India's shining lights cast shadow but the Championship still matters

The county cricket season begins today amid more uncertainty than ever, with the IPL drawing money and attention eastwards. But, writes Angus Fraser, the domestic first-class tournament remains a vital breeding ground for talent

Never can the country's professional cricketers, whose employment begins in earnest this morning with the start of the County Championship, have entered a season surrounded by so much uncertainty. Dressing-room conversation during pre-season training will have been dominated by the hyperbole generated by the Indian Premier League, the millions of dollars sloshing around in it, and the ramifications the 20-over tournament will have on the future cricket they play and the careers they have. A few will undoubtedly be questioning the worthiness of the six-month journey they are about to embark on.

Every last one of them would ultimately like to get a slice of the lucre on offer. To some the lure may act as a huge spur, an incentive to go on and perform great deeds. Most, however, will quickly realise that it is not they who will become rich fast playing for the Chennai Super Kings. That, sadly, is already the exclusive territory of those without mortgages.

In comparison to the IPL, which begins under lights in front of 55,000 fans in Bangalore on Friday, a visit to The Oval, where Surrey take on Lancashire, does seem a wee bit low-key, even though it is likely to herald Andrew Flintoff's much-awaited comeback. Indeed, the match-up has led many to question whether domestic cricket's most important competition will still be around in five years' time.

But it will be and, for the future of cricket, it needs to be. The County Championship would not know what to do with itself if it were to be given positive publicity at the start of a season. At the weekend it was aptly compared to a cockroach and, unlike its more glamorous brothers, it continually proves its resilience and is extremely difficult to remove.

Its format will inevitably change and that is no bad thing. Sixteen four-day games is too many. Ten plus semi-finals and a grand final, a scenario that would be created by three leagues of six, would suffice. The Pro40 could easily be dispensed with, too. It has a structure that would create space for the imminent arrival of an extended or new Twenty20 League. Whatever changes the England and Wales Cricket Board makes need to be thought through to ensure that they are right both in the short and long term.

Many commentators seem to think that English cricket can just flick its fingers and replicate what is taking place in India. This is rubbish. For cricket India is a unique playground and English cricket, like the sport in every other country in the world, may have to accept that it cannot compete financially with India.

The crowds may be small and the whole process unprofitable but it is vital that first-class – four day – cricket continues to be played. It was in front of several hundred spectators at Grace Road that Ryan Sidebottom learnt to bowl line and length and Kevin Pietersen honed his skills. Without such experience the quality of cricket around the world would fall rapidly. Like root disease in a tree it would eventually result in the whole game falling to the ground. The Championship still matters too. At a pre-season launch Robert Key, Kent's victorious Twenty20 captain last season, said it was the County Championship he wanted to win most, proof that greater investment of time and effort brings greater satisfaction.

It is ironic that the season should start under such shadow because 2007 produced one of the most exciting Championship run-ins ever, with Sussex pipping Lancashire in the final hour of the final day. It will be these two sides, along with possibly Durham and Surrey, who push for the title this summer. The IPL has removed many of the big overseas stars from county squads and this will, hopefully, encourage England-qualified players to take responsibility for winning matches and not leave it to foreigners.

Most early-season attention will follow the rehabilitation of Flintoff, with everyone hoping he fully recovers from a chronic ankle injury and returns to England duty. His presence would give Michael Vaughan's stuttering side a needed fillip before crucial Test series against New Zealand and South Africa.

There have been several changes to the regulations and structure of the 2008 season. A day of County Championship cricket has been shortened from 104 to 96 overs. The decision was made before the launch of the IPL, when the volume of cricket played was an issue. Yet the smell of the greenback seems, miraculously, to have revitalised the players in the eyes of their union.

The structure of the Friends Provident Trophy has been changed, with the two-conference system ditched for four regional groups of five teams – the 18 counties plus Ireland and Scotland – who play each other home and away. The mini-leagues will be followed by quarter-finals, semi-finals and a final. The Twenty20 Cup has been extended too, with the divisional part of the tournament now consisting of 10 games rather than eight.

A highlight of the summer will be Mark Ramprakash posting his 100th first-class hundred. The Surrey run machine currently has 97 three-figure scores to his name, and it can only be a question of when he becomes the 25th player in the history of the game to reach the landmark. Ramprakash's England career may have been a frustration but this will be some achievement.

In 20 years' time Twenty20 fifties could be treated with the same reverence. Scary, isn't it?

