Lock up your trophies: the Londoners are back. After rather too many years of underachievement, English cricket's self-proclaimed "biggest club", Surrey, and their rivals from the other side of the Thames, Middlesex, have returned to the top flight hand-in-hand as the County Championship begins this morning. Northern sides have ruled the roost in recent years, but the quality of the squads assembled on either side of the Thames suggests that may be about to change.
Those snorting in derision should cast an eye over the talent in the capital: Surrey's squad, in particular, is bulging at the seams with youthful potential. There's captain Rory Hamilton-Brown, destructive middle-order batsmen Tom Maynard and Jason Roy, and fast bowlers Chris Tremlett, Jade Dernbach and Stuart Meaker. Add in the experience of Mark Ramprakash, Zander De Bruyn and Jon Lewis – among others – and it's clear that few can afford to take England's wealthiest county lightly.
Middlesex, too, deserve respect, having pipped Surrey to first place in the Second Division last year. Any club that can call on Eoin Morgan, Dawid Malan and Joe Denly, who joined from Kent over the winter, will be exciting to watch at the very least. They travel to Somerset today while Surrey will hope to make a good start at home against Sussex.
Chris Adams, the man in charge at The Oval, is nonetheless cautious. He knows only too well that the First Division is a far tougher environment than the Second. The likes of the champions Lancashire, Durham and Nottinghamshire will exploit any naivety on the part of the new boys. "It's a different kind of cricket," he says. "It's more attritional. Sides in Division One battle longer, harder, the wickets are better. The quality of player throughout a whole side is more evident as opposed to half a side in Division Two.
"We recognise that to win competitions you have to follow a ruthless, simple process and get the basics spot on, on a consistent basis. For that to happen, our focus is on the short term. We've got four Championship games in April, and that is as far as we are looking at the moment."
Angus Fraser, Middlesex's managing director of cricket, also expects a tough challenge. "What I want, when we play games against the top sides, is for their captains and coaches to say, 'These lot are a decent outfit who are going to be a damn good side in years to come'," he says. "I believe if we play cricket to a similar standard as we did last year, we're capable of being very competitive. Who knows what might happen? It's quite a fluid division: I don't think many people predicted Lancashire to win last year."
Both London sides can count on the quality of their captains. Plenty of eyebrows were raised ("More than a few eyebrows," says Adams, "there were some pretty meaty statements made") when Surrey brought Hamilton-Brown, then 22, back to the club as captain in 2010. But last season saw Surrey capture the CB40 competition as well as win promotion back to the top flight.
"To do that at the age of 24 is pretty spectacular," says Adams. "Many captains can go through a long career and not even get close to a final. I'm certain he has the ability to play for England if he continues to develop. Certainly, if he does do that, and makes a success of it, then at some stage he will have the chance to practise his leadership skills in that environment as well."
Middlesex's on-field leader, Neil Dexter, has also impressed. "He's a strong bugger," Fraser says. "You pick men to captain your side who are good men, who are going to set the right example, who are going to play the right way. He lets players know what he wants from them. He's got work to do, but that's true of anyone who captains a cricket team."
Adams knows what it takes to win the title, having done it three times in five years while captain at Sussex. It was that pedigree that brought him the task of revitalising Surrey back in 2008. "We're two years now into what I call the serious project," he says. "We've finally got a group of players who are committed to working in a way that we believe is conducive to being a successful club. We know we'll have to be right on top of our game to compete in Division One. That's the challenge ahead and we look forward to it."
Fraser is equally keen to get the season under way. Could the title return to London for the first time in 10 years? He laughs. "I'm happy for a London side to win," he says, "as long as they come from north of the river." Adams – not to mention Lancashire, Durham and Notts – will hope to disappoint him. It promises to be a fascinating season.
