Andrew Symonds from Australia - the replacement for Carl Hooper. Symonds' big-hitting exploits should draw the crowds and even win matches. Ed Smith, Robert Key and Matthew Walker fell well below what they are capable of last year, while Alan Wells and Trevor Ward failed to score a hundred. All of them need to provide the attack with runs to bowl at. Mark Ealham (World Cup) and almost certainly Dean Headley (Tests), means Ben Phillips, Martin McCague, a fit-again Min Patel and Fleming have much to do. Should finish in the top half of the table. One-day trophies will not be beyond them.
In: Symonds (Queensland), Matthew Banes, Mark Broadhurst, Richard Clinton (Surrey), Darren Scott.
Out: Carl Hooper (resigned), Alan Igglesden (Berkshire), Graham Cowdrey (retired), Ed Stanford, Jason de la Pena (both released).
1998: BACC 2nd; AXA Champions; B&H quarter-final; NatWest Winners
Captain: John Crawley
Coach: Dav Whatmore
Overseas: Muttiah Muralitharan (S Lanka)
Beneficiary: Warren Hegg
Arguably they have the best balanced attack in the country, now boosted by the signing of Sri Lankan off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan and if he can escape the controversy that has surrounded his action, then we could be in for a treat. He misses a chunk at the start though, as does Neil Fairbrother, Andrew Flintoff and Ian Austin, because of the World Cup, but there is plenty of firepower in reserve, including four other spinners. The pace department contains high-quality operators in Peter Martin, Glenn Chapple, Flintoff and Austin, as well as Richard Green and Darren Shadford. Unquestionably they are the one-day kings. But they are equally well-equipped for the Championship. The batting, even given the anxiety over Michael Atherton's back problem, is also sound. New captain Crawley was in good form last summer, scoring twice as many runs as the next highest, Graham Lloyd. Nathan Wood fell a little behind expectations, but he, Flintoff and Mark Chilton are improving. Warren Hegg's elevation to Test wicketkeeper was a reflection of his all-round qualities. A side hard to beat with or without their international stars.
In: Muralitharan, Michael Smethurst.
Out: Wasim Akram (rel), Stephen Titchard (Derbys).
1998: BACC Champions; AXA 4th; B&H runners-up; NatWest semi-final.
Captain: James Whitaker
Coach: Jack Birkenshaw
Overseas player: Mike Kasprowicz (Aus)
Beneficiary: David Millns
It is hard to see them not retaining the title. Few sides could match their all-round abilities. They have made an astute signing in Queenslander Mike Kasprowicz. Even without Alan Mullally and Vince Wells for the duration of the World Cup, there is plenty left to construct a solid foundation for their defence. Captain Whitaker is back and in good nick after a pre- season tour to Sri Lanka. He can expect runs from Ben Smith, Aftab Habib, Iain Sutcliffe, Darren Maddy - the list seems endless - Chris Lewis, Paul Nixon, Wells, of course, and even David Millns has three first-class hundreds to his name. As awesome as the batting appears, the bowling lacks little. Slow left-armer Matthew Brimson was seventh in the Championship averages with a remarkable 26.12. Kasprowicz should be good for 50 or 60 wickets at least (and he can bat a bit as well). They are also one of the better fielding sides and are going to take some beating. The heavy Benson and Hedges Cup final defeat was a temporary blip. This side is capable of winning the lot.
In: Kasprowicz (Queensland), Scott Boswell (Northants), Amer Khan (Sussex), Atil Sachdeva, Ashley Wright, Stephen Kirby, Darren Stevens.
Out: Phil Simmons (released).
1998: BACC 17th; AXA 12th; B&H quarter-final; NatWest quarter- final.