Fixture guide Key dates for 2008

Opening fixtures:

Today (first day of four) LV County Championship

First Division

Hampshire v Sussex

Kent v Nottinghamshire

Surrey v Lancashire

Second Division

Essex v Northamptonshire

Gloucestershire v Derbyshire

Leicestershire v Middlesex

Warwickshire v Worcestershire

Wednesday 24 September (final round):

First Division

Kent v Durham

Nottinghamshire v Hampshire

Somerset v Lancashire

Sussex v Yorkshire

Second Division

Gloucestershire v Essex

Leicestershire v Derbyshire

Northamptonshire v Middlesex

Warwickshire v Glamorgann

OTHER DATES:

Test series:

England v New Zealand

First Test Lord's (15-19 May)

Second Test Old Trafford (23-27 May)

Third Test Trent Bridge (5-9 June).

England v South Africa

First Test Lord's (10-14 July)

Second Test Headingley (18-22 July)

Third Test Edgbaston (30 July-3 August)

Fourth Test The Oval (7-11 August).

NatWest Pro40:

First Division 15 July–14 Sept

Second Division 16 July–13 Sept

Twenty20 Cup:

Starts Wednesday 11 June

Finals day 26 July, Rose Bowl

Friends Provident Trophy: Starts Sunday 20 April

Final: Saturday 16 August, Lord's

Who's hot and who's not: County by County guide to 2008 season

First division

Durham

Captain Dale Benkenstein.

Overseas Neil McKenzie (until June), Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Albie Morkel (T20).

Durham began the final day of last season on top of the Championship and are capable of finishing this one looking down on the rest. With Steve Harmison having much to prove in a potent seam attack wickets will not be a problem, although spin remains a weakness. Runs should come from Benkenstein, Chanderpaul and the now "Kolpaked" Michael di Venuto.

One to watch Kyle Coetzer, who should profit from batting experience around him.

Major ins N McKenzie, L Goddard, A Morkel, M Stoneman.

Major outs N Peng, O Gibson, S Styris

Last season Second, First Division; Pro40 winners; Friends Provident Trophy winners.

Hampshire

Captain Dimitri Mascarenhas.

Overseas Shane Bond, Shane Watson (T20).

There is an air of "after the Shane Warne show" pervading the Rose Bowl, with the departure of the legendary Australia spin bowler for the riches of India. And with their new captain otherwise engaged with the IPL for the season's opening salvoes and the England batsman Kevin Pietersen a rare sighting for the county, making sure they remain in the top flight is priority No 1.

One to watch David Balcombe, another product of Durham University whose batting has already impressed opponents.

In S Bond.

Out J Bruce, S Udal, S Warne.

Last season Fifth, First Division; Friends Provident Trophy runners-up.

Kent

Captain Rob Key.

Overseas Yasir Arafat.

Should have enough going for them to add another season to their record of being the only county to have featured in First Division of the Championship from day one. Plenty of batting from their dependable captain Key down. Amjad Khan's return from injury will add some much-needed oomph to the attack, while Azhar Mahmood and Pakistan's Arafat are decent signings and should do likewise.

One to watch Sam Northeast. The 18-year-old should one day turn junior England caps into the real thing.

In A Mahmood, S Northeast.

Out A Hall, M Patel.

Last season Seventh, First Division; Twenty20 winners

Lancashire

Captain Stuart Law.

Overseas Brad Hodge.

The county's notorious Championship title drought is now into its 74th year. Another 25 runs on that breathless final evening of the season at The Oval last year and a first outright title since 1934 would have been on the way to Old Trafford. The squad are much the same but with Law now at the helm in place of Mark Chilton. They will not be far away from the top of the table again... weather permitting.

One to watch Francois du Plessis, a Kolpak signing who is one of South Africa's brightest talents.

In F du Plessis.

Out M Muralitharan.

Last season Third, First Division; Twenty20 semi-finalists.

Nottinghamshire

Captain Chris Read.

Overseas Adam Voges (until June), David Hussey.

Steve Harmison will not be popular around Trent Bridge after his failure for England this winter opened the Test door for Stuart Broad and now Nottinghamshire face the prospect of relying largely on TV to catch a glimpse of their two strike bowlers (Ryan Sidebottom is the other). Conjuring 20 wickets will be a challenge for Read as the Championship's yo-yo side seek to re-establish themselves in the top flight.

One to watch Alex Hales, 18-year-old, 6ft 5in right-hander who has scored heavily for the second XI.

In S Broad, M Wood, D Pattinson.

Out D Alleyne, S Fleming, J Gallian.

Last season Second, Second Division.

Somerset

Captain Justin Langer.

Overseas Langer.

