Pears the pick at 10/1
Worcestershire look good value to win Division Two of the County Championship, with Sam Northeast a top-bat pick.
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This year's LV= County Championship follows the same format as last year with 16 points for a victory, three points for a draw and 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.
However, one significant change to the playing conditions is the use of the heavy roller, banned for the past three seasons, is now allowed again.
That is likely to see higher scores made and good bowlers who can make the most out of fairly flat pitches could well be crucial in the outcome of the title race.
Here's our team-by-team guide to Division Two, with our verdict on each side's chances and our betting recommendations.
Best Odds: 3/1 (sportingbet)
Last Season: 8th (Div 1)
Ins: Kabir Ali (Hampshire), Alex Davies (youth), Gavin Griffiths (youth), Luis Reece (youth), Arron Lilley (youth), Simon Katich (Hampshire), Wayne White (Leicestershire)
Outs: Naqaash Tahir (released), Sajid Mahmood (Essex), Gary Keedy (Surrey)
Overseas player: Simon Katich (Australia)
Strengths: The Red Rose have plenty of talent in the batting ranks, people who should score heavily at this level. Ashwell Prince is back for another season (on a Kolpak deal) after making 1,000 runs in 2012. Simon Katich is signed as an overseas player and is a proven county performer. The likes of Steven Croft and Paul Horton will likely contribute plenty too.
Weaknesses: Coach Peter Moores has rung the changes in his bowling department but whether the shake-up will work remains to be seen. There would still appear to be plenty on the shoulders of Glen Chapple, now 39. Kabir Ali's arrival is potentially good news, although his injury record is poor. Wayne White will also need to show he can handle the pressure of playing in a side with high expectations having signed from perennial strugglers Leicestershire.
Verdict: Much has changed at a club who won the County Championship little more than 18 months ago and while things may quickly click at Old Trafford, there are enough reasons to believe it might not be that easy. One stat in Lancs' favour is that they've never failed to win promotion from Division Two, although odds of 3/1 about a title win aren't massively appealing.
Best Odds: 4/1 (General)
Last Season: 4th
Ins: Michael Roberts (Unicorns), Jack Sheppard (youth), Adam Wheater (Essex)
Outs: Kabir Ali (Lancashire), Simon Katich (Lancashire), Bilal Shafayat (released)
Overseas players: George Bailey (Australia, until late Aug), Saeed Ajmal (Pakistan, from late Aug)
Strengths: Plenty, as they showed for the majority of last season when they won two one-day trophies and just missed out on promotion. Jimmy Adams was the division's top runscorer and he received plenty of support. Michael Carberry should again improve this season and Neil McKenzie is a proven performer with the bat - he arrives in June. Hants also had the top wicket-taker in the division in 2012 in David Balcombe. James Tomlinson provided able support while all-rounder Liam Dawson's spin is a strong option which allows an extra bowler to be played when necessary. Finally, Saeed Ajmal's late-season arrival will be a boost and could get them over the line this time.
Weaknesses: Simon Katich (738 runs in 2012) will be missed (although messrs Bailey and Wheater have added to batting resources) while Kabir Ali's departure means less strength in depth on the bowling front. In terms of four-day cricket, the club's strength in the limited-overs formats may actually prove a hinderance - the evidence suggested Hants hit the wall last season when they lost their final three Championship games to blow their promotion chance.
Verdict: Will surely go close. This looks a well-balanced side which doesn't seem to have a serious weakness in either batting or bowling terms. Mentally there may be some questions to be answered after last season's late collapse but, as title odds of 4/1 suggest, the men from the south coast can be expected to challenge at the very least.
Best Odds: 5/1 (William Hill)
Last Season: 3rd
Ins: Calum Haggett
Outs: Simon Cook (released)
Overseas player: Brendan Nash (West Indies)
Strengths: Many. Charlie Shreck (55 wickets) and Mark Davies (36) were arguably the top new-ball pair in the division last season, while Matt Coles' performances (52 wickets) resulted in an England performance squad call-up. James Tredwell is also a quality spinner. With the bat, Brendan Nash looks sure to score runs again at this level - only two players made more in Division Two in 2012 - while Rob Key remains a consistent county performer. Sam Northeast is also one of the country's rising stars. A stunning second half of the season with the bat propelled him into England's thoughts too.
Weaknesses: Hard to find many faults but a change of captain - Key steps down after a number of years to be replaced by Tredwell - will need to go well. A possible mental hangover from last season may also be a worry for potential backers. Kent missed out on promotion when they lost their final game of 2012 so will need to show early on that is out of their system.
Verdict: Definite title potential. The bowling attack is well-rounded, while the batting looks strong. Need to be considered by anyone having a bet on this division.