Captain: Mark Ramprakash
Coach: Mike Gatting
Overseas player: Justin Langer (Aus)
Beneficiary: Phil Tufnell
There was madness in the methodology. And it did not work, so it is back to the good old ways. John Buchanan has returned to Australia with his video camera, library of tapes and data bank of every ball bowled by or against Middlesex. Into his shoes (to all-round relief) steps Mike Gatting. Whether he can restore their fortunes depends on much. The batting will have to muster more than the three sets of maximum batting points they managed last summer. Mike Roseberry is back after a few, it has to be said, unsuccessful years with Durham. He is likely to beef up the opening partnership, although he needs to rediscover the sort of form which saw him contribute to the Middlesex cause when they won the title in 1990 and 1993. Justin Langer will be back as well. The bowling looks thin. Angus Fraser can expect to be away for at least half the season on international duty, therefore Richard Johnson, Tim Bloomfield, Jamie Hewitt and Phil Tufnell will need to stay injury-free. They will still need significant support from Ian Blanchett, Chris Batt and Paul Weekes.
In: Mike Roseberry (Durham), David Alleyne (local club).
Out: Mike Gatting, Keith Brown (both retired), Umer Rashid (Sussex).
1998: BACC 15th; AXA 13th; B&H zonal rounds; NatWest first round.
Captain: Matthew Hayden
Coach: Bob Carter
Overseas player: Hayden (Australia)
Beneficiary: Kevin Curran
Another county with an overseas player as captain and Matthew Hayden looks a useful signing. There is certainly enough young talent to provide for the future. Two of the most exciting prospects are England Under-19 off-spinning all-rounder Graeme Swann and international colleague Richard Logan, also an all-rounder. And when he returns from World Cup duty with Scotland big things are expected of fast bowler John Blain. There is also off-spinner Jason Brown and, of course, England fast bowler Devon Malcolm and his strike partner Paul Taylor as well as slow left-armer Michael Davies. The batting was the problem. Again not enough first-innings effort from the upper and middle order to acquire the all-important bonus points. Hayden should not be a worry, not if his form is anything like it was when he doing his stuff for Hampshire two years ago. But he cannot do it all, and unfair as it may seem, more will be required of Mal Loye, Tony Penberthy, David Ripley and David Sales.
In: Hayden (Queensland), Martin Dobson, Jeff Cook, Dale Iniff, Mark Powell
Out: Scott Boswell (Leics), Jeremy Snape (Glos), Richard Montgomerie (Sussex), David Capel (retired), John Emburey, Michel Dobson, Franklyn Rose, Tim Walton (all released)
1998: BACC 16th; AXA 11th; B&H zonal rounds; NatWest quarter- final.
Captain: Jason Gallian
Coach/manager: Clive Rice
Overseas player: Vasbert Drakes (WI)
Beneficiary: Mike Newell
They scatter rice for luck at weddings. But the tossing of Clive Rice into the role of director of cricket is not guaranteed to have a similar effect at Trent Bridge. Rice led the county to success in the 1980s; now they will be happy if he can just get them into the top half of the Championship. Last summer too much reliance was placed upon the elders, Paul Johnson and Tim Robinson. Graeme Archer, Usman Afzaal and Gallian passed the 500- mark in the Championship, but to regain the top flight they need to reach four figures. Chris Read looks capable of becoming a serious wicketkeeper- batsman all-rounder. Noel Gie, Matthew Dowman and Guy Welton still have it all to do. The bowling burden will be borne by Vasbert Drakes, the former West Indies Test bowler. He can rely on valuable support from Paul Franks Chris Tolley, and Kevin Evans, but Alex Wharf and Mark Bowen also provide competition for places in the attack. They will need to because Andy Oram misses the first couple of months with a stress fracture of the back.
In: Drakes (Barbados), Richard Stemp (Yorks), David Lucas, Stephen Randall, Matthew Whiley.
Out: Paul Pollard (Worcs), James Hindson, Paul Strang (both released).
1998: BACC 9th; AXA 14th; B&H zonal rounds; NatWest second round.
