There are, the former England coach Peter Moores maintained last week, fewer differences between county and international cricket than some in the media might have us believe. "International cricket is about preparation," said Moores, meeting the press for the first time since taking on a similar role at Lancashire.
"Though it's a busy schedule, the preparation is quite intense, it builds up. I think that is something that's come into county cricket. You play so much in county cricket, but you still have to try and find time to be doing your skills work, your physical work, to make sure you can maintain performance throughout the season. We all know the trophies are won in the back half of the season, and that's when it's important to have everybody fit and strong."
Moores' point may have been a technical one, but a seven per cent rise in attendances at Championship games last season suggests media fixation with the international game may not be accurately reflecting the feelings of many cricket lovers.
While anyone with the remotest interest in the sport will follow developments in the Ashes, it is also clear that not only is interest in Champ-ionship cricket almost always under-estimated, it is growing. Reasons are not hard to find. On the field, as Moores indicated, the quality of cricket is increasingly high, certainly in Division One, where most matches are fiercely competitive.
Off it, watching a domestic game is usually a far more pleasant experience. It is much cheaper, facilities at most county grounds are reasonably good – often outstanding for members – and the crowd, other than at some limited-overs games, is less unpleasantly raucous. For many long-standing cricket watchers, England matches have been ruined by the self-styled Barmy Army, whose incessant, alcohol-fuelled, football-style chanting is as painfully tedious as it is mind-numbingly unoriginal.
Not everything is positive, obviously. The number of Kolpak players in both divisions, but particularly the lower tier, continues to hold back the development of young English talent, while making it more difficult for supporters to identify with their counties. But for those hundreds of thousands whose attention is not fixed on Team England to the exclusion of all else, it promises to be a Championship season as interesting as the last, when the final round of matches began with three counties still in with a chance of taking the title.
Interesting for the players too. As Glen Chapple, seated alongside Moores, pointed out, the definition of domestic success remains simple. "All four trophies are important to us, but the Championship is the one that everybody wants," said Lancashire's new captain. "Every year we go out there believing we can win it, and this season's no different."
The early indications are that Chapple, a somewhat less self-regarding individual than Kevin Pietersen, has already established a good relationship with Moores, and that the Lancashire players have responded similarly positively to the new regime. Sajid Mahmood said he had seen an improvement "in everything".
"All our training sessions are as close to match intensity as possible," said Mahmood. "It is hard work and he [Moores] has made a lot of changes, but the guys are enjoying it. He has a lot of ideas and he enjoys a challenge."
Even so, the loss of experienced players such as Stuart Law and Dominic Cork, together with the unavailability of an England contingent including Andrew Flintoff, James Anderson and possibly Mahmood, would appear to make a first outright Red Rose Championship since 1934 an unlikely prospect. But not unrealistic, insisted Moores. "For us to win things we'll have to play very well, we'll need a bit of luck and we'll need to keep key players fit, but that's part of the fun and part of the adventure. We'll know in September."
As to whether he was frustrated not to be involved in the bid to regain the Ashes, Moores shook his head. "No, not any more. It's like most things, when you lose a job like that, at the time it hurts, but things have moved on pretty quickly. As soon as you get to work with another group of players, and see their passion and become part of that, you're not looking back any more, you're only looking forward.
"The game is the same, it's still about getting people to enjoy it, while recognising they have to work hard to become better. If we win as a county it will be because Glen's led a set of blokes who have played really good cricket. The coach can input to a degree, but when the players go out they have got to do their stuff. That's no different whether it's international, county or local league cricket."
Key dates Counties
Wed 15 April: First round of the County Championship
Mon 25 May: Twenty20 Cup starts
Sat 25 July: Friends Provident Trophy final, Lord's
Sat 15 Aug: Twenty20 Cup finals day, Edgbaston
Sat 26 Sept: Final day of the County Championship
England v West Indies
Wed 6 May: First Test, Lord's
Thurs 14 May: Second Test, Chester-le-Street
Thurs 21 May: First One-Day International, Headingley
Sun 24 May: Second ODI, Bristol
Tues 26 May: Third ODI, Edgbaston
Wed 3 June: Twenty20 International, Lord's (5.30pm)
Fri 5 June: England v Holland, Lord's (5.30pm)
Sun 7 June: England v Pakistan, The Oval (5.30pm)
Sun 21 June: Final, Lord's (3pm)
england v Australia
Wed 8 July: First Test, Cardiff
Thurs 16 July: Second Test, Lord's
Thurs 30 July: Third Test, Edgbaston
Fri 7 Aug: Fourth Test, Headingley
Thurs 20 Aug: Fifth Test, The Oval
Sun 30 Aug: 1st Twenty20 International, Old Trafford (5.30pm)
Tues 1 Sept: 2nd Twenty20 v International, Old Trafford (5.30pm)
Fri 4 Sept: 1st One-Day International, The Oval*
Sun 6 Sept: 2nd ODI, Lord's
Wed 9 Sept: 3rd ODI, Rose Bowl*
Sat 12 Sept: 4th ODI, Lord's
Tues 15 Sept: 5th ODI, Trent Bridge*
Thurs 17 Sept: 6th ODI, Trent Bridge*
Sun 20 Sept: 7th ODI, Riverside*
* Denotes day/night.
