As the last of the March snow is swept off county grounds it's almost time for the start of another English season. Those of us planning to attend a match in April - and the Surrey v Somerset fixture starting on the 17th looks a good one to start with - will be hoping that temperatures start creeping into double figures soon. In recent years the Championship has been the victim of the expansion of the Twenty20 Cup into the prime weeks of mid-season. Played mostly in April, May, late August and September, it's been moved, like an unwelcome wedding guest, to the edge of the picture, although this situation has improved slightly this year as the Twenty20 starts on June 26th, compared with the 12th last year. Of course all counties want to make it to the lucrative Finals Day, and pay lip service to the Pro40, but speak to any county professional, and, I believe, the majority of supporters, and they'll say that the four-day title - or promotion to Division One - is the prize that matters most.
are the reigning champions of course, and will no doubt bear in mind the fate of Nottinghamshire and Lancashire, who were relegated the season after their wins, as well as Sussex, who went down two years after winning back-to-back titles. I will be putting the proverbial mockers on several teams here, but I have to say that I don't expect that to happen to Warwickshire. They'll have to manage without Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott of course, but they're used to that, and while Chris Woakes may well be required by England at some stage it seems unlikely that the rest of the squad will be called on, even though former England under-19 captain Varun Chopra was one of only seven batsmen in the country to exceed 1000 runs. Chris Wright, with 67 wickets, and Keith Barker, with 56, had inspired seasons and it will be interesting to see how they do this year.
Looking at the chasing pack that will be seeking to topple the champions, Durham
have won twice in the last five years and still have much of that nucleus of players, with Paul Collingwood now in charge. The evergreen Dale Benkenstein will certainly be hoping for a better season than he had last year, with just three 50s and a highest score of 69. Batting generally seemed to be a problem for the county; the leading run-scorer was opener Mark Stoneman with 661, and he averaged only 26. The experienced Will Smith and Phil Mustard were also short of runs. But it's bowlers who win games of course, and in Graham Onions Durham had last season's highest wicket-taker, with 72 at just 14 apiece. Ben Stokes and Chris Rushworth also had good seasons. But Liam Plunkett and Ian Blackwell have gone, and it's hard to see them really challenging without a quality spinner.
winter signings were headline news of course. Graeme Smith has arrived to captain the side with Rory Hamilton-Brown returning to Sussex, and also solves part of the problem the club has had in recent years, the lack of specialist openers. Vikram Solanki may partner him or go in at three, as Arun Harinath made some good scores at the top of the order late last season. The presence of Gary Keedy and Jon Lewis in the side, not to mention Ricky Ponting (signed mainly for the Twenty20) gives the team a bit of a 'Dad's Army' feel though.
have had a few lean years since their glory days of the eighties and early nineties, but there were signs last year that they're on the way back. Signing the much sought-after James Harris from Glamorgan was a coup for them, and he'll team up with exciting prospect Toby Roland-Jones, Gareth Berg, Corey Collymore and, when available, Steven Finn. Mark Ramprakash has returned to the club he left 13 years ago as batting coach. Nottinghamshire and Somerset will expect to be there or thereabouts as well. Ajmal Shahzad joined Notts during the winter and will have a point or two to prove, not least to the selectors, while Ed Cowan will be a steady presence at the top of the order, at least until the start of the Australians' tour. Will this be the year that the Cidermen break their duck? After missing Marcus Trescothick for so much of last season they'll be hoping to have him available for the whole campaign this time, especially as Nick Compton, last year's highest scorer with almost 1500 runs, seems certain to start the season with England.
The A23 has often been busy over the years with signings between Surrey and Sussex and joining Hamilton-Brown in the Sussex
squad will be Chris Jordan. The fast bowler and aspiring all-rounder has had a few injury plagued seasons at the Oval, reminding us all of Alex Tudor; this is a chance for him to make a fresh start. Monty Panesar has had a couple of good seasons at Hove but his availability will of course be determined by Graham Swann's fitness.
Of the two counties that were promoted last season, Derbyshire
must be everyone's favourites to go straight back down again. Their first season in the top flight since 2000 will be a tremendous challenge. Shivnarine Chanderpaul brings a mountain of experience to the top order and they've also signed Billy Godleman; great things were predicted for him when he first played for Middlesex at 16 but his career stalled at Essex. Yorkshire
have signed Liam Plunkett and the highly-rated Jack Brooks but will probably lose Joe Root to England, while Jonny Bairstow may well get a call up at some stage. It could be a make or break season for Adil Rashid, an England player three years ago but out of the side for much of last season.
In Division Two it's surprising to see Essex and Hampshire still languishing; I expect one of those, along with Lancashire, to go up this year. Saeed Ajmal will join Hampshire
towards the end of the season but they need to be in contention then for him to make a real difference. Adam Wheater, the wicket-keeper batsman signed from Essex, is a real talent, and the club will also be hoping for Michael Carberry to stay in much better health than last year. Former England fast bowler Sajid Mahmood has joined Essex
and will be competing with the likes of Reece Topley and Tymal Mills for the new ball. As for Lancashire
, they've signed Simon Katich and Ashwell Prince so there should be enough runs, especially if Stephen Moore rediscovers the form that had him in contention for England a couple of years ago. But Glen Chapple and Simon Kerrigan need more support from the bowlers. Can Kabir Ali stay fit? Of the remainder, Kent
have a new captain in James Tredwell and have spent plenty of money on their ground, but it's rarely been reflected in the results. Leicestershire
have lost the highly-rated Wayne White to Lancashire and Matthew Hoggard is winding down a fine career; I don't see them having the firepower to register many wins. It will be strange for Glamorgan
to be training without Robert Croft, who was on the staff before some of the younger players were born! But losing James Harris was a bigger blow. I don't expect Northamptonshire
to do much either. Trent Copeland should enjoy early season conditions but he'll be leaving when the T20 starts. Worcestershire
looked like relegation certainties for most of last season, and without Solanki I don't think they'll be threatening to go straight back up. Another big season from Alan Richardson seems too much to expect. For Gloucestershire
Alex Gidman has stepped down as captain and will be hoping to regain the form that brought him the rare double of 1000 runs and 50 wickets in 2010.
And all we need is a decent summer! Watching cricket isn't much fun if you need a coat and scarf, or sit listening to the dreaded words 'no play before lunch.' As long as the Met Office doesn't declare a drought, we may just be alright.