For the last eight months, county cricket has been played out in boardrooms and corridors. The result – a rewriting of the constitution and a new eight-team city-based Twenty20 competition rubber-stamped for 2020. Most of the counties played ball from the start. Others had to be worn down.
All were reminded of just how much debt they were in, as individuals or as a collective (whichever jarred most). Debt, you could argue, that was brought upon them by trying to please the ECB in the first place. It brings to mind a quote from The Thick Of It’s Glen Cullen, after being punched in the face by rabid party spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker only to have the same man coach him through an alibi to cover them both: “I feel like I’m in a therapy group being run by my own abuser.”
Durham, forever striving for international recognition as a county, while producing England players from an untapped, under-resourced part of the country, were slapped with a reprimand and thrown into Division Two with a 48-point boulder strapped to their ankles. But nevermind that, counties – the ECB are looking out for you.
Since meeting back for preseason at their respective clubs, players have discussed the ECB’s new scope at length. Most are excited – others wary. By the estimation of a few against, an eight-team city competition running alongside an afterthought of a 50-over tournament, with the four-day game given less of a stage, could see the number of professional cricketers in England cut by a third.
For now, on the field, 2017’s County Championship could be another thriller.
It’s hard to look beyond the three who gave us such a gripping finale last season. Middlesex, defending champions, look a stronger outfit this time around. The added experience of getting over the line will underpin a young, hungry squad that won’t be weakened too much by international call-ups, unless the more-than-deserving Toby Roland-Jones joins Steven Finn on regular England duty. Nick Gubbins and Dawid Malan will look to boost their own international cases. This could also be the year that right-arm quick Tom Helm has an injury-free summer. If so, pencil the 22-year-old in as the breakthrough talent of 2017.
Gary Ballance takes charge of Yorkshire, both looking for more certainty when it comes to their respective standing in English cricket. Ballance needs big runs to win back his England spot and Yorkshire could do with success on and off the field to rediscover their stability as a leading force.
But most of the neutral support will be behind Somerset. Finishing their final match of the season inside three days to momentarily sit top of Division One, the players, staff and supporters watched on in horror from Taunton as Middlesex and Yorkshire fashioned a last innings chase for the trophy through a remarkable period of declaration bowling."It has merely strengthened the “Us v Them” mentality of an already close-knit county who toast success with cider but have never tasted the bubbles of Championship-winning champagne."
An exciting pace attack consisting of the break-hand speed of Craig and Jamie Overton combined with Lewis Gregory’s nous will be directed by Tom Abell. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more impressive 23-year-old on the circuit. He captains Somerset, with Marcus Trescothick, James Hildreth and Peter Trego offering support. They have also signed Steve Davies from Surrey to take an already handy batting line-up to another level.
Surrey could flirt with the top, even newly promoted Essex, who had been a top-flight first class side hibernating in Division Two for far too long. Oh and Warwickshire, because there is no way that Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell hit just 1,653 Championship runs between them again (neither even made it to four figures last year).
Hampshire and Lancashire Kolpak-ed themselves over the winter to “future-proof” their Division One status. Though it is hard not to envisage a season in which both are looking down. Then again, the last time Lancashire were tipped for the drop in 2011, they won the whole thing.
The folly of Division One predictions have never been greater. With 14 matches this time around and two from eight to be relegated – whether your challenges are in front or behind you, you’ll be in and amongst it.
Last year's 16-match season meant a late surge from Surrey helped them overcome a poor start – no wins and four defeats in their first seven – while Lancashire’s blistering early season form meant they could afford a slump that saw no win in their last 11 games. Such blips will be fatal this time.
The presence of the Royal London One-Day Cup in May has seen the white ball make more of an appearance in preseason than it might have done in previous years. Northamptonshire’s Twenty20 heavy diet over the winter of 2012-13 has, three T20 Blast finals and two trophies later, shown the value of specialising early on. Each team has differed in their approach and only hindsight will tell us who got it just right.
Nottinghamshire, too good to go down last season, are too good not to bounce straight back up. The way the international schedule is skewed means they’ll see a lot of Stuart Broad and then a fair bit of Alex Hales for part of the run-in. Sussex, another side who dipped into the South African market with classy bat Stiaan van Zyl and all-rounder David Wiese, will see a season without promotion as failure.
As ever, the opening narratives will be dictated by England spots up for grabs. The long-running series of England’s Next Top-Order Batsman came to a conclusion in the winter of 2016 – for the time being at least – when Keaton Jennings and Haseeb Hameed impressed.
2017’s hunt is for a man in the middle: stylist preferable, multi-format desirable, game-changer craved. As has been the case with the ascensions of James Vince, Liam Dawson, Sam Billings and, to a lesser extent, Ben Duckett, the Lions, via the opinions of Andy Flower, provides the most straightforward route to higher honours. Thus, Essex’s Tom Westley and Lancashire’s Liam Livingstone are a few early scores away from a Champions Trophy spot and Test outings against South Africa and West Indies.
Don’t forget to look out for the kids, too: the Currans at Surrey; Dan Lawrence with the bat and Jamie Porter with the ball at Essex; Mason Crane, New South Wales’ newest, at Hampshire; Aneurin Donald and Kiran Carlson in Glamorgan middle order; Joe Clarke styling at New Road; Jack Burnham, another off the production line at Chester-le-Street; Matt Critchley, bringing leggies back to Derbyshire.
Plans have been put in place to get county cricket to a better place. And while those plans may come good, the start of the season brings a timely reminder.
A reminder to step back, look around, take stock and realise that a competition and a way of life that has lasted for 137 years has done so for a reason. Because it’s pretty damn good.