County by county guide: Division one
HEAD COACH: Geoff Cook.
CAPTAIN: Will Smith.
OVERSEAS PLAYERS: David Warner (Aus; Twenty20 Cup), Shivnarine Chanderpaul (WI; June onwards)
IN: Warner, Ian Blackwell (Somerset).
OUT: Garry Park (Derbys), Gary Scott (released).
PROSPECTS: The new captain Smith has a hard act to follow after taking over from Dale Benkenstein but, if Blackwell adds more weight to the batting, they have the all-round strength to defend their first title successfully.
TEAM MANAGER: Giles White.
Captain: Dmitri Mascarenhas.
Overseas players: Imran Tahir (Pak); Marcus North (Aus; May).
In: Dominic Cork (Lancs).
Out: Michael Brown (Surrey), Greg Lamb, Kevin Latouf, Richard Morris, Nantie Hayward, Rory Kleinveldt (all released).
Prospects: If Pakistan-born leg-spinner Imran Tahir can recover from a fractured jaw and continue the form that brought him 44 wickets late last season, they could well be top-three contenders again.
Coach: Peter Moores.
Captain: Glen Chapple.
Overseas players: Ashwell Prince (SA; April-May), VVS Laxman (Ind; May-Sept).
In: Simon Kerrigan, Steven Cheetham (both youth), Adrian Shankar (Cambridge Uni).
Out: Dominic Cork (Hants), Simon Marshall (released), Stuart Law (Derbys), Iain Sutcliffe (retired).
PROSPECTS: The arrival of former England coach Moores will raise expectations but with Cork, Law and Sutcliffe at the end of the line, even supreme Lancashire optimists may see this as a transitional year.
Director of cricket: Mick Newell.
Captain: Chris Read.
Overseas player: Adam Voges (Aus).
In: Jason Brown (Northants), Ali Brown (Surrey), Andy Carter (Lincolnshire).
Out: AJ Harris (Leics), Rob Ferley (Kent), Gareth Clough (released).
Preview: Apart from faltering at the last hurdle to allow Durham to take the title, they seemed to thrive under Read's leadership. Recruitment of the Browns can underpin another challenge for the top prize.
Director of cricket: Brian Rose.
Captain: Justin Langer.
Overseas player: Langer (Aus).
IN: David Stiff (League).
Out: Rob Woodman (Gloucs), Ian Blackwell (Durham), Andy Sutton (released).
PROSPECTS: Langer will lead from the front but, with Blackwell gone, they could find it difficult to match last season's fourth and may find themselves struggling to keep out of the bottom two.
Professional cricket manager: Paul Robinson.
Captain: Michael Yardy.
Overseas player: Yasir Arafat (Pak).
In: Yasir Arafat, Ed Joyce (Middlesex), Pepler Sandri (Cape Cobras, South Africa; Italian passport).
Out: Mushtaq Ahmed, Chris Adams (both retired), Ryan Harris (released).
PROSPECTS: Much as Joyce looks a good signing, the loss of Adams' leadership and Mushtaq's spin leaves Yardy facing a difficult first year as captain. They may be happy to say in Division One.
2008: Division Two champions.
Coach: Ashley Giles.
Captain: Ian Westwood.
Overseas player: Jeetan Patel (NZ).
In: Patel, Rikki Clarke (Derbys).
Out: Lee Daggett (Northants), Tim Groenewald (Derbys), Ian Salisbury (retired), Michael Powell, Stuart Hole, Nick James, Luke Parker (all released).
PROSPECTS: Division Two title confirmed a revival is under way but with Westwood forced to miss the start through injury it will be a surprise if they do much more than consolidate.
2008: Division Two runners-up.
Director of cricket: Steve Rhodes.
Captain: Vikram Solanki.
Overseas player: Ashley Noffke (Aus).
In: Ian Fisher (Gloucs).
Out: Graeme Hick (retired).
Prospects: Fresh doubts over whether Noffke will be fit have not helped preparations for life without Hick and the safety of seventh place may be too much to ask.
Director of cricket: Martyn Moxon.
Captain: Anthony McGrath.
Overseas player: Rana Naved-ul-Hasan (Pak).
In: Azeem Rafiq (youth), Jonathan Bairstow (youth), Lee Hodgson (Surrey).
Out: Darren Gough (retired), Mark Lawson (Derbys), Greg Wood (released).
PROSPECTS: Gough's dream of leading Yorkshire to the title in his last season went so wrong it almost ended in relegation but there is enough talent to suggest that, having survived their brush with relegation, a top-four finish is possible.
County by county guide: Division two
HEAD OF CRICKET: John Morris.