There will be no shortage of self-belief at Taunton with Langer at the helm. With the former England batsman Marcus Trescothick's future sorted, the blossoming talents of James Hildreth and plenty of all-round back-up, hefty totals should not be a problem. But can Andrew Caddick, 40 this year, continue to carry the attack against the stronger line-ups of the First Division?

One to watch Craig Kieswetter, the South African-born 20-year-old. This wicketkeeper-batsman has one-day international potential.

In O Banks.

Out G Andrew, M Wood, C White.

Last year First, Second Division; promoted from Pro40 Second Division.

Surrey

Captain Mark Butcher.

Overseas Matt Nicholson.

Pedro Collins turned his back on West Indies to join Surrey as one of the ubiquitous Kolpaks. The county had stated their resistance to bringing in such recruits, but needs must and Surrey's bowling needs reinforcing. Not so when it comes to runs and that's down to the relentless Mark Ramprakash. Butcher has an experienced squad who should continue to sit comfortably in midtable.

One to watch Chris Jordan, 19-year-old all-rounder from Barbados who could play for England or West Indies.

In U Afzaal, P Collins, S Mushtaq.

Out I Salisbury, R Clarke, R Hamilton-Brown, M Akram.

Last year Fourth, First Division.

Sussex

Captain Chris Adams.

Overseas Mushtaq Ahmed.

A last hurrah for Adams? To make it four titles in six years he will have to replace Rana Naved's 50 wickets and Richard Montgomerie's 1,000 runs. The attack appears creaky, although the Anglo-Aussie Ryan Harris is an interesting prospect and Mushtaq is still dangerous, but runs should flow and this is a team who know how to win.

One to watch Rory Hamilton-Brown, a former England Under-19 batsman who left Surrey in search of a first-team place.

In R Aga, R Hamilton-Brown, W Beer, R Harris.

Out S Mushtaq, R Naved-ul-Hasan, R Montgomerie.

Last year First, First Division.

Yorkshire

Captain Darren Gough.

Overseas Morne Morkel. (until June), Naved-ul-Hasan.

With Gough's unwavering enthusiasm another flying start is likely, but can they sustain it this time around? Sound overseas signings should ensure a steady supply of wickets, especially with the prospect of seeing more of Matthew Hoggard. Jacques Rudolph needs more support with the bat, which the return of Chris Taylor may provide.

One to watch Adil Rashid, a big season for the 20-year-old. Genuine leg-spinning all-rounders don't come around very often, hence the expectation.

In M Morkel, C Taylor, G Ballance.

Out M Wood, N Thornicroft.

Last year Sixth, First Division.

Second division

Derbyshire

Captain Rikki Clarke.

Overseas Chris Rogers.

Clarke takes over a young squad at a club determined to revitalise itself after years of dour failure. Mahela Jayawardene's preference for the riches of the IPL instead of the cheaper charms of the Racecourse Ground leaves a large hole in the batting that Rogers, who made his Australia Test debut this winter, will do well to fill.

One to watch Dominic Tello, 22-year-old South African batsman taking the Kolpak route in hope of an England future.

In R Clarke, N Doshi, M Jayawardene, C Rogers, J Sadler, D Tello.

Out G Ballance, B Rankin, C Taylor, H Adnan.

Last season Sixth, Second Division.

Essex

Captain Mark Pettini.

Overseas Andre Nel (until May), Danish Kaneria.

Pettini lost his touch when he replaced Ronnie Irani as captain last season. If his first full campaign is to prove a success, he must find it again. Have batting depth, but bowling looks light, although David Masters' arrival from Leicestershire may bolster the seam attack. Promotion not beyond them and have one-day potential.

One to watch Varun Chopra, 20-year-old opener, of whom Graham Gooch likes the look. Enough said.

In C Wright, D Masters, J Gallian.

Out D Thomas, R Irani, A McGarry, A Bichel.

Last season Fourth, Second Division.

Glamorgan

Captain David Hemp.

Overseas Jason Gillespie.

Last season was a horror story: two wins in 41 games in all competitions. But there is hope: a dusting of young talent, led by the precocious all-round abilities of 17-year-old James Harris (who will miss the first part of the season doing his A-levels) and the arrival of Jamie Dalrymple and the former Australia bowler Gillespie. A summer of small steps is surely the best that can be hoped for.

One to watch Tom Maynard, 18-year-old batsman who is showing signs of being a chip off the old Maynard block.

In J Dalrymple, M Wood, A Shantry.

Out S Jones, A Davies, N Peng, D Cherry, M Elliott, A Harrison.

Last season Ninth, Second Division.

Gloucestershire

Captain Jon Lewis.

Overseas Marcus North.

