Take Tykes for County cheer
Dave Tickner previews LV= County Championship Division One and is backing Yorkshire to take the title.
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This year's county season sees plenty of changes, with the NatWest T20 Blast replacing the more sedate-sounding Friends Life t20 and the new 50-over Royal London One-Day Cup coming into the schedule.
By contrast, the LV= County Championship sees only a slight tweak to the format, with 16 points for a victory, but five points for a draw (up from three in recent years) and the eight bonus points (five for batting earned every fifty runs between 200 and 400, three for bowling at three, six and nine wickets) available in the first 110 overs of the first innings.
One other change across the board has been an admirable attempt to standardise the cluttered and previously confusing schedule across the season. The result is most Championship matches taking place from Sunday to Wednesday.
Here's our team-by-team guide to Division One, with our verdict on each side's chances and our betting recommendations.
Sky Bet Odds: 4/1
Last Season: 4th
Ins: Richard Jones (Worcestershire), Tom Lewis, Jon Webb
Outs: Darren Maddy (retired), Chris Metters (released), Tom Allin (released), Stuart Poynter (Durham), Steffan Piolet (Sussex)
Overseas players: Jeetan Patel (New Zealand)
Strengths: A classy squad and another team that should benefit from England quality in the early weeks of the season through Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell. With Varun Chopra taken to pass 1000 runs again, the top order looks so good while the England pair are available. And Chris Woakes, Rikki Clarke, Tim Ambrose, Keith Barker and Jeetan Patel provide formidable depth. Assuming Ben Stokes recovers from his hand injury in time for the Test summer, Warwickshire arguably possess the best Englishman outside imminent Test selection in Woakes, who is a fully-fledged all-rounder at this level; his 10 Championship games last season brought 640 runs at 58 and 31 wickets at 23. Boyd Rankin will be keen to prove a point to England's selectors after a difficult winter.
Weaknesses: There will inevitably be added attention due to Trott's situation, and that could be a distraction. Some of their fans are unhappy with the fact the one-day team will be called the Birmingham Bears so there may be a battle for hearts and minds. It's a stretch, but on paper this is a team with most bases well covered.
Verdict: Worthy favourites with the resources available, but they never really figured in the title chase last season and have not really strengthened. It's not unreasonable to expect an improvement on last year's mid-table effort, and 9/2 is certainly not an offensive price. The mere fact the favourite in a nine-horse race is 9/2, though, goes to show just what a tough division this is to call once again this year. Varun Chopra will have plenty of supporters in the top batsman market at 14s but looks particular value in the top Warks batsman market at 5/2. The layers are not taking it for granted that Trott will get his England place back; if you think he will, then Chopra is well worth a bet.
Sky Bet Odds: 5/1
Last Season: Champions
Ins: Stuart Poynter (Warwickshire), Graham Clark
Outs: Mitchell Claydon (Kent), Will Smith (Hampshire), Callum Thorp (released), Steve Harmison (retired), Dale Benkenstein (retired)
Overseas players: John Hastings (Australia)
Strengths: Convincing winners last year, their third title in six years, they'll again be a tough test to face at their bowler-friendly Riverside home and are superbly led by the admirable Paul Collingwood, who has stressed his commitment to seeing out his Durham contract despite his involvement with England at the back end of the winter. There are plenty of young, homegrown players who should only kick on after last season's success. Overseas pro John Hastings brings international experience and boosts bowling and lower-order batting strength.
Weaknesses: The bowling no longer has the depth it once possessed after the departures of Mitchell Claydon, Callum Thorp and Steve Harmison. Ben Stokes' idiotic broken hand suffered in the West Indies is likely to hurt Durham's Championship chances more than it did England's in the World T20. Before his self-inflicted injury there appeared scope for the England all-rounder to play plenty of Championship cricket before the international summer begins. With international commitments potentially taking Scott Borthwick and Graham Onions at various stages, Durham's squad may be stretched further than it was last year.
