COUNTY ROUND-UP: LV= County Championship kicks off

Cricket Badger previews the new county season and looks ahead to the first round of LV= County Championship matches beginning tomorrow.

The sparring is almost over. The counties, many of whom began ‘pre-season’ training at the end of 2014, can finally get down to business as the oft-derided LV= County Championship - still the best supported first-class competition in the world lest we forget - finally gets underway on Sunday.

This year’s competition looks as open as ever. Yorkshire and Hampshire were many people’s tips for the respective division’s titles from early on in 2014, but that is not the case this season. The former are severely depleted by England call-ups, particularly in the early weeks of the campaign; something that has brought them closer to a chasing pack that includes Somerset, Nottinghamshire, Middlesex, and Warwickshire and with other seeking to join it.

Division Two is almost as wide open. Surrey start as favourites for promotion, with any of Derbyshire, Essex, Lancashire, and maybe even Northamptonshire tipped to mount a sustained challenge.

Middlesex v Nottinghamshire at Lord’s (all matches start at 1100 BST)
Two of the title favourites kick off their campaigns at the Home of Cricket. The hosts have covered for the departure of Chris Rogers by recapturing Nick Compton from Somerset. James Franklin will miss the season opener as he has only just arrived in the country. Toby Roland-Jones is absent due to injury.

Middlesex squad: Nick Gubbins, Sam Robson, Nick Compton, Dawid Malan, Adam Voges (captain), Paul Stirling, John Simpson (wicket-keeper), James Harris, Tim Murtagh, Tom Helm, Steven Finn, Harry Podmore, Andrew Balbirnie, Neil Dexter.

Nottinghamshire had a disappointing 2014 by their very high standards and have been busy in the player market over winter. Leicestershire have again been raided, with Greg Smith an acquisition, while Zimbabwe have suffered with the loss of their Test captain Brendan Taylor on a Kolpak deal. The bowling, which uncharacteristically struggled last season, has been bolstered by the signings of Vernon Philander as overseas pro and Will Gidman from Gloucestershire. Michael Lumb and Jake Libby miss the match due to injury.

Nottinghamshire squad: Steven Mullaney, Brendan Taylor, Alex Hales, James Taylor, Samit Patel, Riki Wessels, Chris Read (captain, wicket-keeper), Will Gidman, Vernon Philander, Luke Fletcher, Harry Gurney, Jake Ball, Greg Smith.

Somerset v Durham at Taunton
The home side have lost Nick Compton to Middlesex over the winter but have gained Tom Cooper on a Kolpak deal and Jim Allenby from Glamorgan. Pakistan spinner Abdur Rehman is expected to play a full part in 2015 and will lead the spin attack.

Somerset squad: Marcus Trescothick (captain), Johann Myburgh, Tom Cooper, James Hildreth, Alex Barrow (wicket-keeper), Jim Allenby, Peter Trego, Craig Overton, Lewis Gregory, Abdur Rehman, Jamie Overton, Jack Leach, Tim Groenewald.

Durham have been inactive in the transfer market due to financial constraints so will again have to rely on home-grown talent. Mark Wood is with England in the Caribbean, while Jamie Harrison has still not recovered from a knee injury.

Durham squad: Mark Stoneman, Keaton Jennings, Scott Borthwick, Michael Richardson, Calum MacLeod, Paul Collingwood (captain), Phil Mustard (wicket-keeper), John Hastings, Paul Coughlin, Graham Onions, Chris Rushworth, Ryan Pringle, Usman Arshad.

Hampshire v Sussex at Southampton
Division Two champions Hampshire will hope that a good start can see them make a push for the title. They have been dealt a blow with the news that new recruits Jackson Bird and Andre Adams have been ruled out of the opening fixture on fitness grounds. That has meant that 18 year-old South Africa-born British passport holder Brad Wheal has made the 12-man squad. Also included is new signing Gareth Berg.

Hampshire squad: Jimmy Adams (captain), Michael Carberry, Liam Dawson, James Vince, Will Smith, Sean Ervine, Adam Wheater (wicket-keeper), Gareth Berg, Chris Wood, James Tomlinson, Brad Wheal, Danny Briggs.

Sussex have again recruited intelligently over the winter and have added fast bowlers Tymal Mills and Ajmal Shahzad to their ranks. They will cover for early-season injuries to Lewis Hatchett and James Anyon. Chris Jordan is away with England, while Matt Prior has a long-standing Achilles problem.

Sussex squad: Chris Nash, Luke Wells, Michael Yardy, Ed Joyce (captain), Craig Cachopa, Luke Wright, Ben Brown (wicket-keeper), Ashar Zaidi, Steve Magoffin, Ajmal Shahzad, Tymal Mills, Matthew Hobden.

Worcestershire v Yorkshire at New Road
The home side are most people’s favourites for the wooden spoon but could do surprisingly well against an under-strength Yorkshire. Spinner Sachithra Senanayake is expected to debut despite only arriving in the country today, while Moeen Ali will play and it is hoped that he will be given permission to bowl by the ECB as he recovers from a side strain. New signing Alex Gidman is named among the 13 players, while Gareth Andrew is virtually a new signing having now recovered from a back injury.

Worcestershire squad: Daryl Mitchell (captain), Richard Oliver, Moeen Ali, Tom Fell, Alex Gidman, Tom Kohler-Cadmore, Ben Cox (wicket-keeper), Gareth Andrew, Sachithra Senanayake, Jack Shantry, Charlie Morris, Joe Leach, Brett D’Oliveira.

