The County Championship begins on Thursday and, after last year's late summer emergence from the UK's first national lockdown allowed only a truncated first-class season which produced the Bob Willis Trophy, we have another new format for 2021.
This year the 18 counties have been divided into three groups on a seeded basis for the first phase, during which each club will play the five others in their group twice, home and away. The seedings are principally based on finishing places in 2019, but with some tinkering to allow the traditional derbies to continue – Yorkshire and Lancashire have been drawn together, so have Middlesex and Surrey.
After the midseason break, during which the Royal London Cup, the Hundred and the Blast will take place, the top two counties in each completed group will join Division One, with the third and fourth and fifth and sixth sides moving into Divisions Two and Three respectively. There they will each play a further four matches, making a 14-match season.
At the conclusion of the divisional stage, the top side will be crowned county champions and will also go through to play the runner-up in the Bob Willis Trophy final, a five-day match at the end of September. Here's how we think it will play out.
Head of cricket: Dave Houghton
Captain: Billy Godleman
Last year: Second (North Group)
Overseas players: Billy Stanlake (Australia – full season), Dustin Melton (Zimbabwe – full season).
Key man – Billy Stanlake
The Australian’s reputation has been forged in white-ball cricket but the 26-year-old 6ft 7in fast bowler is keen to show he can also deliver in the longer game.
Flies under the radar – Fynn Hudson-Prentice
Bowls accurate medium pace and his unbeaten 91 in a thrilling win at Trent Bridge last year proved he can perform under pressure.
Prediction: 4th, Division Three.
The seam attack looks weak, despite the intriguing recruitment of Stanlake, who has played only eight first-class games. Despite an impressive 2020 campaign, a side brimming with youth remain in development stage.
Coach: James Franklin
Captain: Scott Borthwick
Last year: Fifth (North Group)
Overseas players: Cameron Bancroft (Australia – May 13 onwards), David Bedingham (South Africa – full season), Will Young (New Zealand – April 15 – May 2)
Key man – Scott Borthwick
Re-signed for the county from Surrey in the off-season. The 30-year-old was handed the captaincy and will be determined to lead from the front with the bat.
Flies under the radar – Alex Lees
The Yorkshireman has enjoyed two outstanding campaigns. In bowler-friendly conditions at Emirates Riverside, Lees has thrived and another standout year may catch the eye of the England selectors.
Prediction: 6th, Division One
Youthful side, with a sprinkling of experience, retain a powerful seam attack, led by evergreen Chris Rushworth. As such, they remain well-suited to conditions in April and May, when the bulk of the conference stage will be played.
Coach: Anthony McGrath
Captain: Tom Westley
Last year: Winners
Overseas players: Peter Siddle (Australia – full season), Simon Harmer (South Africa – full season)
Key man – Simon Harmer
Off-spinner, but no longer Kolpak, Harmer has bamboozled whatever has been placed in front of him during his first four years at Chelmsford. Two hundred and fifty competitive red-ball wickets for Essex and counting …
Flies under the radar – Adam Wheater
Finally seems to have fully emerged from James Foster’s shadow, with valuable contributions with bat – where he topped the club averages last year – and gloves in 2020.
Prediction: Second, Division One
Remain the side to beat: an attack of Harmer, Simon Cook and Jamie Porter are the gold standard. Batting is not quite as strong; Sir Alastair Cook’s nous could be crucial.
Coach: Peter Moores
Captain: Steven Mullaney
Last year: Fourth (North Group)
Overseas player: Dane Paterson (South Africa)
Key man – Joe Clarke
Even with 17 first-class centuries to his name already – four for Nottinghamshire – the classy middle-order strokemaker can still improve and his form could be key to the county’s fortunes.
Flies under the radar – Haseeb Hameed
Fast-tracked into the Test side at 19 only for his form to disappear, the opener showed signs last season that a change of scene away from the spotlight is working for him.
Prediction: 3rd, Division Two
Astonishingly, for all their talent have not defeated a county in a first-class game since June 2018. But batting quality means should be better this season.
Coach: Mark Robinson
Captain: Will Rhodes
Last year: Third (Central Group)
Overseas player: Pieter Malan (South Africa – full season)
Key man – Olly Stone
Unlucky not to play more for England during the winter, Stone has much impressed around the national team and Warwickshire will look for some explosive early-season displays from him.
Flies under the radar – Will Rhodes
As captain, Rhodes’ influence will be huge, but he has also quickly become integral to the Bears batting and also an under-rated threat with the ball.
Prediction: 4th, Division Two
A side in transition following a series of retirements in major years and with a new head coach in Mark Robinson. Powerful seam attack when all are fit, but batting may prove unreliable.