CAPTAIN: Chris Rogers.
OVERSEAS PLAYER: Rogers (Aus).
IN: Stuart Law (Lancs; one-day), Tim Groenewald (Warks), Garry Park (Durham), Mark Lawson (Yorks), Atif Sheikh, Paul Borrington (both youth).
OUT: Rikki Clarke (Warks), Kevin Dean (retired), Nayan Doshi, Wayne White, Liam Hughes, Chris Paget, Akhil Patel, Ollie Saffell (released).
PROSPECTS: Landing Stuart Law could make them dark horses in one-day cricket but lack of depth and experience in four-day squad suggests they will be also-rans again.
COACH: Paul Grayson.
CAPTAIN: Mark Pettini.
OVERSEAS PLAYER: Danish Kaneria (Pak).
IN: Matt Walker (Kent), John Maunders (out of contract).
OUT: Alex Tudor (Surrey).
PROSPECTS: Confident after winning one-day tournament in Sharjah, the 2008 Friends Provident champions may find limited-overs their best hope of success again but a good season for leg-spinner Kaneria could put them in the top four.
MANAGER: Matthew Maynard.
CAPTAIN: Jamie Dalrymple.
OVERSEAS PLAYERS: Mark Cosgrove (Aus; April-July), Herschelle Gibbs (SA; July-Sept).
IN: Garnett Kruger (Leics).
OUT: Matthew Wood (retired), David Hemp, Jason Gillespie, Richard Grant, Kyle Tudge (released).
PROSPECTS: Development of Welsh talent augurs well for the future. Sophia Gardens' Test status is another marker for better days ahead. But this season may be too soon for significant progress.
DIRECTOR OF CRICKET: John Bracewell.
CAPTAIN: Alex Gidman.
OVERSEAS PLAYER: James Franklin (NZ).
IN: Rob Woodman (Somerset), Richard Dawson, Ian Saxelby (Notts).
OUT: Marcus North (Hants), Ian Fisher (Worcs), Carl Greenidge, Mark Hardinges, Will Rudge (all released).
PROSPECTS: With Bracewell back in charge, they will hope to improve on last season's dismal Championship but if they finish out of the bottom two, it will be an achievement.
2008: 8th in Division One (relegated).
COACH: Graham Ford.
CAPTAIN: Rob Key.
OVERSEAS PLAYER: Stuart Clark (Aus; April-June).
IN: Rob Ferley (Notts), James Hockley (League).
OUT: Matt Walker (Essex), Neil Dexter (Middx), Yasir Arafat (Sussex).
PROSPECTS: If they recover from relegation, they look to have too much quality to stay down. As Clark tries to force his way into the Ashes, he could help to win the division.
SENIOR COACH: Tim Boon.
CAPTAIN: Paul Nixon.
OVERSEAS PLAYER: Iain O'Brien (NZ).
IN: AJ Harris (Notts).
OUT: Garnett Kruger (Glam), Ryan Cummins (Northants), Dillon Du Preez, Robin Malcolm-Hansen, Harry Gurney (all released).
PROSPECTS: Harris and O'Brien will help the attack but batting doubts mean they may have to settle for mid-table.
HEAD COACH: Toby Radford.
CAPTAIN: Shaun Udal.
OVERSEAS PLAYERS: Phillip Hughes (Aus; April-May), Murali Kartik (Ind; May-Sept).
IN: Neil Dexter (Kent).
OUT: Ed Smith (retired), Ed Joyce (Sussex), Vernon Philander, Chris Peploe, Dirk Nannes, Mark Jackson (all released).
PROSPECTS: All eyes will be on exciting Aussie batting prospect Hughes early on but it's the depth of their bowling that suggests they can step up and return to Division One.
COACH: David Capel.
CAPTAIN: Nicky Boje.
OVERSEAS PLAYERS: Johan van der Wath (SA).
IN: Jack Brooks (Oxfordshire), Lee Daggett (Warks), Ryan Cummins (Leics).
OUT: Jason Brown (Notts), Lance Klusener, Richard Logan, Richard Browning, Johann Louw (all released).
PROSPECTS: They will at least hope to match last season's commendable fourth but may find it tough in a competitive division among more obvious promotion contenders.
2008: 9th in Division One (relegated).
PROFESSIONAL CRICKET MANAGER: Chris Adams.
CAPTAIN: Mark Butcher.
OVERSEAS PLAYERS: Grant Elliott (NZ; April-May).
IN: Michael Brown (Hants), Alex Tudor (Essex), Andre Nel (SA, Kolpak).
OUT: Ali Brown (Notts), Lee Hodgson (Yorks), Neil Saker, Richard Clinton, Saqlain Mushtaq, Matt Nicholson (all released).
PROSPECTS: Butcher's knee injury rules him out at the start but, with Nel and all-rounder Elliott adding quality in the bowling and successful Sussex captain Adams bringing leadership off the field, Surrey are promotion contenders.
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