Verdict: The skinniest-looking price among the front-runners. Plenty has changed since last year and, while a Collingwood-led Durham should certainly not be discounted, they make little appeal at the price. If England don't come calling, then Graham Onions will surely give you a great run at 8/1 in the top bowler market. Took 70 last year to finish seven clear of his nearest rival despite playing only 12 games.
Sky Bet Odds: 5/1
Last Season: 7th
Ins: Phil Jaques (Yorkshire), Gary Keedy (Surrey)
Outs: Ben Phillips (released), Graeme White (Northants), Graeme Swann (retired)
Overseas players: Peter Siddle (Australia)
Strengths: Plenty. The seam bowling looks strong as ever, with the indefatigable Andre Adams a consistent County Championship wicket-taker, Harry Gurney on an eye-catching upward curve including England recognition and the astute signing of Peter Siddle as overseas player. Phil Jaques' arrival from Yorkshire bolsters a top-order that has struggled in the seam-and-swing-friendly conditions at Trent Bridge. Michael Lumb has committed to the club, and there is the potential now for Alex Hales to drop down the order to recover his first-class form. Add James Taylor, Samit Patel and Chris Read to the mix and it's a heady brew.
Weaknesses: The lack of a frontline spinner may hamper their chances, especially away from home. There's a sense the team may be geared more to the one-day game; last year they flirted with relegation in the Championship while winning the YB40 and going superbly in the Friends Life t20 before a surprise quarter-final defeat to Essex.
Verdict: After last season's apparent focus on the one-day arena ended in a flirtation with relegation, the recruitment of Jaques and Siddle points to more four-day focus this term. Their low finish last season is no reason to dismiss the Trent Bridge outfit. This is a fiercely competitive division and it only takes small improvements to make a big move. Read and Hales, for example, made barely 700 Championship runs between them last season; it would not be unreasonable to expect that figure to double this year. Siddle could prove an inspired signing, Gurney (20/1) looks a real top-bowler contender this year while Taylor and Lumb (both 20/1) can be expected to be near the top of the run charts again. But they, like Notts' outright price, all just appear a point or two too skinny.
Best Sky Bet Odds: 13/2
Last Season: 2nd
Ins: Will Rhodes, Oliver Robinson, Jonathan Tattersall, Ben Coad
Outs: Phil Jaques (Nottinghamshire), Joe Sayers (retired), Iain Wardlaw (released)
Overseas players: Kane Williamson (New Zealand)
Strengths: A good blend. A gang of established senior players led by captain Andrew Gale, a fine coach in Jason Gillespie and an exciting crop of youngsters. Even with England call-ups, they can expect to have Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Gary Ballance and Tim Bresnan available for good chunks of the campaign and in Kane Williamson they have that increasingly rare commodity: a genuinely top international class overseas star at or approaching his peak rather than beyond it. The bowling attack has enviable variety and Jack Brooks is tipped for a real breakthrough summer after 34 wickets in 11 games last season.
Weaknesses: Will inevitably be hit by England call-ups throughout the season, which may mean the White Rose struggle for a settled side. That a New Zealand tour of the West Indies coincides with England's Test summer is also a blow. Even with the depth Yorkshire boast, the potential loss of, say, Root, Ballance and Williamson would be tough to bear.
Verdict: Priced as the outsiders of the top four contenders and in my view the best value. They were second last year, which was no fluke, and will have Williamson available for more of the campaign this time around. England calls will inevitably come, but that shows the quality of players they have available, and there is depth in most positions. New Zealand's West Indies tour will keep Williamson out of five Championship matches, enough to swerve the otherwise-tempting 33/1 top bat quotes.
Sky Bet Odds: 13/2
Last Season: 1st, Div 2
Ins: Jos Buttler (Somerset), Liam Livingstone
Outs: Stephen Moore (Derbyshire), Gareth Cross (released)
Overseas players: TBC
Strengths: After 2012's shock relegation, promotion was the only acceptable result in 2013 and that was duly achieved, Lancashire winning eight and losing only one of their 16 games down in the second flight. Glen Chapple is still going strong as skipper, and the signing of Jos Buttler was the most eye-catching of the off-season. James Anderson should be available for plenty of red-ball action in the first half of the campaign and should find conditions to his liking. Chapple, Kyle Hogg and Simon Kerrigan took over 50 Championship wickets apiece last year and should not be fazed by the step up in class.
