Free cricket betting preview and tips: County Championship including Essex and Surrey

Alastair Cook in action for Essex

Richard Mann provides an in-depth betting preview for the Specsavers County Championship which gets under way on Friday.

Recommended bets: County Championship

3pts Essex to win Division One of the County Championship at 9/2

Surrey confirmed themselves as the undisputed kings of the 2018 County Championship class by marching to the title in tremendous style, dominating the season from their opening defeat of Hampshire and proving an irresistible force thereafter.

Under the tutelage of Alec Stewart, Surrey played some fantastic cricket in one of the hottest British summers in recent memory and as a result, saw the likes of Sam Curran, Ollie Pope, Ben Foakes and Rory Burns all earn international recognition with England.

Stewart will be keen to oversee another championship success and with Morne Morkel leading a fearsome bowling attack that can now boast new signings Liam Plunkett and Jordan Clark, the 5/2 market leaders will surely enjoy another productive year.

Click here for Richard Mann's Division One team-by-team guides

Nevertheless, winning back-to-back championships is a tough ask for any team but in a World Cup and Ashes summer, Surrey run the risk of being hit hard by international call-ups with Pope's pre-season form putting him firmly back in the England picture along with Burns.

Sam Curran remains in the mix for a Test spot while brother Tom will be pushing hard for a place in England's World Cup squad and on balance, for all the strength in depth Surrey can boast, 5/2 makes little appeal about an outfit who come with plenty of drawbacks.

Nottinghamshire's 2018 season was a struggle but it is worth remembering that was their first season back in Division One and they have made plenty of use of the cheque book in the off-season in a bid to return the good times to Trent Bridge.

Ben Duckett, Ben Slater, Joe Clarke and Zak Chappell all arrive in Nottingham with tall reputations and harbouring international ambitions while the fit-again Paul Coughlin will finally get the opportunity to justify his move from Durham at the end of 2017.

Off those five recruits, Clarke is the one who should excite Trent Bridge members most and he remains an outside bet for Ashes selection if hitting the ground running.

Clarke is a terrific talent who made 853 runs in a struggling Worcestershire side last summer and his magnificent 177 against Nottinghamshire in June might have been one of the reasons the Trent Bridge hierarchy pushed so hard to secure his signature.

Joe Clarke in action

Expect him to a lead a strong batting unit that will also house experienced heads Samit Patel and Chris Nash while the recent news that Australian quick James Pattinson will return to Nottingham this summer is a huge boost to their chances.

Pattinson was a big hit with the club back in 2017 and with Stuart Broad likely to be available for the early part of the season and Jake Ball yet another name who is still not out of the England picture, Notts will certainly have their supporters for title glory at 15/2.

Nevertheless, their array of new signings might just take time to gel and as such, it is Essex who look the safer play at the stage.

Essex were crowned Division One champions in 2017 following a stellar campaign that saw them go unbeaten throughout the season and many observers expected them to go on and dominate county cricket for years to come.

Essex won the County Championship in 2017

2018 proved to be a testing year for the club with the opening match of the season abandoned before thumping losses to Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire effectively ending their title challenge before it had begun.

Essex did find their stride late in the piece, though, finishing strongly to register comprehensive wins over Nottinghamshire, Worcestershire and new champions Surrey.

As if it was needed, that strong run offered a stark reminder of what Essex are capable of and their hand is strengthened further this summer by Alastair Cook's retirement from international cricket and commitment to playing on in the county game.

Essex already boast a powerful batting line-up, experienced performers Ravi Bopara and Ryan ten Doeschate ably supported by the likes of Tom Westley and Dan Lawrence, but there is no doubting that Cook's regular presence at the top of the order will be a huge boost.

Cook actually amassed 412 runs six championship appearances last summer to sit alongside the the 667 runs he made from seven appearances in 2017.

Free from the stresses and strains of international cricket and fresh from a good break over the winter, the first he will have enjoyed in many a year, I expect Cook to score big over the next months.

Alastair Cook

While Cook's full-time return to county cricket leaves Essex looking well stocked in the batting department, the bowling unit remains one of the strongest in the county with Jamie Porter and Sam Cook forming a formidable opening pairing.

