This year, the County Championship has a new format.
The 18 teams have been placed into three Groups that should be roughly evenly matched, due to a seeding system based on the last two years’ red-ball performance (with a bit of leeway to incorporate local derbies). They will play the other five teams in their pool home and away, before moving into Divisions 1, 2 or 3 for the final four matches against teams from the other pools. That will create a final ranking of 1-18 for each team after 14 matches. The top side will be crowned County Champions, but will also play the second-placed team for the Bob Willis Trophy.
Captain: Peter Handscomb (Stevie Eskinazi deputises for the opening couple of rounds)
Coach: Stuart Law
Overseas: Handscomb, Mitch Marsh (T20), Mujeeb Ur-Rahman (T20)
Outs: Miguel Cummins (Kent), Dan Lincoln (released)
The story of 2020: Middlesex had a curious time of it last year. They started with a brilliant win away to Surrey, before contriving to lose to Hampshire. They then drew with solid Kent, beat weak Sussex and lost to strong Essex. So a third-placed finish seemed about right.
The foundations were laid for this year, with the biggest change being their return to Lord’s after playing their home fixtures at Radlett last season.
Strengths: Bowling depth. Largely coinciding with Toby Roland-Jones’s injury woes, Middlesex’s seam attack has lost most of its fear factor, with Tim Murtagh carrying a heavy burden. But there is still a lot of quality about, and it largely falls into two categories.
There’s the wise old heads who were around for the 2016 title win: Murtagh, Roland-Jones, Steve Finn and James Harris. And there’s the young bucks Ethan Bamber, Blake Cullen and all-rounder Martin Andersson. Between the two lies Tom Helm, 27 next month. It is time for him to show he is an attack leader and England prospect.
Weaknesses: In-form Handscomb’s arrival adds some steel to the middle order, and may fill the void left by Dawid Malan’s departure in 2019. But the batting unit scored just one century in 2020, and there are senior players who must step up.
Key player: Nick Gubbins scored that century in 2020, and should be the cornerstone of the batting from No3. He still has England ambitions and needs a mega season to restate them.
One to watch: Those close to the club have raved about Andersson for years. From No7, he will balance the side as a fifth bowling option. As the summer rolls on, it is worth keeping an eye on Thilan Walallawita, who starts the season injured, in four-day cricket, and Luke Hollman in the shorter stuff.
Overview: It is time to ditch this “in transition” tag. They have been claiming that since they were relegated as Champions in 2017. The squad has seemed a talented, healthy mix of generations that has lacked some direction in recent years. The uncompromising Stuart Law has been in charge for a couple of years now and, despite being a Division Two side in normal times, they should be aiming to make the top Division come the end of the season. A tight battle with Surrey and Hampshire to join Somerset in progressing from Group 2.
Group 2 Prediction: 1) Somerset, 2) Surrey, 3) Middlesex, 4) Hampshire, 5) Gloucestershire, 6) Leicestershire