The traditional season opener got underway earlier than ever before (March 29), in the unfamiliar surroundings of Abu Dhabi where County champions Durham took on, and soundly beat, an MCC select XI.
It was of course a further trial of the pink ball and floodlights for the longer version of the game, new innovations that Durham had no problems in coming to terms with, handing out a 311 run beating.
As we embark upon the 2010 domestic season, the startling fact that jumps out again is the exceptionally crowded itinerary. Fixture after fixture, fluctuating between formats, rest days spent travelling to their next location, with little opportunity for solid and beneficial practice, and fewer and fewer players able to operate at full tilt due to inevitable fatigue. It does not please me to write about aspects of County cricket in a negative fashion, but it is blatantly obvious this cannot carry on if we want to keep the domestic cricket being played at an intensity matched by few other first-class competitions.
Despite there not being the same kind of excitement and vigour for domestic cricket these days, it does still promise to be a thrililng season ahead, and not just during the month of June where the Twenty20 tournament is in full swing. There is little coverage of first-class cricket and I am hoping to make regular contributions in promoting what is still a fantastic competition.
Durham are hoping to claim their third successive title, while the chasing pack determined to make life tough includes Hampshire, Nottinghamshire and Lancashire. Which side will hold their nerve ? It all gets underway on Friday 9th April.
In this first article I will be focusing solely on domestic cricket, the County Championship Division 1 to be more specific, as I look closely at each county and their chances of success in 2010.
There have been few changes in relation to the Durham playing staff from 2009, and they will inevitably be in and around the shake-up come the closing stages of the 2010 Championship season.
With Steve Harmsion still totally committed to Durham (during the close season he penned a new deal keeping him contracted to the club till the end of the 2013 season), even if there are question marks over his England future, and will undoubtedly form the focal point of a very potent bowling attack. This has in the past been a major reason why they have separated themselves at the top of the Championship table from the chasing pack.
Graham Onions may still be recovering from injury, but Liam Plunkett, Callum Thorpe, Mark Davies and Mitch Claydon will battle to fill the vacant seamer/swing bowling slots, while the all-rounder Ian Blackwell will look to back up his excellent first season with Durham (801 runs @ 40.05 & 43 wickets @ 23.53) and offer a vital balance to the side.
With the bat Michael Di Venuto will be expected to make it nine seasons in a row in passing the 1,000 run mark in first class cricket in England, and Dale Benkenstein will assist in adding consistency and experience to the batting line-up.
Will Smith will be in his second year of captaincy and will be confident his own batting will improve as a result of feeling more comfortble in his role as captain.
England Under-19 international Ben Stokes is an exciting addition to the professional playing staff, his hard-hitting century against India in the recent Under-19 World Cup gave indication to the potential he holds, aswell as some useful fast-medium pace bowling. While he may be restricted to the odd limited-overs appearance in 2010, his time will surely come.
It has been 31 years since the last side, Brian Close's Yorkshire, finished on top of the County Championship in three successive years, Smith's Durham are in a sound position to emulate those feats.
After their dramatic promotion back to the top division on the final day of last season, Essex will be hoping to secure their status in 2010.
Danish Kaneria returns as their overseas player for the start of the season, the exact duration of his stay at the County Ground is not fully known yet, around three months is likely, but his importance will once again be utmost in ensuring Essex register some early season confidence-boosting victories. His 75 wickets last season was an integral part of their successful campaign in 2009, and he will be arriving at Essex on April 29, once he has taken part in a domestic tournament at home in Pakistan.
The bowling attack looks shorn of any real firepower, Graham Napier and David Masters make Essex a threat with the new ball, the latter relies heavily on there being something in the pitch and an immaculate line and length to be effective, while Napier is a reliable performer but rarely a match winner in the County Championship with ball in hand, despite his ability to bowl decent pace and ascertain some swing both of a conventional and reverse nature.
The hopes therefore rest upon young quicks Maurice Chambers and Mervyn Westfield, who have spent their winters working in Brisbane and Adelaide respectively, in a bid to continue their development as dangerous pacemen.
Billy Godleman has been signed from Middlesex and may combine at the top with the experienced John Maunders. Pressure on the batsmen will come from the young, but exciting, Tom Westley and Jaik Mickleburgh, after Varun Chopra moved on to Warwickshire.
A batting line-up that can field skipper Mark Pettini, Ravi Bopara (when IPL obligations are fulfilled), Matt Walker, James Foster, and Ryan ten Doeschate in the side should have enough runs to ensure they maintain in Division 1, but Kaneria's involvement may be key if they harbour bigger ambitions.
If any county can stop Durham making it three Championship titles in a row, then Hampshire is that side.
A flat track at the Rose Bowl resulted in 10 draws and a final position of sixth place in 2009 which in retrospect did not do justice to the quality of player at Hampshire, despite victory in the FP Trophy final at Lords. With the addition of Kabir Ali and South African Neil McKenzie for this coming season, the necessary consistency and blend of player within the side should ensure they push Durham all the way.