Weaknesses: With Simon Katich gone, the batting looks reliant on the veteran Ashwell Prince, who will retire at season's end. Those two scored over 1000 runs each last season, while no other Lancashire batsman passed 800. Division One bowlers are a step up as well. Buttler's first-class stats do not (yet) match his one-day efforts.
Verdict: Too short. They could win - it's only three years since they did so - but it looks a solid rather than spectacular squad. After the drama of the last three seasons, mid-table looks the likeliest destination this term and that should not be regarded as failure.
Sky Bet Odds: 8/1
Last Season: 5th
Outs: Corey Collymore (released), Tom Smith (Gloucestershire), Josh Davey (released), Adam London (released)
Overseas players: Chris Rogers (Australia)
Strengths: The team, when fit and firing, boasts the sort of quality that wins titles. A pace quartet of Tim Murtagh, Steven Finn, James Harris, Toby Roland-Jones is formidable, while off-spinner Ollie Rayner proved his all-round value last term. Gareth Berg and Neil Dexter also offer all-round contributions and the batting boasts Chris Rogers, Eoin Morgan and Sam Robson plus the undoubted if as yet unfulfilled talents of Joe Denly and Dawid Malan.
Weaknesses: Middlesex were flying in the early part of last season. But when Robson's form dried up and Rogers departed for Ashes duty with Australia the results went south. If Morgan continues to find the County Championship an unsolvable puzzle, if Denly and Malan remain inconsistent, then the burden on Rogers and Robson could prove too much. Rogers has been a guaranteed run-machine in the Championship for several years now; but he has never had to do it on the back of a draining international schedule. And any early-season success for Robson could be a pyrrhic victory for Middlesex if England, as looks likely, come calling.
Verdict: Looked title contenders for the first half of last season and could well do so again. If Rogers and Robson get more support from the rest then the bowling certainly looks strong enough to mount a sustained assault on a first County Championship title since 1993. The fans will expect an improvement on last season's fifth place. They should get it.
Sky Bet Odds: 8/1
Last Season: 3rd
Ins: Steffan Piolet (Warwickshire), Jon Lewis (Surrey), Yasir Arafat (Somerset)
Outs: Monty Panesar (Essex), Joe Gatting (Hampshire), Andrew Miller (released), Amjad Khan (released)
Overseas players: Steve Magoffin (Australia)
Strengths: Sussex boast quality and class throughout the line-up, with Ed Joyce again set to lead the way with the bat, Steve Magoffin back after taking 63 wickets last year, Chris Jordan continuing to develop into a cracking all-round cricketer and Matt Prior sure to be around and highly motivated for at least the first half of the season. With Joyce supported by the likes of Chris Nash, Luke Wells, Rory Hamilton-Brown and Luke Wright, the batting has variety and panache if they all fire. Their third-place finish last season was no fluke.
Weaknesses: Hard to pick a real flaw in the squad, but the absence of a match-winning four-day spinner could prove costly. Monty Panesar has left for Essex and the likes of Michael Yardy, while able, are unlikely to turn matches decisively Sussex's way.
Verdict: The south-coast side look to have been underestimated after last season's top-three finish. If you're looking for a bet outside the favourites, then this looks the best option. Ed Joyce was fourth on the run-scoring list last season. Two of the three above him - Sam Robson and Gary Ballance could miss games for England duty while the third - Wayne Madsen of Derbyshire - is in the second tier this time around. The 20/1 quotes about the Ireland star make plenty of each-way appeal. The season opener against Middlesex looks a cracking clash; plenty of England stars past, present and future on display and an early test of where two teams with title aspirations stand.
