Having spent the last 24 hours setting about Google armed with last year’s tables and a Who’s Who? of second-rate Australian grade cricketers, we now feel confident enough to preview the runt of the county litter; Division Two. It is a division split down the middle, with half the league perennially embroiled in a promotion dogfight and the rest gunning for bottom spot. Yorkshire and Derbyshire left the party – extremely briefly, in the latter’s case – last year while Gloucestershire stole the wooden spoon with a tremendous late charge to failure.
If we were particularly lazy, we could’ve just re-hashed last year’s preview; Lancashire are basically Yorkshire while Worcestershire and Derbyshire are two sides of the same gaping black hole of entertainment. Fortunately, hard and work are our middle names, so we’ve done nothing of the kind.
The aforementioned Lancashire would probably be red-hot favourites to go up if they had an attack that didn’t rely entirely on some poor old bloke who needs a sit down between deliveries. The batting looks good; Ashwell Prince, signed this year using the old Kolpak chestnut after South Africa deemed him more rubbish than Dean Elgar, and Simon Katich in amongst a top six which is largely the same as the one which won the Championship two years ago should provide plenty of runs. Whether Glen Chapple will be able to take 20 wickets on his own and do it often enough to fire them back up again is another matter. The loss of Gary Keedy and sizzling Saj Mahmood combined with the addition of Wayne White means their attack looks weaker than ever.
Fellow 2012 humiliations Worcestershire are even less likely to do anything of note. The dreamy Vikram Solanki has flounced off to Surrey in search of a massive pot of gold, leaving the county just about as unexciting as it’s possible to get. Thilan Samaraweera is their overseas player, and should be able to provide about 20-30 runs over the course of the season if his overseas Test record is anything to go by. A season of overwhelming mediocrity beckons.
Essex are generally just massive under-achievers and another season of being mediocre will surely hasten their shift to the group named under-performers instead. Quite what Rob Quiney will bring to Chelmsford remains to be seen, whilst Saj Mahmood has migrated south from Lancashire. Expect to see him resurrecting his international career before the season is out. However with the likes of Ravi Bopara, Owais Shah, Mark Pettini and Ryan ten Doeschate in their team, they really ought to be challenging for promotion and hoping for limited overs silverware.
Combining the old (Rob Key, Brendan Nash, Darren Stevens) and the young (Sam Northeast, Matt Coles, Daniel Bell-Drummond), Kent could feasibly build on last season’s encouraging campaign. Financially they fall somewhere between the Test match-hosting counties of Lancashire and Hampshire and the dobbins also-rans like Leicestershire, so that’s probably what they’ll do in the division as well.
Speaking of which, Leicestershire may have recruited Niall O’Brien and Robbie Williams, but we’re not sure how useful boy band heart-throbs are going to prove in the battle to avoid the wooden spoon, while they’ve lost 51allout hero Wayne White and Will Jefferson as well. Frankly, their team looks short on quality and they will need a massive season from new captain Ramnaresh Sarwan if they are to make a surprising bid for anything other than mediocrity. Josh Cobb looks pretty decent, mind; and Shiv Thakor is the next Garry Sobers. So expect those two to be signing for Nottinghamshire in about six months time.
Since they were relegated, Hampshire have always been expected to make a return to division one: they’ve never been slow in recruiting players (even if those players are made of biscuits – Kabir Ali – or just crap – Friedel de Wet). Their only mainstream signing this year is Adam Wheater from Essex, which doesn’t bode well for Michael Bates, the young and frankly rather good wicketkeeper who is also a young and frankly rubbish bat. George Bailey adds to arguably the strongest batting order in the division, but they may struggle to take enough wickets – at least until Saeed Ajmal arrives late in the summer.
Glamorgan have gone all retro by signing Marcus North, who is on his own crusade to play for every single county. Obviously the retirement of Robert Croft has affected them, so they’ve signed Murray Goodwin to maintain the average age of their squad somewhere around the high 30s. No doubt the departure of James Harris to Middlesex will be a significant loss to a team that isn’t exactly flush with quality. In a year of triumph for the national rugby union team and silverware for Swansea and Wrexham in the football, we can’t see the cricketers challenging for anything but the wooden spoon.
Last year Gloucestershire were terrible, finishing rank bottom four points behind Northamptonshire and Leicestershire. With Michael Klinger as overseas ‘star’ (and Dan Christian popping over for the T20s), no other notable signings and a bunch of players benevolently described as workmanlike, any improvement this year would be considered a success.
Northamptonshire are the absolute epitome of everything that’s bad about county cricket. They provide no players to the national team, they stretch the Kolpak loophole to quite sensational lengths and they never achieve anything at all. Their only player of note – Jack Brooks – has scuttled off to Yorkshire while Andrew Hall remains the nucleus around which some sort of team must be built. Aside from Brooks, their only redeeming feature last season was Chaminda Vaas and now he’s left as well. So they can all sod off.