2019 County Championship: Will Surrey retain their title?
|2019 Specsavers County Championship|
|Dates: 5 April - 26 September Coverage: Live ball-by-ball local radio commentary and live text coverage of every game on the BBC Sport website and app.|
It has been touted as one of the biggest summers in England's cricket history.
With the 50-over World Cup and Ashes series on the horizon, the 2019 county season provides the perfect appetiser. And it gets under way on Friday.
So what can we expect over the next six months? BBC Sport takes a look at some of the likely talking points on the county scene...
Can anyone stop Surrey?
It seems unlikely. The 2018 champions have a squad packed with experience and some of England's brightest young stars.
One factor that may hamper their bid is international call-ups. England seem keen to stick with Surrey captain Rory Burns in their Test side. Sam Curran, his brother Tom, Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes will also fancy extended runs for the national team.
Surrey's pace-bowling unit, including South Africa legend Morne Morkel, appears unrivalled among the other seven sides in Division One. The recruitment of Liam Plunkett from Yorkshire adds further depth.
However, back-to-back Championships have been rare over the past decade - only Yorkshire have defended their title successfully in 2015. Middlesex were relegated a year after lifting the trophy in 2016.
To put it bluntly, the County Championship can be a bit of a lottery. Lose a couple of games in April and a relegation battle is more likely than a title challenge. That is one of the reasons the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) is increasing the number of teams in the top tier to 10 next season.
Somerset, runners-up last year, are still searching for a first title in their 144-year history. There is no reason Tom Abell's men could not do it in 2019, but will the scars of recent efforts haunt them?
In Craig and Jamie Overton, they have two of England's most impressive quick men - keeping them fit is the main challenge - and the hugely experienced Jack Brooks has been added to their pace department.
England men Dom Bess and Jack Leach will do plenty of damage if the tracks continue to turn at Taunton, but questions remain over whether their batting has enough quality.
The 2017 winners Essex will have Alastair Cook available for the whole season for the first time in 13 years. Without the pressures of Test cricket, you would be a fool to back against the 34-year-old scoring a huge number of runs.
Add Nick Browne, Tom Westley, Dan Lawrence, Ravi Bopara and Ryan ten Doeschate to that top six and Essex have a batting line-up with experience and quality.
You can never write off 33-time champions Yorkshire, but their batting has failed to fire since their dominance in 2014 and 2015. They have not recruited an overseas player or a senior batsman and that may well prove to be their downfall once again.
As with previous seasons, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow will not be available for most of it, although Kolpak signing Duanne Olivier is likely to trouble batsmen with his pace. Root is also set to play in Yorkshire's opener against Nottinghamshire on Friday.
Hampshire have flirted with the drop more often than mounting title challenges since the split to two divisions in 2000 and it is hard to see them achieving a first championship since 1973 this season. Their batting looks fragile, with a big reliance on James Vince and Sam Northeast, although they have added a proven asset in all-rounder Keith Barker from Warwickshire.
Nottinghamshire avoided relegation by the skin of their teeth in 2018, at the expense of Lancashire, but they have captured two of the most talented young batsmen in the county game in Ben Duckett and Joe Clarke. Surely their season cannot collapse as badly as last year, when they only won one of their final 10 matches.
Paul Farbrace's Warwickshire return to Division One hoping to avoid a repeat of 2017 when they went down 60 points adrift at the bottom. Their batting looks light following the retirement of Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell's toe surgery, which is likely to keep him out until June. It also remains to be seen when genuine paceman Olly Stone will be fit as he recovers from a stress fracture in his back.
Kent, the other promoted side, will initially be led by former South Africa batsman Heino Kuhn. They will be keen to cement their place in Division One after eight seasons away, but will be without New Zealand paceman Matt Henry, who picked up wickets for fun over the past two years. Australia batsman Matt Renshaw could be key in the early part of the campaign with Sam Billings and Joe Denly at the Indian Premier League.
What's new in 2019?
- Three teams promoted from Division Two, one relegated from Division One.
- No day-night fixtures.
- More matches at outgrounds, including Isle of Wight, Liverpool and York.
- Month-long break after second round of County Championship games while One-Day Cup takes place.
- Last season before The Hundred competition launches in 2020.
Who can make an Ashes claim?
"It would be an incredible opportunity, achievement and honour."
He has become one of the biggest names on the planet in white-ball cricket, but Surrey and England opener Jason Roy wants to play Test cricket. And that is what it means to him.
"I've had good conversations with England over the last couple of years about it all, where I need to be mentally," the 28-year-old told BBC Radio London.
