Every new cricket season brings optimism. April this year has arrived wreathed in warm sunshine and today the county programme gets under way with the domestic game basking in the glory of the role it played in England's Ashes success over the winter. The achievements of Alastair Cook and Tim Bresnan – among others – showed just how much talent there is in the English game; indeed, England's batting and bowling ranks have not looked so well stocked for many a long year.
And yet. Last season most of the 18 counties registered financial losses; the Twenty20 competition was a flop for the first time, as crowds stayed away despite extra matches; and the calls for a major reshuffle of the domestic game that could see the number of counties reduced are increasing. One man who believes something must be done is the Yorkshire chairman (and acting chief executive), Colin Graves.
"I don't think cricket can realistically sustain 18 counties," he says. "I'm not being unkind – I've said it openly. If we have another match of Derbyshire v Middlesex or Kent v Yorkshire, for example, in whatever format – is that going to bring more money into the game and solve the [financial] problems? No, it's not.
"I don't know what the solution is, but you can't turn your back on the problem. I haven't got an answer but it needs discussion, because it is a problem. I'm not saying this against other counties; I'm saying it for the good of the game."
The feeling among county chief executives is one of fear, he adds. Yorkshire anticipate a loss of £200,000 this season – a major improvement on the £2m they lost in 2010 – but many clubs are unsure just how they are going to turn their financial situation around. "There's a lot of nervousness around because there are a lot of people struggling to keep their heads above water," he says. "That's the problem the counties have got – last year out of 18, I think 14 showed losses. It's got to be looked at. We need leadership from the ECB."
Financially, Graves undoubtedly has a point – but from the cricketing point of view things look a lot rosier. Ironically, it is Graves' own county Yorkshire who are leading the way by showing a future for the county game. Their almost total reliance on home-grown talent is admired by many of the sharper coaches in domestic cricket and, with the financial situation being what it is, counties can be expected to turn more and more often to the products of their academies.
"You've only got to look at the success that Yorkshire and Durham have had to see that it's the right approach," says the Kent coach, Paul Farbrace. "All the counties are going to have to develop their own young players. We've all got good academies, there's no academy that isn't producing players.
"The lack of finance is almost a blessing because it means you have to play your youngsters. It puts us coaches under a bit more pressure – it makes it more fun for us; we're looking at boys of 14, 15, 16 and asking, 'I wonder if he'll make a first-team cricketer?' There's nothing more rewarding than when a young cricketer comes through the system."
English cricketers are now emerging into a game that is unrecognisable from that of 15 years ago. Farbrace believes the domestic game in this country is the envy of the world. "I think the First Division is the best domestic cricket in the world," he says. "I've no doubt about that; I've watched domestic cricket around the world whilst I was with Sri Lanka [as assistant coach between 2007 and 2009].
"The success of the England team has a lot to do with the nine-team First Division. The days of an 18-county division – with meaningless games of cricket – are gone. That should never be repeated. The two-division format has played a big part in England's Test success over the past few years."
The winter's Ashes series success backs up his point. Look at the bowlers who thrived: James Anderson has been playing for England for a long time but the likes of Bresnan, Chris Tremlett and Steve Finn have emerged relatively recently from the county game. Unlike in years gone by, they've been able to make the step up to Test cricket quickly thanks to the quality that can be found in England's domestic cricket.
More and more of that quality is home-grown, too, as the era of the Kolpak cricketer drifts slowly to a close. Top-class overseas stars, too, will be thin on the ground this year: in the age of the IPL – the fourth edition of which starts today – counties are no longer such a lure for the best foreign talent, although there a few gems scattered around. There's Usman Khawaja at Derbyshire, Wayne Parnell at Sussex and Pakistan's old stager Mohammad Yousuf at Warwickshire, for example. But some counties – Yorkshire and Kent – will have no overseas player owing to financial restrictions.
For now at least, those money worries – serious as they are – should not be allowed to detract from a domestic competition that looks as strong as it has in many years. "I'm optimistic about the future of county cricket, the future of English cricket," says Farbrace. "There's no doubt we have the cricketing talent in this country – it's just a case of giving that talent a chance to show what it can do." The stage is set.
First Division: Somerset could finally win first title but don't forget Durham
Captain Phil Mustard
Coach Geoff Cook
Did you know? Newest first-class county, with their first season in 1992.
Champions in 2008 and 2009, Durham have the talent to challenge again. An attack that includes Graham Onions (who will miss the first game) and Stephen Harmison will win matches and Phil Mustard, club captain, is understandably confident. They could well be the team to beat.
Captain Dimitri Mascherenhas
Coach Giles White
Did you know? Openers Jimmy Adams and Michael Carberry each hit over 1,300 runs in 2010.
Having flirted with relegation last season, the south-coast side have made some shrewd signings. There is plenty of talent in the Hampshire squad but also a certain lack of cohesion, at least in the four-day game. The captaincy of Dominic Cork and the return of Imran Tahir (currently injured) will help.
Captain Glen Chapple
Coach Peter Moores
Did you know? Last won the championship in 1950 – and that was shared.
Still waiting for their first outright title since before the war, Lancs look likely to wait a while longer. They'll be playing most of their home games at Liverpool – work at Old Trafford will preclude all but one game there – and the squad is skinny. A place in mid-table, though, should once again be theirs for the taking.
Captain Chris Read
Coach Mick Newell
Did you know? Championship winners last year, despite none of their batsman reaching 1,000 runs.
Mick Newell's patchwork side snatched the title on a thrilling final afternoon last year and they will expect to challenge again. Samit Patel has much to prove, Chris Read is a fine captain and David Hussey will bolster the batting when he returns in June.
