County Championship: Who’ll be cream of the crop?

First Division: Lancashire and Yorkshire are two of three strong contenders for glory as the championship starts

Sports News Correspondent

Deciphering the domestic fixture list has long required the expertise of a Bletchley Park veteran, but for the opening weeks of this season it is straightforward and all the better for it. With most of England’s Test players pulling on county sweaters for five straight weeks of bread-and-butter Championship cricket – stirred in with a host of post-winter sub-plots – it promises much just so long as the early-season weather plays ball.

The England and Wales Cricket Board has tried to tidy up the schedule. Championship games start on Sundays by and large and the extended Twenty20 competition, the NatWest Blast, will be focused on Friday nights.

It does leave one striking feature – there will be no domestic cricket on Saturdays until 17 May and little more than a sprinkling until August. There are nine blank domestic Saturdays across the season and five more when there is only a solitary fixture. Saturday is the traditional day for watching sport in this country. It is a baffling decision.

A wide-open Championship begins tomorrow with Middlesex’s trip to the south coast to take on Sussex the pick of the first round: Steven Finn pitched against Matt Prior if fit (his Achilles is likely to require nursing through the season) and Sam Robson having to bat with an “England prospect” sign hanging around his neck. Up at Trent Bridge, Mike Newell and Peter Moores will send their sides out to begin potential title bids while waiting on the white smoke from the Lords’ chimney over the choice of the new England coach.

Moores believes he has never had a stronger squad than Lancashire’s this season. Jos Buttler, recruited from Somerset to keep wicket and make runs – which will help his personal bid to succeed Prior for England – will sit out the opening game, resting after his World T20 exertions. But James Anderson does play, although he will be denied an early-summer reunion with Peter Siddle as visa issues have delayed the Australian’s debut for Nottinghamshire.

Three of the sides in action on day one will fancy their chances of mounting a Championship challenge, although if Notts are to feature, a good start on the juicy early-season wickets is all important given their limited spin options. Six of the 16 Championship games will be played by the middle of next month, which gives sides with strong seam attacks – Middlesex, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire – the chance to take a firm early hold.

With Simon Kerrigan and Stephen Parry, Lancashire have variety in their attack too. Their issue is more likely to be scoring runs. Warwickshire, despite the loss of captain Jim Troughton for the early season after a back operation, have the best balanced look of any side. Varun Chopra is a consistent run-scorer and with Jonathan Trott quite possibly around for much of the season and Ian Bell for the opening salvos there is plenty of quality.

Chris Woakes brings runs and wickets while Keith Barker, Chris Wright and Boyd Rankin, a force at this level for all his struggles in Australia, make for one of the better seam attacks, and Jeetan Patel is an understated but quality overseas player.

Yorkshire, under the increasingly impressive stewardship of Jason Gillespie, also have a well-constructed side. Their hopes would be boosted should Jonny Bairstow not make the England side, ditto Gary Ballance, while Alex Lees appears an England opener in the making. This is also a pivotal season for Adil Rashid, now 26.

There is less cause for optimism at Durham. They were worthy if surprise title-winners last year but it is hard to see a repeat, with a relegation struggle more likely, especially if England finally give Graham Onions the call he deserves. Northamptonshire were dealt a blow by the injury to Jackson Bird that denies them their overseas player and may find their return to the top flight a brief one.

Three to watch: Rising stars for the new season

Tymal Mills, Essex

The left-armer has been making batsmen, including England’s, leap around in the nets for a few years but his record on the pitch is patchy. If he can get it right he has a Test career ahead of him.

Aaron Finch, Yorkshire

The days when the world’s best players were to be found across the county game are long gone, but the Australian should help fill Headingley. There are few more destructive hitters.

David Willey, Northants

The all-rounder gets up people’s noses and has ample talent to go with the bluster. He bowls his left-armers quickly and hits the ball hard; once he’s fit he will be fun to watch.

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