Struggling for attention is nothing new for cricket’s County Championship.
This year, with the England team only at the start of a West Indies tour, the Indian Premier League bursting into life and Kevin Pietersen back to divert media eyes towards the Oxford University ground in The Parks as he pulls on a Surrey sweater again, the challenge seems tougher than ever.
Yet the Championship’s continued existence should be no less valued for that.
The 2015 season, which begins tomorrow, is the 125th. No sporting competition lasts as long as that without serving an enduring purpose. What’s more, the evidence of its worth is there to see.
Forget the World Cup, dreadful though it was from an English perspective. Our players may be dunces in the 50-over game but in Test cricket, despite the Ashes whitewash of the winter before last, England are ranked No 3 in the world. Test players emerge from Championship cricket, which discovers, nurtures and hardens players for battle.
It is why it exists, and why the image of a gentlemanly game played in calm spaces in front of small, politely appreciative audiences, a snapshot of a tranquil era lost in time, is modern sport’s biggest deception. Championship cricket – First Division cricket, certainly – is tough, aggressive, unforgiving and highly competitive.
The 2015 season promises to be no different. Only Worcestershire, for whom off-spinner Saaed Ajmal took 63 wickets before his action was outlawed, begin with only survival as the peak of realistic ambition. The other eight will see themselves as in the running for the title, and not immune from relegation.
Even Yorkshire, the 2014 champions, will not feel safe. When they were last title winners in 2001 they went down the following year.
Yorkshire’s insecurity this time is a by-product of their own success, depriving them at least for the first month of six players called up by England. They start too without their captain, Andrew Gale, who is suspended following his unseemly spat with Lancashire’s Ashwell Prince at Old Trafford in September.
Batsmen Cheteshwar Pujara, Aaron Finch and Kane Williamson will in turn offer strong help from abroad. Otherwise they will look towards Alex Lees and others from an enviable pool of local talent, from which Will Rhodes may be the star of the future.
Jack Brooks, Ryan Sidebottom, Tim Bresnan and Steve Patterson can still offer a powerful seam attack, although all now are the wrong side of 30. And if Adil Rashid’s West Indies tour goes well another problem looms, with only the inexperienced Karl Carver as back-up spinner. Retaining the title will test their depth.
But if not Yorkshire, then who? Somerset, in Marcus Trescothick’s 40th year and with Matt Maynard as coach, would be popular champions, but after losing both Nick Compton and Alviro Petersen over the winter may find themselves short of runs. If Sussex, third last year, can turn Essex import Tymal Mills into the fast bowler England want him to be, then they will have a chance, but it is by no means certain that they can.
Middlesex will welcome Compton’s return and have a solid bowling attack in which Ravi Patel may emerge as the spinner about whom everyone is talking, but have a massive hole to fill in their batting with Chris Rogers unavailable and Adam Voges now only a short-term replacement, having joined Australia’s Ashes squad. Promoted Hampshire, with a strong top order in Michael Carberry, Jimmy Adams, Will Smith and James Vince, will look beyond mere survival, yet their bowling is an issue.
Yorkshire’s challenge, more likely, will come from Warwickshire, second last year, from Durham, champions in 2013 or from Nottinghamshire, who fell short in 2014 but have recruited well.
Warwickshire, used to doing without Ian Bell, may again have to leave Jonathan Trott out of their thinking, too. But seven other batsman made centuries last year, among whom 19-year-old Sam Hain is set to make a significant impact. Even if Chris Woakes spends his summer with England, a bowling attack comprising Keith Barker, Chris Wright, Boyd Rankin, Jeetan Patel and Rikki Clarke would be a match for most batting line-ups.
Durham can never be written off, inspired by Paul Collingwood’s leadership and blessed with a seemingly endless supply of high quality seam bowlers. If Graham Onions struggles to stay fit, Chris Rushworth now looks equally reliable. And why opening batsman Mark Stoneman has not merited even an England Lions call-up remains a mystery.
Nottinghamshire’s problem last year was that they could not consistently bowl sides out. Andre Adams, so often their talisman, has left, but he was past his peak anyway. In his place, former Gloucestershire all-rounder Will Gidman looks a particularly shrewd signing, while in Vernon Philander and Aussie Ben Hilfenhaus, who will take over from the South African in early June, director of cricket Mick Newell has found two overseas fast bowlers who will relish playing at swing-friendly Trent Bridge.
Factor in Brendan Taylor, the Zimbabwean batsman who has joined as a Kolpak, in an already strong batting line-up, and Notts’ credentials are impressive. What they lack is a top-class spinner, which is why Warwickshire, for whom off-spinner Patel took 109 wickets in all competitions in 2014, may just have the edge.
Five to watch: from the first division
Will Rhodes (Yorkshire)
Left-handed bat, right-arm bowler and former England Under-19s captain. Shows much promise.
Sam Hain (Warwickshire)
At 19, Hain has a double hundred to his name. Looks England player in the making.
Jamie Overton (Somerset)
Might already be pushing for an England call-up but for injury. Fit now and 6ft 5in, 21-year-old has natural pace.
Ravi Patel (Middlesex)
The 22-year-old Patel could become the left-arm spinner England have been lacking.
Paul Coughlin (Durham)
Made 85 with the bat on his debut last year but is so highly regarded as a quick bowler that he was given the new ball in last year’s Royal London Cup final.
Opening fixtures: tomorrow's games
First Division (all 11am)
Hampshire v Sussex (The Ageas Bowl)
Middlesex v Nottinghamshire (Lord’s)
Somerset v Durham (Taunton)
Worcestershire v Yorkshire (New Road)
Second Division (both 11am)
Leicestershire v Glamorgan (Grace Road)
Northants v Gloucestershire (Northampton)
First division predictions