Last season 1st
Coach Peter Moores
Captain Glen Chapple
Having got county cricket's biggest monkey off their backs, you might expect Lancs to progress from here – but the domestic game is rarely that predictable. Ashwell Prince returns to bolster a sometimes brittle batting line-up. Prediction: 1st
Last season 2nd
Coach Ashley Giles
Captain Jim Troughton
That the Bears came agonisingly close to the title last season owed much to an impressive bowling outfit led by England fringe-man Chris Woakes. Can overseas signing Jeetan Patel help them banish memories of that bitter disappointment at The Rose Bowl? Perhaps not. Prediction: 7th
Last season 3rd
Coach Geoff Cook
Captain Phil Mustard
The glory days may be over for Durham but they still look an impressive unit, particularly with the ball in hand. Lack of consistency cost them last season. Dale Benkenstein will again be key. Prediction: 4th
Last season 4th
Coach Brian Rose
Captain Marcus Trescothick
The West Country side have had more seconds than Billy Bunter in recent seasons, and it's hard to see them finally winning that first pennant. Taunton's nearly-men could go agonisingly close once again. Prediction: 2nd
Last season 5th
Coach Mark Robinson
Captain Michael Yardy
Sussex's addition of Scott Styris for the Twenty20 competition hints at where their priorities lie and the squad does look set up for one-day cricket. Unlikely to be easybeats but in the toughest top flight for years they could struggle. Prediction: 8th
Last season 6th
Coach Mike Newell
Captain Chris Read
Few sides have operated as successfully in the transfer market (such as it is) over the last few years as Nottinghamshire and off-season additions James Taylor and Michael Lumb should thrive at Trent Bridge. Adam Voges arrives in May. Prediction: 5th
Last season 7th
Coach Steve Rhodes
Captain Daryl Mitchell
Overseas star Phil Hughes has much to prove, having lost his spot in the Aussie Test side (and he scored bucketloads of runs for Middlesex last time he was here) but Worcestershire – despite last season's heroics – look a little underpowered. Prediction: 9th
Last season Second Division champions
Coach Angus Fraser
Captain Neil Dexter
Middlesex pipped Surrey for the Second Division title last season but it may be that they're not quite as well-equipped to compete in the top flight. Joe Denly, who has much to prove, could be a canny acquisition. Prediction: 6th
Last season Second Division runners-up
Coach Chris Adams
Captain Rory Hamilton-Brown
This is a squad packed with youthful talent. Surrey can call on the likes of Tom Maynard, Jason Roy, Chris Tremlett, Jade Dernbach and Stuart Meaker – among others – and should be title contenders on their return to the First Division. Prediction: 3rd
Last season Finished eighth in the First Division
Coach Martyn Moxon
Captain Andrew Gale
Last season was a bitter disappointment for Yorkshire after going so close to the title in 2010. They have plenty of young talent and must be expected to fulfil chairman Colin Graves' expectations that they go straight back up. Prediction: 1st
Last season Finished ninth in the First Division
Coach Giles White
Captain Jimmy Adams
Like Yorkshire, plenty of talent – but the focus down on the South Coast has appeared to be on shorter forms of the game over recent seasons. Can they rally and return to where they believe they deserve to be? Perhaps not. Prediction: 3rd
Last season 3rd
Coach David Capel
Captain Andrew Hall
English first-class cricket's smallest county came so close to promotion again last season before fading in the final furlong. With veterans Andrew Hall and Chaminda Vaas back for another bite at the cherry, this could be the year. Prediction: 2nd
Last season 4th
Coach John Bracewell
Captain Alex Gidman
With Jon Lewis gone, Gloucestershire's attack looks somewhat youthful and the batting doesn't boast a huge amount of experience either. A season of rebuilding to look forward to, perhaps. Prediction: 8th
Last season 5th
Coach Karl Krikken
Captain Wayne Madsen
In the Second Division since 2001, Derbyshire show few signs of being ready to return to English cricket's elite division. Usman Khawaja is due to arrive in June, by which time there may be too much work to do. Prediction: 7th
Last season 6th
Coach Matthew Mott
Captain Mark Wallace
It has been a difficult few seasons for the Welsh county and it's hard to see things getting better all that quickly. Likely to be among those making up the numbers. Prediction: 6th
Last season 7th
Coach Paul Grayson
Captain James Foster
All things considered last season's four-day campaign was one to forget for Essex, who have subsequently endured a difficult winter. Alviro Petersen, with the club until mid-June, looks a decent signing. Prediction: 4th
Last season 8th
Coach Jimmy Adams
Captain Rob Key
All change once again at Canterbury as the club's young players make way for a group of journeymen cricketers with something to prove. Could be the jokers in the pack. Prediction: 5th
Last season 9th
Coach Phil Whitticase
Captain Matthew Hoggard
Victory in the Twenty20 made last season a success for the Foxes even as they compiled a truly dismal Championship record. Squad is similar to last season – but crucially they have lost James Taylor. Prediction: 9th