"I desperately want to play it, just to see if I can do well. There's no reason why I won't do well, but there's no reason why I will do well. It's the great unknown, this is what this great game brings to you.
"It's a case of wanting to know if I can play Test cricket. If I can't and I fail, then I fail, but at least at one stage in my life I've played Test cricket."
Roy, who has missed this season's IPL, was set to play in Surrey's opener against Essex starting on 11 April, but a hamstring injury may rule him out.
So who else is in the frame for an opening place in England's side should the selectors ditch Burns or Keaton Jennings?
Nottinghamshire's Duckett and Hampshire's Vince both scored hundreds in warm-up matches against university teams. Vince has already stated he wants to open for England having moved up the order for his county side.
Further down the order, Surrey's Pope will surely be pushing to add to his two England caps. The 21-year-old made a brilliant 251 in the Champion County match last month and will play plenty of four-day cricket before the Ashes.
England's pace bowling unit looks fairly settled, but another good season for Essex's Jamie Porter and a call-up could beckon.
'I didn't think they would go for Bancroft'
One of the main talking points in the build up to the 2019 campaign is the appointment of Australia opener Cameron Bancroft as Durham captain.
The 26-year-old returned in December following a nine-month ban for his part in ball-tampering during the third Test against South Africa in March 2018.
And now he is set to lead the north-east county following the retirement of Paul Collingwood.
Durham and England paceman Mark Wood said he was surprised with the appointment.
"I didn't think they would go for him. I probably wouldn't have gone for him. But the more I've thought about it since there are not many people who could have done it," he told BBC Newcastle.
"The two, apart from Cameron, who could have done it are Alex Lees - but it's probably not the right time; he can focus on his own game and just concentrate on scoring some runs - and Rushy (Chris Rushworth), but we all know that bowlers never get the captaincy!
"Bancroft is a guy with international pedigree. He's a guy that no matter what anyone says about him or throws at him, it's probably not going to be as bad as it's been for him over the last 12 months.
"He's going to have a point to prove. He'll be desperate to prove to people how good a leader he is."
Golden chance for Division Two sides
The ECB wants to increase the number of teams in Division One to 10 from next season, and so three are going up from Division Two this year.
Lancashire, Middlesex and Sussex are the favourites - but can anyone else sneak into the promotion frame?
Lancashire are looking to bounce back instantly and they certainly have talent in their squad with England internationals Keaton Jennings and Liam Livingstone likely to play a good chunk of the season.
However, the form of Haseeb Hameed has been a real issue over the past couple of years. The 22-year-old averaged only 9.44 with the bat in 2018. Surely the downward slump cannot continue?
Sussex were quite a long way adrift despite finishing third last year but, with Jason Gillespie at the helm and a talented young squad at his disposal including exciting all-rounder Delray Rawlins, they should be tough to beat.
Middlesex are many people's tip to win the division and it is easy to see why. Sam Robson, Nick Gubbins, Dawid Malan, Paul Stirling, Stevie Eskinazi form a formidable looking batting line-up and if Toby Roland-Jones is back fit and firing in the pace unit, it is hard to see them losing many games.
You can never write off Worcestershire. They have been promoted six times since the County Championship split into two divisions in 2000, but have lost one of their best batsmen in Clarke, who joined Notts over the winter.
Gloucestershire have not been in Division One since 2005 and it is difficult to see things changing this year. They have lost two of their best bowlers in Liam Norwell and Craig Miles to Warwickshire and plenty will rest on the shoulders of their overseas paceman Dan Worrall.
Leicestershire have never been promoted but last season's mid-table finish was progress having finished bottom in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017. The club have had a big reshuffle with 10 players leaving over the winter, while seamer Chris Wright and spinner Arron Lilley may prove to be useful additions.
Derbyshire are another club who have spent more time closer to the bottom of Division Two than the promotion places. Their batting does not look quite as strong on paper as some of the other teams, but they do have an ace up their sleeve in 18-year-old spinner Hamidullah Qadri.
It looks likely to be another season of consolidation for Durham after their struggles in recent years. They have shored up their batting with the signings of Alex Lees and Bancroft, but Paul Collingwood is not a man who can be replaced easily.
Northants captain Alex Wakely described 2018 as "one of the worst years since he'd been at the club". But it's difficult to see things getting much better this season. They have lost Duckett to Notts and fast bowler Richard Gleeson to Lancashire. West Indies captain Jason Holder is a fine signing, but he will only be at Wantage Road during April.
And finally Glamorgan, who claimed the wooden spoon last year. They rely on a lot of homegrown players, but have more talent in the squad than 2018 suggested.
It will be interesting to see how recently capped Australia all-rounder Marnus Labuschagne gets on in early-season conditions.