For the first time in over two decades there will be no Mark Alleyne presiding at Nevill Road. Instead there's Jack Russell, the former England wicketkeeper who, with all his accompanying quirks, tea bags and Weetabix, does not appear an obvious choice as an off-field mentor as the county search for a coach. But then Gloucestershire have often done things differently.

One to watch Vikram Banerjee, slow left-armer who took 42 wickets in his first full season last time out.

In W Porterfield.

Out U Gul.

Last season Seventh, Second Division; Twenty20 runners-up.

Leicestershire

Captain Paul Nixon.

Overseas Boeta Dippenaar.

It's all change at Grace Road, as promised by the coach, Tim Boon, who has done his best to ensure his new overseas signing finds a home from home. There are four more South Africans jostling for dressing-room space – add another Kolpak in the West Indian Jermaine Lawson and it does not say much for the club's promise to provide places for home-grown talent.

One to watch James Taylor, England Under-19 batsman who has joined from Worcestershire.

In D du Preez, J du Toit, G Kruger, N Malik, J Lawson.

Out S Broad, D Masters, D Robinson, J Maunders, D Stiff, J Sadler, N Walker.

Last season Eighth, Second Division.

Middlesex

Captain Ed Smith.

Overseas Vernon Philander (until June), Murali Kartik.

Some decent youngsters and enduring old 'uns make for a squad who have the ability to compete for promotion. Kartik is a good overseas player, but it must be hoped the Kolpak contingent don't get in the way of some able home-grown talent.

One to watch Steve Finn. At 6ft 8in it would be difficult to miss the 19-year-old fast bowler. An outstanding prospect, provided his frame can take the strain.

In F de Wet, S Udal, G Berg, K Toor, V Philander, D Nannes.

Out J Dalrymple, B Hutton, C Whelan, R Johnson, C Keegan, C Vaas, C Wright.

Last season Third, Second Division; promoted from Pro40 Second Division.

Northamptonshire

Captain Nicky Boje.

Overseas Johann Louw.

Boje has a tough job on his hands, but then the South African is a tough character. Nevertheless, there appears little obvious prospect of an improvement on last season's featureless campaign. The persistently admirable David Sales, who tops the county's averages in recent times, will be leant on heavily as ever to provide the runs.

One to watch Alex Wakely, the England Under-19 captain, has been compared to Greg Chappell in style.

In N Boje, J Louw.

Out U Afzaal, R Dawson, C Rogers.

Last season Fifth, Second Division; relegated from Pro40 First Division.

Warwickshire

Captain Darren Maddy.

Overseas Monde Zondeki. (Sanath Jayasuriya, T20).

Post-double relegation clear-out brought in new coaching set-up of Ashley Giles and Allan Donald. After a pre-season that included a spell in an army barracks, a counter-attack beckons. Much will depend on Zondeki firing and Maddy chipping in with key runs and wickets.

One to watch Nicholas James, the new Giles? A 21-year-old slow left-armer with all-round pretensions.

In B Rankin, I Salisbury, R Johnson.

Out V van Jaarsveld, H Streak, A Giles, A Loudon, A Shantry, D Brown, P Harris, D Steyn, K Sangakkara.

Last year Eighth, First Division; relegated from Pro40 First Division.

Worcestershire

Captain Vikram Solanki.

Overseas Steve Magoffin (until July), Fidel Edwards.

Will the real Simon Jones stand up (if he can)? Jones claims to be fit and raring to go and his new county need him to be after relegation. A potential new-ball pairing of Jones and Edwards offers real menace, while Graeme Hick, all 41 years and 134 centuries, will provide the runs to give weight to a promotion challenge.

One to watch Alexei Kervezee, 18-year-old Dutchman touted as the new Hick, so no pressure then.

In G Andrew, S Jones, C Whelan, M Ahmed, D Wheeldon, O Ali.

Out D Bollinger, R Sillence, D Nel, R Price, N Malik, P Jaques.

Last year Ninth, First Division.

Points system:

Win 14pt

Tie 7pt

Draw 4pt

Loss 0pt

Teams may also collect bonus points for batting and bowling. These points can be obtained only from the first 130 overs of each team's first innings. The bonus points are retained regardless of the outcome of the match

Batting bonus points:

200-249runs 1pt

250-299runs 2pt

300-349runs 3pt

350-399runs 4pt

400-plus runs 5pt

Bowling bonus points:

3-5wickets taken 1pt

6-8wickets taken 2pt

9-10wickets taken 3pt

Deductions:

Most commonly handed out for slow over rates or poor pitches. Usually between 0.5pt and 1pt.

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