County Championship: Big guns rise up to pose a threat to Yorkshire power

Warwickshire can ruin reigning champions’ hat-trick dream

Jon Culley
Thursday 07 April 2016 16:26
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Andrew Gale, the Yorkshire captain, has identified Warwickshire as his closest rivals
Andrew Gale, the Yorkshire captain, has identified Warwickshire as his closest rivals

The World Twenty20 may have been dramatic – traumatic for England – but the focus is already shifting towards the next goal. For director of cricket Andrew Strauss and head coach Trevor Bayliss, that is to reclaim top spot in the world Test rankings, where England are currently lying fifth. So when the County Championship season begins on Sunday, it will not be slipping under the nation’s sporting radar with its usual soft-shoe stealth.

Bayliss has made it clear that April and May will no longer be a time for contracted Test players to put their feet up on the dressing-room balcony, watching less exalted county colleagues blowing on their fingers in the slips. He wants a team that is ready to face Sri Lanka in the opening Test in mid-May on form rather than on trust.

Thus the captain, Alastair Cook, will be in action from the start as Essex take on Gloucestershire at Chelmsford, James Taylor will test his early-season batting form in Nottinghamshire’s opener against Surrey, Mark Wood will be part of the Durham side to face Somerset and Ian Bell, hoping to force his way back in after being dropped from the winter series in South Africa, leads a Warwickshire team that includes Chris Woakes away to Hampshire, for whom their new captain, James Vince, is also pushing for a place.

Week two promises to grab even more attention, with England’s senior strike bowlers, James Anderson and Stuart Broad, going head to head for Lancashire against Nottinghamshire, and champions Yorkshire opening their title defence at home to Hampshire with all incumbents and contenders available bar Joe Root, who will return for the trip to Nottinghamshire on 1 May. Ben Stokes will have a week less to get over the painful conclusion of his World T20, coming back to face Middlesex for Durham in week three.

Yorkshire are strong favourites for the title, with bookmakers offering no better than 7-4 for them to complete a hat-trick of wins. Understandably, after winning by a 68-point margin last year, confidence at Headingley is high, even though captain Andrew Gale believes the addition of Surrey and Lancashire to an already strong First Division will make finishing top harder than ever.

So who does Gale see as the biggest threat? ‘You could go right down the list,” he says, although interestingly the first rival he names is not Middlesex, Nottinghamshire or Durham, who were their closest pursuers last year, but Warwickshire.

He has a point. Next to Yorkshire’s, theirs is the most balanced and potent pace attack, Jeetan Patel is the most consistently effective spinner and Rikki Clarke is a durable and dangerous all-rounder.

Sam Hain (above) is a batsman of enormous potential and, should Bayliss decide Bell’s time has gone, there is the interesting prospect of he and ex-England colleague Jonathan Trott playing a full season together. The addition of former England batsman and coach Graham Gooch as batting consultant could be another factor in their favour.

What promises to be a fiercely competitive season will also be a transitional one. To reduce the First Division to eight teams in 2017 from nine, part of a general revamp of the county structure that places the NatWest T20 Blast and Royal London One-Day Cup in clearly defined blocks, only one team will be promoted.

The quality of Second Division cricket compared with the top tier is a concern, with the better players tending now to move on at the first opportunity. David Willey, Mark Footitt, Reece Topley and James Fuller are four who swapped divisions during the winter.

The decision to dispense with the mandatory coin toss might help. Visiting teams in the Championship will have the option to waive the toss and bowl first, a move designed to discourage counties who prepare bowler-friendly surfaces – a particular problem in the Second Division, allowing ordinary seamers to claim wickets by the bucketful and limiting chances for batsmen to develop.

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