Coach: Alex Gidman
Captain: Joe Leach
Last year: Second (Central Group)
Overseas player: Alzarri Joseph (West Indies – first seven matches)
Key man – Gareth Roderick
Will further bolster the batting order after his move from Gloucestershire and add more competition for places.
Flies under the radar – Ed Barnard
Consistently amongst Worcestershire’s wicket-takers in red ball cricket and also chips in with invaluable late order runs when most needed)
Prediction: 1st, Division Three
Well-grooved unit with a seam attack that should relish the early season conditions. Batting was much-improved in 2020, with Jake Libby the second top scorer in the Bob Willis Trophy.
Coach: Ian Harvey (interim)
Captain: Chris Dent
Last year: Fifth (Central Group)
Overseas players: Dan Worrall (Australia – full season), Kraigg Brathwaite (West Indies – April 8-June 6)
Key man – Chris Dent
Has scored consistent runs over the past five seasons and will need to do so again if Gloucestershire are to be competitive.
Flies under the radar – Tom Lace
Could be one to watch having followed Ryan Higgins and George Scott down the M4 from Middlesex. A highly-rated 22-year-old batsman.
Prediction: 3rd Division Three
Brathwaite and England hopeful James Bracey are vital given the long-standing concerns over the batting line-up. Squad are still developing in four-day cricket but Ryan Higgins balances the side.
Coach: Adrian Birrell
Captain: James Vince
Last year: Fourth (South Group)
Overseas players: Mohammad Abbas (Pakistan April 8-May 30), Kyle Abbott (South Africa, full season)
Key man – Kyle Abbott
The big fast bowler is back after missing last season and looking to repeat his superb 2019 campaign where he took 72 wickets at 16.19.
Flies under the radar – Joe Weatherley
Made his breakthrough in last season’s Bob Willis Trophy, the 24-year-old is primed for a big summer after putting himself through a gruelling winter fitness programme.
Prediction: 1st, Division One
The combination of Abbott and Abbas might just be the best new-ball pair in the land. With James Vince and Sam Northeast scoring middle order runs, should advance from the toughest conference.
Coach: Paul Nixon
Captain: Colin Ackermann
Last year: Fifth (North Group)
Overseas player Marcus Harris (Australia)
Key man – Colin Ackermann
The captain is also Leicestershire’s most valuable asset, a reliable source of middle-order runs who averaged 54 in the Bob Willis Trophy, a fine fielder and a handy off-spin bowler.
Flies under the radar – Hassan Azad
The buzz around the left-handed opener faded a little after modest returns in the Bob Willis Trophy, but if he can recapture his outstanding 2019 form he will frustrate many an opposition bowler.
Prediction: 6th, Division Three
After 16 consecutive seasons in Division Two, conference system is a welcome change – but have the toughest draw. Promising work led by Paul Nixon could see them challenge in T20 again.
Coach: Stuart Law
Captain: Peter Handscomb
Last year: Third (South Group)
Overseas player: Peter Handscomb (Australia – full season)
Key man – Peter Handscomb
In addition to his leadership experience, Middlesex will hope Handscomb can bring some ballast to a batting order that has looked fragile at times.
Flies under the radar – Martin Andersson
Rounded off Middlesex’s Bob Willis Trophy campaign with successive four-wicket hauls last year, is continuing to mature into a genuine all-rounder.
Prediction: 2nd, Division Two
Fine seam attack, with Toby Roland-Jones seemingly reinvigorated, but will need Nick Gubbins and Sam Robson to step-up if they are to score enough runs.
Coach: Jason Kerr
Captain: Tom Abell
Last year: Runner-up
Overseas player: Marchant de Lange (South Africa – full season)
Key man – Tom Abell
Now a confident leader and added an impressive haul of runs to his captaincy last season, proving leadership is not a distraction to his own development.
Flies under the radar – Steven Davies
Despite over 13,000 first-class runs, Davies doesn’t attract as many headlines as the younger talent but his experience and ability remain a keystone of the dressing room.
Prediction: 1st, Division Two
Outstanding seam attack led by Craig Overton but the worry is that they won’t score enough early season runs which could even put their qualification for Division One under threat.
Coach: Vikram Solanki
Captain: Rory Burns
Last year: Fifth (South Group)
Overseas players: Hashim Amla (South Africa – full season), Kemar Roach (West Indies – April & May)
Key man – Jamie Overton
Signed from Somerset on a three-year contract last August, the 6ft 5in tall paceman – capable of 90mph-plus speeds – sees his move as a potential stepping stone to England honours.
Flies under the radar – Jordan Clark
In 52 first-class appearances, the strapping all-rounder averages almost 28 with the bat and 34 with the ball. Expect more still from him this season in all formats.
Prediction: 4th, Division One
The availability of England trio Rory Burns, Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes throughout April and May is a major boost, while Kemar Roach is a shrewd early season signing.
