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Surrey hoping to create another dynasty

Tastes sweet: Morne Morkel drinks in Surrey's title Getty Images

Will Surrey defend their title? Can former champions Essex or Yorkshire mount another challenge? Which teams will be fighting to avoid the one relegation spot this season? We assess the chances of all eight teams ahead of the opening round of the Championship in our Division One preview.

Essex

Last season: 3rd
Coach: Anthony McGrath
Captain: Ryan ten Doeschate
Overseas player: Peter Siddle
Ins:
Outs: James Foster, Matt Dixon, Ashar Zaidi, Callum Taylor

It was always going to be difficult to follow up their extraordinary 2017 title but, although Essex were soon trailing in Surrey's wake, a season of consolidation was not the worst outcome for a county that had never before managed consecutive seasons in Division One. The defence was hobbled from the outset, when their opening fixture at Headingley was abandoned without a ball being bowled, and form remained patchy until the final third of the season, when Essex won four out of their last five fixtures - powered in part by the late signing of India opener M Vijay, who scored three fifties and a hundred in five innings.

Anthony McGrath will be hoping the team can pick up where they left off, and he'll have a new deputy to invigorate the dressing room after the appointment of Andre Nel, the former wild man of South African cricket. With Peter Siddle returning after a successful spell in 2018 when he claimed 37 wickets at 16.40 - Australia selection notwithstanding - an attack led by Jamie Porter and supported by Simon Harmer's offspin should among the most challenging in the division. And with new knight of the realm (and England's greatest run-scorer) Alastair Cook free to bat for as long as he wants, Essex ought to be in the running again.

One to watch: Among the young talents in county cricket, few are as prodigiously gifted as Dan Lawrence. Scorer of six first-class hundreds before he turned 20 - including becoming the third-youngest centurion in the Championship - his fortunes suffered a dip last season, when he averaged 23.40, albeit while compiling career-bests in the short formats. Still only 21, big Championship runs could push him into the Test frame. Alan Gardner

Bet365: 10-3

Hampshire

Last season: 5th
Coach: Adrian Birrell
Captain: James Vince
Overseas players: Aiden Markram (April-May)
Ins: Keith Barker, James Fuller, Harry Came, Oli Soames, Felix Organ
Outs: Reece Topley, Jimmy Adams, Sean Ervine, Chris Sole, Asher Hart

Hampshire will be looking to transfer their Royal London Cup winning ways to the red-ball game in 2019. They have at least two fringe England players keen to catch the eye of national selectors, with James Vince moving up the order to open, replacing the retired Jimmy Adams and hoping to break back into the Test set-up for the Ashes, and spinning allrounder Liam Dawson vying for a World Cup berth.

The batting line-up was somewhat unsettled by the late withdrawal of Sri Lanka opener Dimuth Karunaratne, but their swift recruitment of Aiden Markram just a week before the season start is a boost after Markram forced his way back into the South African side for their recent limited-overs series against Sri Lanka with some prolific run-scoring at domestic level.

Off-season recruits James Fuller, from Middlesex, and Keith Barker, who was a title-winner with Warwickshire, bolster a bowling attack which has lost Dale Steyn, but which includes Kyle Abbott and the vastly experienced Fidel Edwards. Often tipped to challenge only to then underwhelm, new coach, Adrian Birrell, will be looking to change that.

One to watch: Mason Crane's professional career began so brightly when he became England's youngest-ever legspinner with a Test debut in Australia last year, but two back fractures meant a long stretch on the sidelines and he is bursting to make a comeback. Valkerie Baynes

Bet365: 7-1

Kent

Last season: 2nd (Division Two)
Coach: Matt Walker
Captain: Sam Billings
Overseas players: Matt Renshaw (April-May)
Ins: Matt Milnes, Fred Klaassen, Jordan Cox
Outs: James Tredwell, Will Gidman, Matt Hunn

Kent won 10 matches last season, as many as any other team in the country and a number equalled only by Division One champions Surrey who, like Kent, never lost two in a row. It is this record that is fuelling a popular refrain around Canterbury that Kent could "do an Essex" by winning the title in their first season back up, as happened in 2017. With away games to Warwickshire and Somerset first up, their start will be crucial to cementing that belief.

Kent bolstered their side, which will be missing key batsmen Sam Billings and Joe Denly to the IPL, by recruiting Australia opener Matt Renshaw for the first part of the season. They will then need to look for an overseas fast bowler to replace Matt Henry, their leading wicket-taker by a long shot for 2018 with 75 wickets at 15.48, who is expected to play a part in New Zealand's World Cup campaign.

Kent need to bat deeper and runs could well come from Zak Crawley, who established himself at the top of the order towards the end of last season, Sean Dickson and Heino Kuhn, whose 780 runs at 33.91 were second only to Denly. Bowling-wise, Harry Podmore, Nottinghamshire recruit Matt Milnes and 42-year-old veteran Darren Stevens may shoulder a considerable load.