Captain: Jamie Cox
Coach: Dermot Reeve
Overseas player: Cox (Australia)
Beneficiary: Andy Caddick
Jamie Cox has been handed a tall order: Lead the side from the front - he will open the innings - in your first season in England. So the Tasmanian has to adapt immediately to the whimsical weather of the Northern Hemisphere, while motivating the side. At least there were signs last summer that the likes of Mark Lathwell and Marcus Trescothick were emerging from the rut into which they had slipped for so long. If Peter Bowler, free of the captaincy, is also clear of his back injury and can score the big innings of which he is perfectly capable, that should go a long way to setting up the rest of the batting order. There is not a lot wrong with the attack. Andy Caddick's 105 Championship wickets may not have made much of an impression on the England selectors, but his victims know that he is able to repeat the feat. If he gets the support which Matthew Bulbeck's few appearances promised and if Graham Rose, who did the all-rounder's double of 500 runs and 50 wickets for the second season running, fires again, then much is possible.
In: Cox (Tasmania), Paul Jarvis (Sussex).
Out: Mushtaq Ahmed (rel), Richard Harden (Yorks), Simon Ecclestone (ret), Gregor Kennis (rel), Kevin Shine (ret).
1998: BACC 5th; AXA 18th; B&H semi-final; NatWest quarter-final
Captain: Adam Hollioake
Coach: Keith Medlycott
Overseas player: Undecided
Beneficiary: Darren Bicknell
Mark Butcher captains the side until Adam Hollioake's return from World Cup duty, which also involves Graham Thorpe and Alec Stewart. They can expect to lose Stewart, Thorpe, Butcher and almost certainly Alex Tudor for the Tests. It leaves the onus on the rest of the squad to repeat the magnificent efforts of last summer, to keep the Championship pot boiling and get them out of the National League's Second Division. At least opener Darren Bicknell returns after a back injury cost him all of last season. He and Alistair Brown are safe bets to reach 1,000 runs. Whoever Surrey bring in as overseas player - Stuart MacGill or Saqlain Mushtaq - he will make an impact, but so will Rupesh Amin. The slow left-armer has spent the winter under the tutelage of the former India Test player Bishen Bedi. Alex Tudor gets better with bat and even quicker with ball, Martin Bicknell will be good for wickets at next to nothing. It needs Ben Hollioake to start firing again, Ian Salisbury to rediscover his confidence and for Jason Ratcliffe, Nadeem Shahid and Ian Ward to do their stuff and they could be pushing for the top.
In: Carl Greenidge, Gary Butcher (Glam), Kevin Barrett, Ian Bishop (both Devon), Gareth Batty.
Out: Richard Clinton (Kent).
1998: BACC 7th; AXA 16th; B&H zonal; NatWest first round.
Captain: Chris Adams
Coach: Peter Moores
Overseas player: Michael di Venuto (Aus)
Beneficiary: Neil Lenham
Chris Adams adds a hard edge with his leadership and a refined blunt instrument with his bat. Michael di Venuto replaces Michael Bevan and much is expected of the Tasmanian. Robin Martin-Jenkins has graduated from Durham and is ready to begin full-time cricket education. He showed enough talent with bat and ball to suggest that he is a serious all-round prospect. The acquisition of Tony Cottey is another bonus. His experience and ability will be vital in both forms of the game. He and di Venuto, along with another canny import, Richard Montgomerie, should beef up the batting and if Toby Peirce, Rajesh Rao and Wasim Khan carry on the good work, runs should be in plentiful supply. Wicketkeeper Shaun Humphries needs a few more runs and perhaps a few more victims. The attack needs Jason Lewry and James Kirtley to stay injury free, they can then count on Martin-Jenkins and Mark Robinson for some zippy back-up. If it all goes to plan, they could again figure in the upper echelons.
In: Di Venuto (Tasmania), Umer Rashid (Middx), Tony Cottey (Glam), Bas Zuiderent (Netherlands), Richard Montgomerie (Northants).
Out: Richard Davis (ret), Paul Jarvis (Somerset), Neil Taylor (ret), Amer Khan (Leics), Mark Newell (rel), Keith Newell (Glam)
1998: BACC 8th; AXA 2nd; B&H zonal rounds; NatWest quarter-final.
