Surrey look in good shape for title bid
Shrewd batting signings boost Oval outfit
Starts 11am Thursday
Middlesex pipped Yorkshire to the 2016 County Championship Division One title on a thrilling final day at Lord’s but bookmakers expect the White Rose, champions in 2014 and 2015, to reverse that form this summer.
The top flight has been streamlined to eight teams, with ten in Division Two, and it looks a wide-open betting heat.
Yorkshire were rarely at their ruthless best last season and are short enough given the departure of coach Jason Gillespie.
His successor is Andrew Gale, who retired as captain at the end of 2016, while Gary Ballance takes over as skipper but the new regime cannot afford a slow start given the depth of the division.
Champions Middlesex remain a well-balanced, competitive unit but better value may lie south of the Thames with Surrey, who won Division Two in 2015 and were fifth in the top tier last year.
That was a solid effort and there should be more to come following the signings of Durham batsmen Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick – two of the top ten runscorers in Division One last season.
Rory Burns and the top-class Kumar Sangakkara had excellent campaigns in 2016 and Jason Roy adds zest to the middle-order whenever he’s available.
Wicketkeeper Ben Foakes has made a terrific impression since moving from Essex and his slick glovework is a boon for Surrey’s bowlers. Tom and Sam Curran are stars in the making while Mark Footitt, Stuart Meaker and Matt Dunn complete a powerful pace battery.
Spinners Zafar Ansari and Gareth Batty were in England’s touring party for the winter tours of Bangladesh and India and the batting ability of Ansari and the Currans adds balance to the 11.
Somerset split Middlesex and Yorkshire in the table last year and would have captured an elusive title if the game at Lord’s had ended in a draw.
The spin-friendly pitches at Taunton – or Ciderabad, as it was dubbed – helped Jack Leach to a tally of 65 Championship wickets but Somerset’s seamers pose a threat too, with the Overton twins and Lewis Gregory in the vanguard.
The appointment of Tom Abell as captain is a bold one but the youngster has some wise heads around him and South Africa Test opener Dean Elgar is a solid replacement for Chris Rogers.
Warwickshire’s batting was disappointing last season – no Bears player reached 1,000 runs – and keeping their fast bowlers fit is always an issue.
Hampshire escaped relegation only because of Durham’s demotion but the arrivals of George Bailey, Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw have encouraged Rose Bowl regulars.
Lancashire, with the prodigious Haseeb Hameed now part of the England Test set-up, could face a tough season and Division Two champions Essex – odds-on to fill one of the two relegation spots – may struggle with the step up.
Surrey 2pts 5-1 general
Somerset 1pt 8-1 general
CC2 1st ODC Quarter-finals
T20 Blast Quarter-finals
Last six Championship seasons (most recent on right, Division One in bold) 7 5 3 3 3 1
Top runscorer 1,217 T Westley
Top wicket-taker 63 G Napier
Captain Ryan ten Doeschate
Coach Chris Silverwood
Overseas players Neil Wagner (NZ), Mohammad Amir (Pakistan)
In Adam Wheater (Hampshire), Simon Harmer (Kolpak), Neil Wagner (Lancashire)
Out Graham Napier, David Masters (both retired), Jaik Mickelburgh (released)
CC1 8th ODC 5th, South Group
T20 Blast 8th, South Group
Last six Championship seasons 9 4 4 1 7 8
Top runscorer 1,050 S Ervine
Top wicket-taker 32 R McLaren
Captain James Vince/George Bailey
Coach Craig White
Overseas player George Bailey (Aus)
In Asher Hart (Durham), Kyle Abbott, Rilee Rossouw (both Kolpak),
George Bailey (Middlesex)
Out Adam Wheater (Essex), Ryan McLaren (Lancashire), Andy Carter, James Tomlinson (both retired), Joe Weatherley (Kent, loan), Tino Best, Yasir Arafat, Gareth Andrew
CC1 7th ODC 9th, North Group
T20 Blast 5th, North Group
Last six Championship seasons 1 8 1 8 2 7
Top runscorer 1,198 H Hameed
Top wicket-taker 51 K Jarvis
Captain Steven Croft
Coach Glen Chapple
Overseas players Ryan McLaren (SA), Junaid Khan (Pak, T20)
In Ryan McLaren (Hampshire), Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Dane Vilas (both Kolpak)
Out Gavin Griffiths (Leicestershire), Luis Reece (Derbyshire), Nathan Buck (Northamptonshire), Tom Smith (retired), Alviro Petersen (released), Neil Wagner (Essex)
CC1 Winners ODC 6th, South Group
T20 Blast Quarter-finals
Last six Championship seasons 1 3 5 7 2 1
Top runscorer 1,409 N Gubbins
Top wicket-taker 54 T Roland-Jones
Captain Adam Voges
Coach Richard Scott
Overseas players Adam Voges (Aus), Brendon McCullum (NZ, T20)
Out George Bailey (Hampshire),
Max Holden (Northamptonshire, loan), James Harris (Kent, loan)
CC1 2nd ODC Semi-finals
T20 Blast 9th, South Group
Last six Championship seasons 4 2 6 6 6 2
Top runscorer 1,239 M Trescothick
Top wicket-taker 65 J Leach
Captain Tom Abell
Coach Matthew Maynard
Overseas player Dean Elgar (SA)
In Steve Davies (Surrey)
Out Chris Rogers (retired), Alex Barrow (released)
CC1 5th ODC Runners-up
T20 Blast 5th, South Group
Last six Championship seasons 2 7 9 5 1 5
Top runscorer 1,144 R Burns
Top wicket-taker 41 G Batty
Captain Gareth Batty
Coach Michael Di Venuto
Overseas players Kumar Sangakkara (SL), Aaron Finch (Aus, T20), Moises Henriques (Aus, T20)
In Mark Stoneman, Scott Borthwick (both Durham), Kevin Pietersen (T20)
Out Steve Davies (Somerset), Gary Wilson (Derbyshire), James Burke (Leicestershire, loan), Azhar Mahmood (retired)=
CC1 6th ODC Winners
T20 Blast 6th, North Group
Last six Championship seasons 2 1 4 2 5 6
Top runscorer 975 J Trott
Top wicket-taker 69 J Patel
Captain Ian Bell
Coach Jim Troughton
Overseas players Jeetan Patel (NZ), Colin de Grandhomme (NZ, T20)
In Olly Stone (Northamptonshire), Grant Elliott (Kolpak, T20)
Out Richard Jones (Leicestershire), Laurie Evans (Sussex), Luke Ronchi (Leicestershire), Recordo Gordon (released)
CC1 3rd ODC Semi-finals
T20 Blast Semi-finals
Last six Championship seasons 8 2 2 1 1 3
Top runscorer 1,165 A Lees
Top wicket-taker 60 J Brooks
Captain Gary Ballance
Coach Andrew Gale
Overseas players Peter Handscomb (Aus), Travis Head (Aus, T20)
Out Andrew Gale (retired)