One to watch: Daniel Bell-Drummond's growing standing was recognised when he was made interim vice-captain to Kuhn for the start of the season. He carries the club's lofty expectations after a rare lean year in 2018 when he made just one fifty in 13 Championship matches, having demonstrated previously he can do so much more. VB

Bet365: 14-1

Nottinghamshire

Last season: 6th
Coach: Peter Moores
Captain: Steven Mullaney
Overseas players: James Pattinson (April-July)
Ins: Ben Slater, Ben Duckett, Zak Chappell, Joe Clarke
Outs: Matt Milnes, Ben Kitt, Will Fraine, Riki Wessels, Billy Root

New signings Ben Duckett and Ben Slater suggested a solution to the conundrum of Nottinghamshire's top order by putting on a first-wicket stand of 325 against Cambridge University in pre-season. Duckett's 216 came off just 180 deliveries, while Slater hit 130, marking impressive starts to their first full seasons with Notts. With Joe Clarke also joining from Worcestershire and Tom Moores looking to build on a breakout 2018, the batting stocks suddenly look much healthier for a side which narrowly avoided relegation.

With last year's leading wicket-taker Harry Gurney signing a white-ball only contract for 2019, the arrival of Australia fast bowler James Pattinson is welcome in Stuart Broad's testimonial year. The duo should be well supported by Jake Ball and Luke Fletcher, while Mark Footitt and Luke Wood look to press their claims with early season loans to Lancashire and Northants respectively. Can Peter Moores mould an unprecedented third title-winning team, following previous successes with Sussex and Lancashire?

One to watch: Paul Coughlin is on the comeback trail after a serious shoulder injury and has his sights set on making himself the go-to allrounder, although ex-Leicestershire recruit Zak Chappell may have something to say about that. VB

Bet365: 15-2

Somerset

Last season: 2nd
Coach: Jason Kerr
Captain: Tom Abell
Overseas players: Azhar Ali
Ins: James Brooks
Outs: Johann Myburgh, Fin Trenouth

Ever the bridesmaid, never the bride. Somerset have been Championship runners-up twice in the last three seasons - and four times since 2010 - but they remain one of only three counties never to have won the title. But, if there was a sense in 2017 that a golden generation might be running out of time to break that longest of ducks, that notion was scotched by their resurgence last season. They proved to be the best of the rest behind an outstanding Surrey side, and have retained the core of the squad that revived those fortunes.

Certainly Marcus Trescothick, who turned 43 in the off-season, rumbles ever onwards, while the acquisition of Pakistan's Azhar Ali for the entire season is an eye-catching addition. Factor in the evergreen (and ever-ignored) James Hildreth, fresh from yet another 1000-run season, and Tom Abell, whose runs returned in 2018 as he came to terms with the club captaincy, and there's an admirable spine to Somerset's batting.

As for the bowling, well, the vagaries of a spin-dominant surface at "Ciderabad" will continue to raise eyebrows in some quarters, but there's little quibbling with the entertainment that can be on offer - witness the remarkable tie against Lancashire last season, after a fourth-innings collapse to 77 all out. Jack Leach has clearly benefitted from plying his trade on receptive decks and even if he may need to be factored in for an Ashes call-up at the sharp end of the season, Somerset retain quality spin back-up in Dominic Bess and Roelof van der Merwe - and Bess in particular will need to be given some opportunities in the wake of his England baptism last season, to persuade him not to seek a new county.

Their seam attack, meanwhile, has been considerably boosted by the arrival of Yorkshire's Jack Brooks, a proven matchwinner and a man who knows what it takes to finish top of the table. There will be strength in depth at Taunton, to allow for inevitable injuries and - who knows? - England call-ups as the summer wears on.

One to watch: Jamie Overton came excruciatingly close to an England call-up this winter - Ed Smith opted instead for Olly Stone but the message was clear after the bowling shortcomings that undermined the Australia tour last year: 90mph bowlers make a difference, a fact underlined by Mark Wood's success in West Indies. There's a long lead-up to the Ashes in August, and lots of time for Overton to make his case for pace. Andrew Miller

Bet365: 8-1

Surrey

Last season: 1st
Coach: Michael Di Venuto
Captain: Rory Burns
Overseas players: Dean Elgar
Ins: Liam Plunkett, Jordan Clark
Outs: Mathew Pillans

Surrey are not a club that do things by halves. After nigh on two decades in the Championship wilderness, everything fell into place in a stellar 2018 campaign. They romped to the title by a 46-point margin, making light of a plethora of England call-ups along the way, and just as was the case in the 1890s, the 1950s and the early 2000s, the feeling around The Oval is that one title is set to bring several.

Typical Surrey hubris, you might be tempted to say. But, it's hard to quibble with the depth, breadth and variety of their squad. It's not inconceivable, for instance, that Mark Stoneman, Rory Burns and Jason Roy could be England's one, two and three come the start of the Ashes in August, and elsewhere, Dean Elgar, Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes have all represented their respective countries within the last eight months.