Best Odds: 7/1 (Sky Bet, Stan James, Ladbrokes)
Last Season: 5th
Ins: Sajid Mahmood (Lancashire)
Outs: Billy Godleman (Derbyshire), Michael Comber (released), Charl Willoughby (retired), Adam Wheater (Hampshire)
Overseas player: Rob Quiney (Australia, til at least end of T20)
The bowling looks to have serious potential with a good blend of experience and upcoming talent. David Masters is almost guaranteed to take wickets in this division as long as he stays fit - heavy roller or not - while new signing Saj Mahmood is more than capable at this level if he has his head on. The pace and bounce of youngsters Tymal Mills and Reece Topley, who have already caught the eye of the England set-up, should also ensure opponents can be dismissed. Another plus is Ravi Bopara's availability. With no IPL deal and England seemingly unlikely to come calling, he could play a whole county campaign and should fill his boots with runs in this division. Finally, captain James Foster remains one of the top wicketkeepers at any level and also contributes plenty with the bat in the middle order.
The batting has consistently let Essex down in recent years and this is the main area of concern. The likes of Tom Westley, Ben Foakes and Jaik Mickelburgh really need to turn their potential into big runs as far too often Essex have found themselves 50-4. Aussie Rob Quiney is an interesting pick for overseas player but whether he's able to deal with English pitches remains to be seen. The spin bowling department is also something of a worry - will Essex be able to make the most out of turning surfaces?
They certainly have potential to challenge at the top. A strong bowling line-up should take wickets, while there's also potential for plenty of batting improvement. If things click, Essex should certainly improve on last season's fifth-placed finish. Crucially they are also now available at a decent price. Their price has often seemed weighted down by the club's 80s/90s history but 7/1 seems more than reasonable.
Best Odds: 10/1 (sportingbet)
Last Season: 9th (Div 1)
Ins: Graeme Cessford, Michael Johnson (Kent/Western Australia)
Outs: James Cameron (retired), Vikram Solanki (Surrey), Jack Manuel (released), Ben Scott (retired)
Overseas players: Thilan Samaraweera (Sri Lanka)
Strengths: County cricket's yo-yo team know how to deal with Division Two. They've spent five seasons in it and won promotion on four occasions. Alan Richardson is one of the second tier's best bowlers and will likely deliver again - he's had wicket hauls of 57, 73 and 55 in the last three seasons and knows how to get the most out of what is usually a helpful New Road deck. Thilan Samaraweera is an overseas signing with big potential. He averaged almost 49 in Test-match cricket; if he gets used to the juicy pitches, expect him to add plenty to a batting line-up which already has proven runscorers in Daryl Mitchell and Moeen Ali.
Weaknesses: Vikram Solanki will be missed, while New Road's flooding problems must dampen the atmosphere around the club. However, if you look at that more positively, it could result in some low-scoring matches which will suit this side. Squad depth isn't the greatest either - if injuries strike this could be an issue.
Verdict: Coach Steve Rhodes has helped take the Pears out of this division twice before and could well do so again. While some of their rivals look stronger on paper, Worcestershire have done it before and at 10/1 for the title, they seem overpriced.
Best Odds: 20/1 (sportingbet)
Last Season: 6th
Ins: Michael Hogan (Western Australia), Murray Goodwin (Sussex)
Outs: Robert Croft (retired), James Harris (Middlesex), Chris Ashling (released), Aneurin Norman (released), Mike O'Shea (released)
Overseas player: Marcus North (Australia)
Strengths: Batting more than bowling. Both Stewart Walters and player of the season Jim Allenby made more than 700 Championship runs last season, while Marcus North has pedigree at county level. Murray Goodwin, a star of Sussex's title winning teams not so long ago, should also bolster the line-up if he can rediscover his best.
Weaknesses: The bowling department doesn't look particularly strong. James Harris' defection to Middlesex is certainly a blow, while Robert Croft will be missed both in terms of his reliable spin - he topped the club's averages in 2012 - and his vast experience. Of the nine sides who make up the division this season, Glamorgan are the only one whose leading wicket-taker in 2012 (Allenby) took fewer than 40 wickets. The club will hope Aussie import Michael Hogan, a proven Sheffield Shield performer, will fill that gap but the conditions at Sophia Gardens a somewhat different to the WACA so that's far from certain. Another minus is their geographical location. Cardiff loses more time to the weather than most in county cricket - not good if you are already struggling for wickets.
Verdict: It's hard to get excited about Glamorgan's chances. They've finished sixth in consecutive seasons and would have been rock bottom last year but for a final-day victory. The attack looks as if it will rely heavily on Hogan whose limited experience on these shores must be a concern. The 7/1 offered about them finishing bottom looks tempting.
Best Odds: 20/1 (General)
Last Season: 8th
Ins: Matt Spriegel (Surrey), Steven Crook (Middlesex), Ben Duckett (youth), Muhammad Azharullah (Water and Power Development Authority, Pak)
Outs: Ben Howegego (released), Rob White (released), Dave Burton (released), Jack Brooks (Yorkshire), Chaminda Vaas (released), Niall O'Brien (Leicestershire)
Overseas player: Trent Copeland (Australia, until early June)
Strengths: There's change at the top which, after last year's eighth-placed finish, is probably a good thing. David Capel's coaching reign is over, while experienced county pro Stephen Peters, who learned under the guidance of Nasser Hussain back in the day, is handed the captaincy. There wasn't a great deal wrong with the batting last season with Peters, Newton, James Middlebrook and David Sales all scoring more than 700 runs. Spinner Matt Spriegel should improve the bowling.
