I have a 40th birthday to think about before the end of the summer and this season will be something like my 23rd in the professional game. But here I am like a hyperactive kid who has just been let loose in the sweet shop – bursting with excitement because it all starts again today.
Quite a few people are quick to knock county cricket and I get sick of hearing from those ex-players who criticise the game I love, or make out the standard is not as good as it was in their day. Come and watch it first before sounding off is my message to them – see the skill level and appreciate how hard the guys train.
The domestic game in this country is alive and kicking. Yes, there are economic problems and a lot of counties are experiencing financial difficulties, but that is not a situation limited to cricket by any means. Plenty of businesses are struggling in the current climate.
On the field, the product is doing well. We are fortunate that Sky are very good at promoting English domestic cricket but on top of that I would urge anyone who is toying with the idea of watching their county from the stands this season to walk through the gate. I'm sure they will be royally entertained.
I really do feel as excited about this new season with Hampshire as I did when I started out as a teenager. I wouldn't still be playing if I didn't get that buzz. I enjoy every minute of it, from the pre-season preparations onwards.
This summer is special as well in that we can look back with pride on a winter when England won an Ashes series in Australia for the first time in more than 20 years. That creates its own feel-good factor – something I could sense even during our warm-up games against Surrey and Middlesex. English players are proud of what England achieved Down Under and I'm sure many of them are desperate to put their names forward as international candidates over the next few months.
People have always debated the strength of our domestic game. In my view the standard is as good as it ever was in my time, even though we no longer see as many top quality overseas players committing themselves to a county for a whole season. Instead, the biggest names tend to come for our Twenty20 competition because it is the sport's top money-spinner. What that does, though, is to give our own young players more opportunities to make their mark in the longer forms of the game – and it's an opportunity they are taking because there is some fantastic talent blossoming around the country.
On top of that, the skill level generally has improved. For example, you no longer find tailenders – Nos eight to 11 – who cannot bat, as used to be the case. They can pretty much all do a job these days and deny bowlers like me the cheap wickets we richly deserve!
Two-division championship cricket has helped to raise standards, creating more pressure games and making sure there are very few dead matches. Teams are fighting all season to win the Championship, earn promotion or avoid the drop from the First Division. That has to be great for our sport and, ultimately, great for the national team.
There is a difference in strength between the two divisions, which is only right. But it is a gap, not a gulf, because current or past England players like Mark Ramprakash, Rob Key and Chris Tremlett are in the Second.
So how far do I look ahead? To this morning! It is a great honour to be Hampshire's captain this season but just about everyone asks whether this is going to be my last before retirement. Who knows? I don't because that will be down to form, fitness and whether the desire is still there after another year.
I told our chairman, Rod Bransgrove, when I signed two years ago, that I intended to play until I was 49 and then have the biggest 50th birthday party imaginable. I was only winding him up but while things are going well and I can still make a difference, then great.
That is the key for me, though. I don't want to be in the team because I was an England player or used to take wickets. I want to be able to make a difference. When that stops, be it this year, next year or the year after then I'll need to be honest with myself and look to do something different.
Who'll win the title? Er, I'll get back to you
So who will win the Championship this season, apart from Hampshire? Notts, the holders, Durham and Somerset all have very strong squads and must be highly fancied. And who are our first three opponents? You guessed it, so I should be able to tell you a bit more in about three weeks!
As for the Pro40, Warwickshire will be tough to beat. And when it comes to the Twenty20, it's a question of whoever is hottest at the right time. Last season it was us and hopefully it will be again this year.Reuse content