Simon Jones has also joined Hampshire, but as ever, his fitness will be the biggest concern. If fit, Jones displayed in 2008 that he can form a most lethal partnership with Kabir, as they did at Worcestershire.
Michael Lumb, Michael Carberry and Kabir will have international ambitions, Liam Dawson and James Vince bring youth and talent to the team, they are not short in the experience department either with McKenzie, Nic Pothas, Dimi Mascarenhas, and Dominic Cork cutting reliable figures in the changing room. Ajantha Mendis, the overseas signing, will add a bit of magic and mystery, and his skills may be relied upon to bring the Championship victories at the Rose Bowl. Sri Lankan team-mate Rangan Herath will deputise for Mendis during the early part of the season.
A solid opening partnership between Carberry and the underrated Jimmy Adams will give Hants the platform to put big runs on the board, both passed the 1,000 run mark in the CC last season (1,251 and 1,280 runs respectively).
You have to go back to 1973 when Hampshire last topped the table, thanks in large to Gordon Greenidge's 1,620 run season, this may be the best chance they have had since to repeat that success.
Kent have kept faith with largely the same squad that saw them win Division two in 2009 by 25 points.
Paul Farbrace returns to Canterbury to take up the reins as Head Coach and hopes to build on the solid work undertaken by Graham Ford, after spending two years as Sri Lanka's Assistant Coach.
If Farbrace can field his strongest XI for the majority of the season, Kent may surprise one or two of the big boys in this division, but the depth of quality within the squad does not seem to be present.
The experience that players such as Rob Key, Geraint Jones, Martin van Jaarsveld, Justin Kemp and Azhar Mahmood can offer should help Kent settle back into life at the top, but progress in all competitions may once again stretch resources too far.
Ryan McLaren has been released from his Kolpak contract, and Martin Saggers has called an injury-enforced end to his career. Sri Lankan leg-spinnner Malinga Bandara wil give Kent a two-pronged spin attack, alongside James Tredwell, when he arrives in mid-late May, and it was hoped Australian seamer Stuart Clark would fulfill the early season overseas role, but a question mark with his fitness put an end to those ideas.
One bowler Kent will need to return to full fitness is Robbie Joseph who is recovering well from a shoulder operation he had in September. Scotland bowler Dewald Nel has been signed to reinforce the quick bowling unit.
Rob Key is a highly thought of and intelligent leader and with the players he has at his disposal, Kent should be competitive in 2010.
Once again as the season gets underway in Manchester, expectations will be high, regulars daring to suggest "this may be the season we finally win the Championship" a feat they are yet to achieve, outright, since 1934.
Things are in place for this county to once again threaten the major players in this division, Peter Moores brings with him a disciplined organisation and a belief in his side, and a respected leader in Glenn Chapple. Stephen Moore has been snared from Worcestershire in the close season in the hope of ending any further problems at the top of the order, and Ashwell Prince will return to Old Trafford. Prince, along with VVS Laxman, who he shared overseas duties with last season, were Lancashire's top runscorers, and his presence at the start of the season will give the batting a solid look, despite Mal Loye returning to Northants, and the inconsistent Francois du Plessis not returning.
Kumar Sangakkara will replace Prince during the season (this is dependant on his commitments with Sri Lanka), which promises to be a thoroughly exciting signing (although Pakistan's Younis Khan is supposedly being lined up as a replacement for Sangakkara).
Moores has gambled on West Indian Daren Powell managing to find something like his old form. Recent appearances from Powell suggest he has some way to go before he can begin influencing Lancashire in any major way, and may be used to extend the depth within the squad.
Lancs do possess some very useful youngsters that will ensure players such as Saj Mahmood, Gary Keedy, Mark Chilton, etc, maintain high standards should they wish to remain in the XI. The odd fleeting visit of Andrew Flintoff will undoubtedly bring in a few extra punters through the gates, although his Championship appearances may be limited, so too Jimmy Anderson's.
On their day Lancashire are a match for anyone, in all forms of the game, but have lacked the killer instinct, the consistency to clinch that title, there is no outstanding reason this season will be any different.
Runners-up in 2008 and 2009 intimates always the bridesmaid never the bride, but the Trent Bridge outfit will be hopeful that any international call-ups and unfortunate injury absences will be limited so their pace attack can remain largely intact so they can push Durham further this coming season.
Charlie Shreck, Ryan Sidebottom, Darren Pattinson all missed large parts of last summer for one reason or another, and there have been very few sightings of Stuart Broad in Notts colours, which is unlikely to change this summer, the same thing will be true of Graeme Swann.
A result of those absences was a bowling attack incomparable to the cutting edge on offer at the Riverside. Luke Fletcher made decent strides, and Andre Adams took 43 wickets at 28.46, but with the steady Mark Ealham retiring, the rest of the attack must stand up and be counted.