There will still be some significant seething going on at Headingley over the ECB’s decision to ban captain Andrew Gale for the first match of 2015 season as a result of his altercation with Ashwell Prince at the end of the last. They will instead be led by Alex Lees. Cheteshwar Pujara will make his Yorkshire debut, while Will Rhodes is expected to open alongside Lees. Adam Lyth, Adil Rashid, Jonny Bairstow, Liam Plunkett, Joe Root and Gary Ballance are all absent due to England commitments. Further seething may be caused by the fact that as many of four of them aren’t expected to feature in the first Test in Antigua.

Yorkshire squad: Alex Lees (captain), Will Rhodes, Cheteshwar Pujara, Jack Leaning, Andrew Hodd (wicket-keeper), Richard Pyrah, Dan Hodgson, Tim Bresnan, Steven Patterson, Ryan Sidebottom, Jack Brooks, Karl Carver, Matthew Fisher.

Leicestershire v Glamorgan at Grace Road
The broom has been wielded over the winter at Grace Road. There is a new chief executive in the form of the energetic Wasim Khan, a new coach in Victorian Andrew McDonald and a new captain in South Australian Mark Cosgrove. The seemingly customary purge of the club’s brightest young prospects has also taken place, with Shiv Thakor, Nathan Buck, Josh Cobb and Greg Smith all gone. Clint McKay adds to the new Australian flavour at the club and will lead an inexperienced bowling attack, although he will miss this fixture.

Leicestershire squad: Dan Redfern, Angus Robson, Ned Eckersley, Mark Cosgrove (captain), Neil Pinner, Niall O’Brien (wicket-keeper), Tom Wells, Ben Raine, Jigar Naik, Charlie Shreck, Ollie Freckingham, Atif Sheikh, Matthew Boyce.

Glamorgan, along with Leicestershire, are among the counties expected to be vying for the Division Two wooden spoon. A strong start against a side that hasn’t won in the competition since 2013 is a must. They will hand club debuts to new signing Colin Ingram and loan signings Colin Meschede and Andy Carter - the latter signed after an injury to influential seamer Michael Hogan.

Glamorgan squad: James Kettleborough, Jacques Rudolph (captain), Will Bragg, Colin Ingram, Chris Cooke, Mark Wallace (wicket-keeper), Craig Meschede, Graham Wagg, Dean Cosker, Will Owen, Andy Carter, David Lloyd.

Northamptonshire v Gloucestershire at Wantage Road
Northamptonshire had a disastrous 2014 and were relegated well before the end of the season. They have shed players over the winter - mostly on cost-cutting grounds - but have recruited a new overseas player in the form of South African Rory Kleinveldt. He will form powerful lower-order alongside David Willey and Steven Crook which is an obvious strength.

Northamptonshire squad: Stephen Peters, Josh Cobb, Richard Levi, Alex Wakely (captain), Rob Newton, Ben Duckett, Adam Rossington (wicket-keeper), David Willey, Steven Crook, Rory Kleinveldt, Mohammad Azhraullah, Olly Stone, Rob Keogh.

Another season of frustration is likely for Gloucestershire fans. The departure of both Gidman brothers, as well as a curtailment on Michael Klinger’s availability, has been only partially mitigated by the arrivals of talented Aussie Peter Handscomb as overseas player and Geraint Jones as skipper. New Zealander Kieran Noema-Barnett is also a useful addition and carries on the Kiwi air at the club which continues in spite of the departure of Director of Cricket John Bracewell.

Gloucestershire squad: Will Tavare, Chris Dent, Peter Handscomb, Hamish Marshall, Kieran Noema-Barnett, Gareth Roderick (wicket-keeper), Geraint Jones (captain), Tom Smith, James Fuller, David Payne, Craig Miles, Liam Norwell, David Payne, Matt Taylor.

Weather forecast: Rain could blight the first day of the season, especially for those matches in the north. The weather should then improve throughout the round of games, with temperatures of up to 21 degrees Celsius forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday.

MCC University fixtures (not first-class):
Cambridge MCCU v Derbyshire at Fenner’s
Essex v Cardiff MCCU at Chelmsford
Kent v Loughborough MCCU at Canterbury
Lancashire v Leeds/Bradford MCCU at Old Trafford

News In Brief:
Tom Poynton has extended his Derbyshire contract until the end of the 2016 season. The wicket-keeper missed the entirety of the 2014 season due to injuries sustained in a car accident that tragically claimed the life of his father Keith. He is locked in a battle for the gloves this season with teenage prodigy Harvey Hosein.

Lancashire have confirmed that James Faulkner will replace Peter Siddle as overseas player following the conclusion of his stint in the IPL. Siddle had been signed for the majority of the season, but was named in Australia’s Test squads and will now only be available for the first four County Championship matches.

Daniel Grummitt

Cricket Writer at World Cricket Badger
Daniel first began writing about cricket in 2011, having been a fan of the game ever since his Grandad introduced him to it at the age of 10.

He worked for for almost three years, leading their county and domestic cricket coverage and contributing to a book about the 2012 ICC World Twenty20, before joining the hugely ambitious World Cricket Badger early in 2014.

The first Test that he remembers watching was on Channel 4 - back before the ECB marginalised potential future fans by selling the TV rights to Sky Sports - when England beat Pakistan by an innings and nine runs at Lord’s.

Besides a passion for domestic cricket, he also has an unexplainable interest in all things Zimbabwe cricket!

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