The club's youth policy is coming up trumps at every turn, with Will Jacks and Jamie Smith among the latest starlets to hit the ground running, while the bowling is an enviable mix of youth and experience, with Liam Plunkett's arrival from Yorkshire providing another toweringly authoritative dressing-room figure to go alongside last year's marquee signing of Morne Morkel, as well as the old sweats in Rikki Clarke, Jade Dernbach and Stuart Meaker.

Jordan Clark, fresh from Lancashire, adds welcome all-round quality too, particularly valuable as and when the Curran brothers are away on IPL and international duty. Nothing can ever be taken for granted in the County Championship, which is why it remains such a coveted title to win, but you can't accuse Alec Stewart and Michael di Venuto of leaving anything to chance in preparing their defence.

One to watch: Ollie Pope's precocious arrival in professional cricket seemed to hit the buffers over the winter - due largely to the fact that England's only batting vacancies are at Nos. 1-3, and he is very much a 4-6 in this early stage of his career. But undaunted by his Test omission, he's got on with the crucial business of making runs. His season-opening 251 against MCC was quite the statement of intent. AM

Bet365: 5-2

Warwickshire

Last season: 1st
Coach: Jim Troughton
Captain: Jeetan Patel
Overseas players: Jeetan Patel
Ins: Liam Norwell, Craig Miles, Rob Yates
Outs: Jonathan Trott, Grant Elliott, Chris Wright, Josh Poysden, Keith Barker, Andy Umeed, Sunny Singh, Boyd Rankin

It's a big year for Edgbaston, with their central role in hosting the World Cup swiftly followed by the Ashes opener in August. And those ambitions have been matched in their domestic preparations, with Paul Farbrace's arrival as the new director of sport signalling their intent to get back to their rightful berth in Division One, after the trauma of their relegation two seasons ago.

It's a much-changed squad who will embark on Warwickshire's campaign. A raft of veterans have been moved along in one way or another. Jonathan Trott called time on his illustrious career last season, while nothing screams the start of a new era louder than the departure of the two quick bowlers on whom their last Championship-winning campaign in 2012 was built, Chris Wright and Keith Barker. Their absences may be felt in the early season in particular, given that Olly Stone will be missing due to the back injury he suffered while on England duty in the Caribbean. New signings Liam Norwell and Craig Miles can expect a rigorous work-out.

For a while in 2017, it seemed Ian Bell might be drifting towards retirement too. But he found the post-England bloom that he always knew was lurking within him to produce a renaissance 2018, and his enduring quality - along with that of the skipper Jeetan Patel - will be crucial in helping to ensure a smooth transition to a brighter new era.

Farbrace will not hold the squad's day-to-day reigns - Jim Troughton remains the first-team coach - but his cheery outlook on life will doubtless permeate the club. And with little wonder. On the field and off it, it looks like a good year to be a Bear.

One to watch: A curtain-raiser in Dubai is nothing much to be going on, but the manner in which Dom Sibley took on his former team, Surrey, for MCC in the Champion County match last week augurs well for the summer. He and Will Rhodes struck up a formidable opening partnership in Warwickshire's promotion campaign and will hope to replicate that in Division One. AM

Bet365: 8-1

Yorkshire

Last season: 4th
Coach: Andrew Gale
Captain: Steve Patterson
Overseas players:
Ins: Duanne Olivier, Josh Poysden, Mat Pillans, Will Fraine
Outs: Liam Plunkett, Alex Lees, Jack Brooks, Andy Hodd, Azeem Rafiq, James Wainman

The time had come for an overhaul in the Broad Acres. It is only four years since the second of Yorkshire's back-to-back Championships but standards had slipped. With three games of the 2018 season to go, Yorkshire found themselves in a scrap to avoid relegation (pretty much the same scenario as the year before), before two wins and a draw saw them finish fourth, just as in 2017. Nevertheless, Martyn Moxon, the director of cricket, recognised the signs of stagnation and had already begun the clear out: Alex Lees departed early for Durham, Liam Plunkett was allowed to join Surrey, while Somerset came in for Jack Brooks.

With several new signings competing for places alongside the usual stock of homegrown talent, there is a sense that the Andrew Gale era starts here. Gale, a title-winning captain, has been in the coach's role for two years without enjoying the same level of success. While some of his old muckers in the dressing room remain - Tim Bresnan, Adam Lyth, Steven Patterson - the team's fortunes are as likely to be driven by 20-year-old Harry Brook or South African Kolpak signing Duanne Olivier. And with the indefatigable Patterson taking up the captaincy full time, a quietly effective campaign could be in order.

One to watch: Following an impressive southern summer in South Africa's Test side, Olivier could have been preparing to play in his first World Cup. But having been offered the security of a three-year contract with Yorkshire, he chose to turn his back on international cricket (for now, at least). Had a productive spell at Derbyshire last year and should be a potent force. AG

Bet365: 15-2