Porter took 58 wickets last season to go with his 75 scalps in 2017 and he will be able assisted by spinner Simon Harmer (72 in 2017 and 57 in 2018) and Australian seamer Peter Siddle.

With so many boxes ticked, Essex make strong appeal to regain the County Championship crown and ought to be considerably shorter than the 9/2 that is currently available about them.

Last year's runners-up Somerset can usually be relied upon to make their presence felt and another solid season ought to be in the offing, for all I can't quite see them finally lifting the title.

Expect runs from the likes of James Hildreth and Marcus Trescothick once more but both are in the twilight of their careers now and Somerset will rely on the Overton brothers and spin twins Jack Leach and Dom Bess to do plenty of damage with the ball.

Solid but unspectacular might well be the story of Somerset's 2019 season and don't be surprised if Yorkshire prove a bigger threat to the likes of Surrey and Essex.

The White Rose have endured a quiet few years following their title-winning campaigns of 2014 and 2015 but there are signs that coach Andrew Gale is building something for the future at Headingley.

A run to the semi-finals of the Royal London One-Day Cup last year served notice of Yorkshire's possible resurgence and it shouldn't be too long before the red-ball cricket follows suit.

The signing of South African paceman Duanne Olivier on a Kolpak deal should ensure that the departures of Jack Brooks and Liam Plunkett don't prove as harmful as first feared and with the likes of Ben Coad, Tim Bresnan and Matthew Fisher to also throw into the mix, the bowling remains strong.

Adam Lyth and Gary Ballance apart, the batting would appear to lack the same level of depth but in Harry Brook and Tom Kohler-Cadmore, Gale has to two exciting talents at his disposal and big things are expected from that pair this season.

The continued absences of Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow due to international duty might be enough to mean Yorkshire don't quite have the firepower to mount a title challenge but this is a team on the up and don't be surprised if they ruffle a few feathers in the next few months.

Hampshire have a host of players in their squad who have enjoyed success on the international stage but the current Royal London One-Day Cup champions strike me as being a stronger limited-overs outfit at this stage.

James Vince

James Vince appears close to another international recall and should that prove to be the case, the batting could become heavily reliant on Sam Northeast and Rilee Rossouw.

Kyle Abbot and Fidel Edwards have the pedigree and experience to suggest the bowling remains in safe hands but assuming Dale Steyn doesn't return, I'm not sure there is enough depth in this department for Hants to be title winners.

As was the case last summer, for all Hampshire look short of title-winning calibre, they ought to have too much talent at their disposal to be relegated, something I'm not sure can be said of Warwickshire and Kent.

Both were promoted from Division Two following excellent campaigns but as Worcestershire found out last year, this is a huge step up and neither side looks to have enough in their armoury to survive what looks a particularly strong Division One this year.

Division Two too close to call

If Division One has a competitive look to it, Division Two is almost impossible to call with very little separating three standout teams.

Lancashire will be desperate to make a swift return to top-flight cricket and have some serious talent at their disposal, many of whom should have international aspirations.

Liam Livingstone, Saqib Mahmood, Haseeb Hameed and Matthew Parkinson all fall into that category while there is the strong likelihood that Lancashire will see plenty of James Anderson and Keaton Jennings this summer, certainly before the Ashes anyway.

With that in mind, Lancashire ought to make a strong start to the season and it is no surprise to see them installed as 9/4 favourites to win Division Two.

Click here for Richard Mann's Division Two team-by-team guides

Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that Middlesex were Division One champions as recently as 2016 and they, too, will have expectations of promotion given the strong personnel they have at their disposal.

Dawid Malan and Ed Gubbins are just a couple of names worth noting in a strong batting group that also includes the well-touted Max Holden and the return to full fitness of Toby Roland-Jones will give the bowling a real cutting edge again.

He and Steven Finn will be hopeful of reminding the England selectors of what they have to offer though rivals Sussex boast a fearsome bowling attack of their own.

Jofra Archer is the star name in a Sussex pace attack that also features Chris Jordan and Ollie Robinson while the batting at Hove has real depth to it at present.

Jason Gillespie is doing an excellent job as head coach and as we saw in last season's runner-up finish in the Vitality T20 Blast, Sussex are a team going places.

Posted at 1400 BST on 02/04/19.

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