It will be hard to drag attention away from The Oval, and not just because of you-know-who.
There were large glasses of schadenfreude raised around the counties when Surrey tumbled into the Second Division last season having begun as many judges’ favourites to win the title. This time around they begin the season as just about every judge’s favourite to win the Second Division title.
Graham Ford is a coach both Graeme Smith and Kevin Pietersen swear by and an important new presence for a side that beyond the big two is still seeking an identity. Last season Chris Adams changed tack from backing youth and imported a number of experienced players. The early-season injury to Smith was a hammer blow the side never recovered from and cost Adams his job. Smith’s batting will be as important as his leadership. Surrey have a strong seam attack in Chris Tremlett, Jade Dernbach and the revitalised Stuart Meaker, provided they stay fit.
Their likeliest challengers for the title will come from Essex, Kent, Hampshire and Derbyshire, who accompanied Surrey down at the end of last summer. Essex will have the benefit of Alastair Cook’s dependable presence for the opening rounds of the campaign. Led by James Foster, still the best wicketkeeper in England, and with Ravi Bopara to score runs, Monty Panesar to take wickets and Tymal Mills and Reece Topley to form a new-ball partnership as exciting as it is green, Essex have match-winners at this level.
Kent have a core of experience, with Rob Key restored as captain and the ever-reliable all-round talents of Darren Stevens bolstered by Doug Bollinger’s arrival as overseas player. Taking wickets was Kent’s issue last season and Bollinger should go some way towards addressing that.
Derbyshire competed admirably in the First Division last year but were over-reliant on their remarkable captain Wayne Madsen. The South African led by extreme example: he was the first to 1,000 runs and was named the Championship’s Player of the Season – some going in a relegated side. He will want more from Shivnarine Chanderpaul and the other batsmen and if he gets it Derbyshire, with a potent seam attack, will be strong contenders.
Hampshire need top-flight cricket to match their off-field ambitions. Dale Benkenstein begins his coaching career with a decent-looking team on his hands – the nuggety South African will not shy from banging a few heads together, which may be just what is required at the Rose Bowl. Given firm direction Matt Coles remains a talent. Michael Carberry doing the best to pull the plug on his own England career means runs should not be an issue, especially with James Vince maturing.