Sky Bet Odds: 8/1
Last Season: 6th
Ins: Johann Myburgh
Outs: Jos Buttler (Lancashire), Gemaal Hussain (released), Yasir Arafat (Sussex)
Overseas players: Alviro Petersen (South Africa)
Strengths: A core of players used to challenging for honours in all formats and boasting proven quality. Nick Compton's England career appears over, and he can be expected to plunder plenty of runs in the Championship once again. Few clubs can boast one young bowler with the quality of Jamie Overton or George Dockrell, never mind two.
Weaknesses: Somerset appear a club in transition. They were in relegation trouble until late in the season last year and they again look more likely to be in the bottom half than the top half. Jos Buttler's move to Lancashire is a major blow. The likes of Steve Kirby and Marcus Trescothick struggled last season and are at an age where such troubles may be terminal. It's asking plenty of the bright young things to step up straight away, so much potentially rests on the likes of Craig Kieswetter and James Hildreth.
Verdict: Could struggle. The odds have Somerset as favourites for relegation alongside Northants, which looks fair enough. With Trescothick no longer the force of old, England outcast Compton could look value at 5/2 to be the county's top scorer. He did so last season with over 100 runs to spare despite playing only 12 matches.
Sky Bet Odds: 25/1
Last Season: 2nd, Div 2
Ins: Maurice Chambers (Essex), Graeme White (Nottinghamshire)
Outs: Lee Daggett (retired), Luke Evans (released), Christian Davies (released), Sam Sweeney (released), Con de Lange (released)
Overseas players: TBA
Strengths: Confidence will be high after promotion to the top flight and Friends Life t20 glory last season. The bowling attack has variety and they bat all the way down thanks to the all-round talents of the likes of David Willey, Steven Crook and Andrew Hall; they may understandably be favourites for the drop but it is unlikely they will too often be easy meat for the division's bigger beasts. Derbyshire were relegated but not disgraced last season and Northants on paper look better equipped to compete.
Weaknesses: Injury woes. Jackson Bird looked a cracking replacement for Trent Copeland, a huge success last season, but has been ruled out through a back injury. Alex Wakely will also miss the whole season, while Willey, Rob Newton and hugely-promising keeper-batsman Ben Duckett are also battling for fitness. There must be doubts over whether the squad has the depth to cope with these setbacks
Verdict: A relegation battle can be expected, but its failure cannot be assumed. Even with their injury blows they're surely too short at 6/4 for bottom spot, but if a depleted side get off to a poor start it could be tough to recover.
CONCLUSION AND TIPS:
Division One once again looks a tricky puzzle to solve and you could build a case for six of the nine sides at the prices. But it's Yorkshire who get the vote. They look every bit as likely winners as Warwickshire, Notts or Durham and at a bigger price have to be the call. Middlesex and Sussex also appeal but any of those six could realistically take the spoils. Lancashire are the one side perhaps over-rated in the outright markets and could be worth a nibble at 10/1 to finish bottom. The prospect of an injury-hit Northants making a poor start from which they never recover is a concern, though.
Elsewhere, Ed Joyce looks a solid each-way bet in the top batsman market at 20/1. In three seasons since Sussex's promotion to the top-flight, the classy left-hander has finished 4th, 10th and 4th on the run-scoring charts.
Nick Compton should also go well but with Somerset taken to struggle, a safer route to profit may be the 5/2 that he leads their run chart rather than 14/1 that he tops the overall list.
Graham Onions (9/1) has been leading wicket-taker in each of the last two seasons, with Steve Magoffin (12/1), Tim Murtagh (16/1) and Keith Barker (25/1) all near the top of the lists in both 2012 and 2013. None should be overlooked, while Peter Siddle (10/1) is an obvious threat with Trent Bridge likely to assist.
Whether to back the single-figure favourite or one of his rivals really comes down to your view on his England chances. My view is that the national side have decided they don't want him and James Anderson in the same team. As such, Onions is likely to continue missing out and take a stack of county wickets. The 9/1 is not huge, but is too big if Onions is available for his county all summer.