Coach: Matthew Maynard
Captain: Chris Cooke
Last year: Sixth (Central Group)
Overseas players: Andy Balbirne (Ireland – April); Marnus Labuschagne (Australia – May until end of season), Michael Neser (Australia – May until end of season)
Key man – Marnus Labuschagne
The Australian brings his unorthodox style back to Glamorgan where his ascent to becoming one of the world’s most prolific batsman gathered pace two summers ago.
Flies under the radar – Dan Douthwaite
The 24-year-old was Glamorgan’s leading wicket-taker in the Bob Willis Trophy and with veteran all-rounder Graham Wagg leaving the club he has the opportunity and potential to make another step forward in his career.
Prediction: 2nd, Division Three
Labuschagne was outstanding in 2019 and will be expected to be equally effective. Michael Hogan and Timm van der Gugten lead an experienced pace attack.
Coach: Matthew Walker
Captain: Sam Billings
Last year: Fourth (South Group)
Overseas players: Heino Kuhn (South Africa – full season), Miguel Cummins (West Indies – April 8-June 6)
Key man – Daniel Bell-Drummond
Billings’ limited availability means the vice-captain could be in charge for much of the campaign. Scored heavily in pre-season and the extra responsibility may be the making of him.
Flies under the radar – Darren Stevens
When he makes the news it’s invariably for his age, but Stevens, who’ll be 45 on April 30, has been surprising batsmen since 1997 and carried the attack last year.
Prediction: 5th, Division Two
Bell-Drummond, Zak Crawley and Joe Denly form a strong batting core, but a thin squad leaves Kent vulnerable to injuries – or Stevens finally succumbing to age.
Coach: Glen Chapple
Captain: Dane Vilas
Last year: Third (North Group)
Overseas players: Dane Vilas (South Africa – full season), Jackson Bird (Australia – six Championship matches from April 22)
Key man – Saqib Mahmood
Fast bowler with devastating pace and skill, injury has stunted his development. But a full summer of cricket could see him guide Lancashire to silverware and maybe even secure Ashes and T20 World Cup selection.
Flies under the radar – Rob Jones
Home-grown former England Under 19 batsman who has two hundreds in 30 first-class matches. A crucial part of the Red Rose’s middle order, Jones is infectiously enthusiastic.
Prediction: 5th, Division One
A terrific bowling attack will be strengthened further when Jimmy Anderson is available. More runs will be expected from Keaton Jennings, while new signing Luke Wells has the chance to reinvigorate his career.
Coach: David Ripley
Captain: Adam Rossington
Last year: Fourth (Central Group))
Overseas player: Wayne Parnell (South Africa – full season)
Key man – Ben Sanderson
The Sheffield-born paceman remains the spearhead of the Steelbacks’ seam attack. His 244 first-class wickets at less than 20 underline his skills which constantly put opponents under pressure.
Flies under the radar – Curtley-Jack White
White emerged from an injury-plagued 2019 to take 13 wickets in last year’s Bob Willis Trophy, suggesting he might not be under the radar for much longer.
Prediction: 5th, Division Three
Promoted to Division One in 2019, but batting does not inspire great confidence. Aged 26 and at his third county, allrounder Tom Taylor must convert considerable promise to consistency performances.
Coach: Ian Salisbury
Captain: Ben Brown
Last year: Sixth (South Group)
Overseas players: Travis Head (Australia from end of April), Stiaan van Zyl (South Africa – full season)
Key man – Ollie Robinson
One of the most skilful bowlers on the circuit, he has taken 166 wickets at 17.74 since 2018. At 27, he is coming into his prime and a Test debut surely awaits if he maintains his consistency.
Flies under the radar – George Garton
Having overcome injury problems, Garton showed his all-round skills in 2020 as a threatening left-arm quick and accomplished middle-order batsman. If he stays fit he will play a big part this season.
Prediction: 6th, Division Two
A squad that seems best-suited to T20. An attack with Robinson, Stuart Meaker and Mitchell Claydon remains a menace in the red-ball game, but the onus will be on Travis Head to score abundant runs.
Coach: Andrew Gale
Captain: Steve Patterson
Last year: First (North Group)
Overseas players: Duanne Olivier (South Africa – full season), Mathew Pillans (South Africa – full season)
Key man – Ben Coad
New ball seamer who has a bit of 'genius' about him, according to Andrew Gale. If he can stay fit throughout 2021, Yorkshire will have no problems taking 20 wickets.
Flies under the radar – Jonny Tattersall
Impressive rise from non-keeper to first choice gloveman in three years. Scores important middle-order runs, but will be hoping to post his maiden hundred against county opposition this summer.
Prediction: 3rd, Division One
Enviable fast bowling depth and it will be fascinating to see how Dom Bess adapts to his new home. The batting of Gary Ballance will be crucial.