Captain Marcus Trescothick
Coach Andy Hurry
Did you know? All-rounder Arul Suppiah represents Malaysia.
The bookmakers' favourite, Somerset boast England's most naturally gifted batsman, Marcus Trescothick. Last season they finished third in three competitions but will be boosted by the recruitment of Steve Kirby and Sri Lanka's Ajantha Mendis (for the first part of the season). Could a first-ever title be in the offing?
Captain Michael Yardy
Coach Mark Robinson
Did you know? Were the first county to install permanent floodlights.
Mike Yardy's side have added paceman Amjad Khan over the winter having romped to the Second Division title last season. Three titles in the first decade of the century raised expectations down at Hove but they should be happy with – and can reasonably expect – a spot just outside of the relegation zone.
Captain Jim Troughton
Coach Ashley Giles
Did you know? Have 10 internationals in their squad (including overseas player).
Shorn of Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott – as they surely will be for much of the season – Warwickshire look a little short of real quality. Pakistan's Mohammed Yousuf has agreed a six-week stint with the Bears but they will need others to step up if this is not to be another season-long battle against the drop.
Captain Daryl Mitchell
Coach Steve Rhodes
Did you know? Were bowled out for 58 against Ireland in 2009 in the Friends Provident Trophy off 20.3 overs.
Pears to the slaughter? Perhaps. Worcestershire surprised many by being promoted last season but this will be a different kettle of fish. If they can win three matches out of 16 that will count as success and may give them an outside chance of staying up – but don't bet on it.
Captain Andrew Gale
Coach Martyn Moxon
Did you know? Sachin Tendulkar (1992) was their first overseas player.
After challenging for a title few thought they would be within a country mile of, Yorkshire now face the unfamiliar pressure of expectation. In their favour is arguably the best coach on the country – Martyn Moxon – and a talented young side. Old heads like Ryan Sidebottom and Gerard Brophy will be key.
Today's fixtures (11.0) Hampshire v Durham, The Rose Bowl; Lancashire v Sussex, Liverpool; Worcestershire v Yorkshire, New Road
Second Division: Time for Surrey to flex financial muscle but Essex will push them
Captain James Foster
Coach Paul Grayson
Did you know? The only team to bowl out Bradman's 1948 'Invincibles' in a day - but conceded 721 in the process.
Out of their depth in the top flight last season, Essex will nonetheless expect to bounce straight back. The addition of Owais Shah (initially away on IPL duty) gives the batting a strong – if rather elderly – look but they will require Maurice Chambers to step up with the ball.
Captain Luke Sutton
Coach John Morris
Did you know? Their only player to average over 50 last term was Chris Rogers, who they have now lost to Middlesex.
The loss of consistent county run-scorer Chris Rogers and chairman Don Amott made this a grim winter for the east Midlands outfit. Australia's Usman Khawaja will bolster the batting for the first half of the season, when Kiwi Martin Guptill will take over.
Captain Alviro Petersen
Coach Matthew Mott
Did you know? Robert Croft has 1,001 first-class wickets - more than any other current cricketer.
The South African Alviro Petersen, Glamorgan's new captain, will have to score plenty of runs if the Welsh side are to challenge for promotion but things look a lot brighter on the bowling front: Graham Wagg and England Lion James Harris – 63 championship wickets last season – could be a potent partnership.
Captain Alex Gidman
Coach John Bracewell
Did you know? Scored a league-best 47 bowling bonus points last year. But only three Championship centuries all season.
We have not quite seen the last of Muttiah Muralitharan; he has signed to play the next two seasons for Gloucs in Twenty20. A more important import, though, may be the New Zealander Kane Williamson, who is expected to bat at No 3 in all forms of the game.
Captain Robert Key
Coach Paul Farbrace
Did you know? Former captain Matthew Fleming is the nephew of Bond creator Ian Fleming.
Are things looking up at Canterbury? The ground is enjoying a long overdue renovation and there's a gaggle of good young players coming through. Joe Denly and Sam Northeast, though, are yet to sign contract extensions beyond this season and the squad is frighteningly small. May struggle at first.
Captain Matthew Hoggard
Coach Phil Whitticase
Did you know? Greg Smith topped the national averages last year whilst still at university, averaging 84.83.
Matthew Hoggard is a whole-hearted trier but even he has his work cut out to make Leicestershire contenders this year. Their mix of old professionals – Paul Nixon is back for another bite at the age of 40 – young talent and South Africans will aim to surprise.
Captain Neil Dexter
Coach Richard Scott
Did you know? New signing Chris Rogers has scored over 1,000 runs in every season for the past three years.
It is about time that a team with plenty of ability started to play like it. The addition of Chris Rogers gives the batting a much solider look and the bowling – led by Steve Finn and Tim Murtagh – looks good enough. Ryan McLaren is a clever signing for the Twenty20 stuff.
Captain Andrew Hall
Coach David Capel
Did you know? Have a record 11 wooden spoons in the Championship.
Northants will this year be hoping for breakthrough campaigns from two of their young Englishmen: 22-year-old batsman Alex Wakely, in good form in pre-season, and David Willey, Peter's 21-year-old son. Stephen Peters, though, is a more likely run-getter.
Captain Rory Hamilton-Brown
Coach Chris Adams
Did you know? Fast bowler Stuart Meaker has been recorded bowling at 98mph.
Eventually, Surrey's financial advantage over their rivals is bound to show. This could be the season. Yasir Arafat is a proven county performer and Chris Tremlett will – provided he does not get an England call – be key. Now all they need are more result pitches at The Oval.
Today's fixtures (11.0) Essex v Kent, Chelmsford; Gloucestershire v Derbyshire, Bristol; Leicestershire v Glamorgan, Grace Road; Surrey v Northamptonshire, The OvalReuse content