Weaknesses: Bowling stocks would be of most concern, even with Spriegel's signing. Jack Brooks' departure for Division One and Yorkshire is a big negative. David Willey will need to produce even more in 2013, while 38-year-old Andrew Hall will again have plenty of work on his plate, although Pakistan-born Muhammad Azharullah may be wild card who comes off. Peters taking over as skipper could affect his batting too - he was the club's top runscorer last season.
Verdict: It's hard to see Northants being able to bowl sides out on a regular basis and the heavy roller won't help their cause. Another season of struggle would appear to be the most likely outcome.
Best Odds: 25/1 (General)
Last Season: 9th
Ins: Gareth Roderick (youth), Cameron Herring (youth)
Outs: David Wade (released), Jonathan Batty (retired)
Overseas player: Michael Klinger (Australia)
Strengths: Hamish Marshall stands out like a sore thumb. The former New Zealand all-rounder contributes hugely with both bat and ball, topping the run charts for the club last season. If he gets injured, well... Alex Gidman is a consistent campaigner who continues to deliver - he should benefit from standing down as captain - but Gloucester would not have finished last in 2012 if they had a group of stars.
Weaknesses: The bowling definitely looks to be a problem. No side in Division Two claimed fewer bowling points last season and nothing has been done to strengthen the attack. The major winter change also has to be considered a big gamble. Michael Klinger is brought in as captain but the Australian batsman struggled in a short spell at Worcester last season while he also failed to impress in the recent Sheffield Shield, averaging under 20.
Verdict: Another long hard season appears likely in the four-day format. The bookies have them joint favourites to prop up the table again and it's hard to argue.
Best Odds: 25/1 (General)
Last Season: 7th
Ins: Tom Wells (youth), Robbie Williams (Middlesex), Niall O'Brien (Northants), Anthony Ireland (Middlesex)
Outs: Will Jefferson (retired), Paul Dixey (retired), Jacques du Toit (released), Nadeem Malik (released), Robbie Joseph (released), Will Jones (retired), Wayne White (Lancashire)
Overseas players: Ramnaresh Sarwan (West Indies, early season), Joe Burns (Australia, mid-May to end of August)
Strengths: The batting definitely looks stronger than the bowling. Ramnaresh Sarwan is nothing short of a guarantee to score runs - more on him below, however - while some strong prospects have come through the ranks, including Josh Cobb and Ned Eckersley. All-rounder Shiv Thakor is also making waves. The number of home-grown players at Grace Road should at least create a strong team spirit.
Weaknesses: Leics are one of the poorer counties and they've consistently struggled to hold onto their best players. Wayne White was the one to leave this winter and his 43 wickets of last season will be sorely missed, leaving their attack looking flimsy. Nathan Buck will really need to step up and show he can convert his potential but his injury record isn't great. Sarwan is also an odd choice as captain. He looks set to miss parts of the season with the West Indies which will disrupt the Foxes in more ways than one.
Verdict: Hard to see them contending at the top with another lower-half of the table finish, as was the case in 2011 and 2012, likely. However, there are some reasons for optimism - I'm not sure they should be joint favourites to finish last.
CONCLUSION AND PICKS:
The title race looks a five-horse one and while good cases can be made for Lancashire, Hampshire and Kent, all three look short enough.
Worcestershire have consistently proven too good for this division and still look to have the players to earn results at this level. Alan Richardson, in particular, should stand out and give his side a chance in most games.
At 10/1 they are each-way material with the added bonus being that sportingbet offer a quarter of the odds for a place in the first three, as opposed to the regular fifth.
Essex are also, for once, available at a tempting price. There's no doubt they have potential in both the batting and bowling departments and if both sides deliver they will certainly challenge. Some followers of the county cricket will suggest that's a big 'if' but I think it's a chance worth taking at the 7/1 being offered.
The 23-year-old opener finished fifth on last season's run charts despite playing in only 11 of the 16 games. In spite of that handicap, the talented right-hander still made 880 runs at an average of 55 - no-one else who played so few matches made 600.
Canterbury is one of the driest grounds in the country, which should boost his chances, and with Nick Compton and Joe Root seemingly blocking the England door for 2013, an international call-up seems unlikely to come just yet.
Northeast finished 2012 strongly and appears to have picked up where he left off, scoring 89 for the MCC against county champions Warwickshire recently. Basically, the 18/1 looks too big.
Finally, I can't resist throwing some loose change at Glamorgan to finish bottom.
There doesn't look to be much between the predicted also-rans and the Welsh side's bowling attack, coupled with the dodgy weather in Cardiff, gives them an uphill task from the word go.
Stan James' 7/1 price doesn't seem to reflect that though - Sky Bet's 9/2 looks more like it - and that looks worth a small play.
- The first matches get under way at 1100 BST on Wednesday.