Graeme White (Northants) and Steven Mullaney (Lancashire) have been brought in to add competition to the squad, while Neil Edwards has moved from Somerset to replace big Will Jefferson. It was at the top of the order that Notts struggled last season, thus six different combinations were attempted without any great success, the half century mark was passed only three times without the loss of a wicket, and the century mark never breached.
Just as well Notts could rely on their skipper Chris Read who will once again form an integral part of the middle order. He managed 1203 Championship runs in 2009, a similar effort may be needed if the talented middle order do not appear more regularly, but with Hashim Amla covering the early season absence of David Hussey, runs should come relatively freely from the outstanding overseas options.
On paper Notts will be a tough side to crack, and few sides will relish a trip to Trent Bridge.
A strong looking batting line-up should be set to make the most of the familiar flat tracks at Taunton, but once again it may be taking 20 wickets to force the victories where Somerset may well come up short again.
There have been amendments to the groundstaff, head groundsman Phil Frost has left the club, and the pitches have been top dressed with local soil in an attempt to redress the balance between bat and ball.
Despite losing Justin Langer to retirement, there is still plenty of quality within the top order to ensure big runs are put on the board at crucial times. New skipper Marcus Trescothick, who formed a useful opening partnership with Arul Suppiah in 2009, will be relied upon to at least pass the 1,000 run mark (last season he made a remarkable 1,817 runs), while the side bats deep with the likes of Zander de Bruyn, Craig Kieswetter (England commitments allowing), James Hildreth and Peter Trego forming the middle to lower order.
It is of course one thing scoring runs at the batting paradise that is Taunton, but runs away from home are generally more difficult to come by, as James Hildreth found out.
Nick Compton has joined from Middlesex and will provide competition for places in the batting department.
Charl Willoughby led the way in 2009, topping the Division 1 leading wicket-takers list with 54 wickets at 30.03, and was ably supported by Alfonso Thomas, David Stiff, and Peter Trego. It is hoped Murali Kartik will add some penetration on the flat tracks, his overseas role will be covered by experienced Australia seamer Damien Wright for the first month while Kartik remains on IPL duty.
There will be fewer exciting places to visit than Taunton when the Twenty20 gets in full swing. Ferocious hitters Cameron White and Kieron Pollard will mean spectators must keep their eyes firmly on the ball for fear of a frightful clump as these two are expected to clear the boundary frequently and with a degree of ease.
As for the Championship, a third placed finish with only one defeat to their name was by and large a successful campaign in 2009, their target will be to better that, but that may depend on the placid nature of the Taunton track, and in all reality, may be asking too much.
Drawn games at Edgbaston have become a regular outcome over the last couple of seasons, but with a useful looking collection of young seam bowlers, the Warwickshire faithful will be hoping for a little more assistance for Boyd Rankin and co.
Alongside Rankin is the highly rated Chris Woakes, and Naqaash Taqhir. But arguably the key man in their attack will be overseas signing Imran Tahir, who has enjoyed success with Hampshire in previous seasons (he took 52 wickets in 2009).
The problem that arises for the Midlands club, is the expected absence of heavy runscorers Ian Bell and Jon Trott to England. They were both in outstanding form last season, but as a result of that form and their performances for England, it means Warwickshire have a lot of runs to replace. Jim Troughton showed glimpses last season of why he has played Test cricket for England, but needs to find more consistency, while skipper Ian Westwood and Tim Ambrose will have to play their part.
Varun Chopra has joined Warwickshire from Essex and it is hoped he can fulfill his potential in a similar way to Nick Knight who made the same move.
It could be a struggle for Warwickshire in 2010, and if they were to repeat last season's fifth placed finish they should be delighted, however, it would appear unlikely unless Tahir can make an instant impression.
There is no doubt that there are some very talented young players at Headingley. With the ball Tim Bresnan, Ajmal Shahzad, Adil Rashid and David Wainwright will hope to offer the cutting edge to take 20 wickets on a frequent basis, a task somewhat harder for the departure of experienced swing bowler Matthew Hoggard. They are also awaiting the arrival of Tino Best to add some fire to the attack.
Best has been signed by Yorkshire due to New Zealander Daryl Tuffey, who was scheduled to cover for Australian Ryan Harris until the conclusion of the IPL, recently broke his wrist. The Australian Cricket Board have also advised Yorkshire not to play Harris until after May to enable him to gain some valuable rest time. So the opportunity is there for Best to earn himself a longer contract should he impress.
Jaques Rudolph will once again shoulder the burden of being the mainstay of the batting. He made 1,334 runs Championship runs last season, and much more of the same will be required. Anthony McGrath, freed from the pressures of captaincy, will be ever so eager to recapture his form of seasons gone by, as averse to his below par showing of 2009.
Andrew Gale is the new skipper, and will be relying upon his experienced players to really come to the fore, or else it could be a long hard summer in his new role.
A preview of the County Championship Second Division, and a look at some of the key players in this season's competition.