Captain: Neil Smith
Director of Cricket: Phil Neale
Overseas player: Allan Donald (SA)
They have promised to not overbowl him but when Allan Donald returns from World Cup duty he will certainly add a ruthless, cutting edge to the attack. Not that Ed Giddins, Dougie Brown, Tim Munton and Graeme Welch did not do a good job last summer, they only missed out on maximum bowling points on three occasions, a staggering record. But Donald adds another dimension - fear. That should allow the rest of the attack some easy pickings as batsmen rush lemming-like to the other end. Ashley Giles and the new captain, Neil Smith, can be counted on for at least 50 wickets with their spin. Brown, of course, has another string and the batting could do with even more than the 650-odd runs he compiled. Nick Knight was one of only two (the other was Brian Lara) to pass 1,000 runs in the Championship, although Smith did get close. There are high hopes of Michael Powell, Mark Wagh and David Hemp as well as Trevor Penney. Dominic Ostler misses the start with a chipped ankle but, if he recovers his form, it will add depth to the batting.
In: Donald (Free State), Charlie Dagnall (Cumbria), Alan Richardson (Staffordshire).
Out: Brian Lara (rel), Andy Moles (ret), Soren Westergaard (rel).
1998: BACC 12th; AXA 7th; B&H zonal rounds; NatWest first round
Captain: Tom Moody (Aus)
Coach: Bill Athey
Overseas player: Moody
Beneficiary: Graeme Hick
There is no doubt that the unexpected loss of Tom Moody to Australia's World Cup cause as well as Graeme Hick's to England for the same reason is a double blow to ambition and perhaps even morale, but there is a feeling that when one of the team comes good they all will. Like many lowly placed counties it was flabby batting and a lack of first-innings application which hit them hard. Four times they failed to score even one batting bonus point, which meant that the attack was the only consistent source of points as they notched up maximums in 12 of their 17 games. Even accounting for the weather this was not the stuff of which champions are made. But the personnel and talent is there. Even without their two heaviest run- scorers the county still boasts a further eight batsmen who have scored first-class centuries. Now they have added Paul Pollard from Nottinghamshire. The stand-in captain Steven Rhodes will need Vikram Solanki to show what a fine talent he is and for Philip Weston to turn his 50s into hundreds, then the attack will have something to work with.
In: Abdul Hafeez, Paul Pollard (Notts), Kabir Ali, Kadeer Ali, Jason de la Pena (Kent), Ian Bell, Chris Liptrot.
Out: Scott Ellis (rel).
1998: BACC 3rd; AXA 9th; B&H semi-final; NatWest 2nd round.
Captain: David Byas
Coach: Martyn Moxon
Overseas player: Greg Blewett (Aus)
Even without Darren Gough and Gavin Hamilton, on World Cup duty for England and Scotland respectively, they are equipped to mount a serious challenge. Greg Blewett is no bad replacement for Darren Lehmann. Matthew Wood missed out on his Championship 1,000 by nine runs as he finished the summer with a spectacular flourish, hitting two unbeaten centuries, one a double hundred, while Michael Vaughan, who got his 1,000, also captained the unbeaten England A team. The signing of Richard Harden adds stability to the middle order. Richard Dawson heads a clutch of promising youngsters from the Academy. The injury to Paul Hutchison and Gough's expected England duties may weaken the attack, but if Matthew Hoggard gets going early on and Chris Silverwood is fit, then the likes of Craig White, James Middlebrook and Ryan Sidebottom can still complete a very serviceable attack.
In: Blewett (South Australia), Richard Harden (Somerset), Chris Ellison (Cornwall), John Inglis, Richard Wilkinson, Richard Dawson, Gareth Clough, Simon Widdup, Gary Fellows, James Middlebrook, Simon Guy (Academy graduates).
Out: Richard Stemp (Notts).
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