County Cricket Season Preview: Derbyshire - Hampshire
Updated: Apr 6
And so, here we are.
In just three days' time, the first balls of the 121st County Championship season will spring out of bowlers' hands up and down the country, formally setting in motion another summer of county cricket. It's a time of hope; will your team lift silverware this season? Has your county's academy produced a hot prospect looking to take the circuit by storm? Fundamentally, will it be a memorable campaign or an indifferent one?
No one yet knows, and that's what forms the basis to the excitement of it all. As ever, there are 18 counties battling it out, with three of them - Essex, Somerset, and Nottinghamshire - the holders of one trophy each. This week's series of posts - one today, one tomorrow, and one on Wednesday, just in time for the season's start on Thursday - will focus on six counties at a time to provide an in-depth preview of each county's season.
Without further ado, then, we'll get cracking on part one of three, which takes us from Derbyshire to Hampshire.
On the evidence of the last two seasons, real progress is evident at Derbyshire. A maiden T20 Finals Day berth in 2019 was then followed by a surprisingly strong performance in last year's Bob Willis Trophy, as they finished second in the North Group.
Perhaps it is that recent uptick in the red-ball competition that has convinced Australian seamer Billy Stanlake to join the county for 2021. Pace bowling was an area in which Derbyshire struggled last term, so a tall quick such as Stanlake should be welcomed with open arms. Further influence from down under in the white-ball arena comes in the shape of wicketkeeper-batsman Ben McDermott. Having hit 402 runs for Hobart Hurricanes in the Big Bash over the winter at a strike rate of almost 140, he adds useful firepower to the ranks.
There has been little activity in the domestic market, with the overseas additions being the real head-turners. Brooke Guest has come in from Lancashire to add depth in the wicketkeeping ranks, but I see two existing Derbyshire men in all-rounder Matt Critchley and batsman Fynn Hudson-Prentice as being key players this term.
I still view Derbyshire as very much in the building phase, so I do think a spot in Division Three beckons this year. Equally, I don’t see them making it out of the T20 Blast North Group, but the One-Day Cup is far more interesting. They will benefit from the bigger counties being gutted of players by the Hundred, so I'm going to say they will reach the quarter-finals in the 50-over competition.
2020 was a rather rough season for Durham, all told, as they failed to record a win in five red-ball games and also missed out on the T20 Blast knockout stages. However, there is renewed optimism this season, as an old face makes a comeback.
That old face is spinner Scott Borthwick, who returns to the north-east after four years with Surrey, and provides quality not just in the bowling attack but in the batting line-up too. With an England Test cap under his belt, his experience will be invaluable too, and he will skipper the side in the County Championship.
Australian opener Cameron Bancroft will return for the County Championship too after a successful spell in 2019, during which he hit 726 runs at 45.37, and he will bolster the red-ball side no end. However, there have not yet been any overseas arrivals for the white-ball competitions.
I very much hope Alex Lees can replicate his 2020 run-scoring exploits (see why here), and I think batsman Graham Clark and pace bowler Brydon Carse are in line for good seasons too.
Even with the addition of Bancroft, I think Division Two is the most likely finishing spot for Durham this term in red-ball cricket, but, much like Derbyshire, they will benefit in the One-Day Cup as only two regular players have been signed up for the new competition. I fancy them to reach the quarter-finals. However, there are stronger teams in the T20 Blast, so unfortunately I do think it's a group stage exit there.
There’s a dynasty being built in Chelmsford. Essex have won the English red-ball competition the last two seasons in a row, and only a very foolhardy person would bet against them making it three. They are undoubtedly one of the country’s strongest teams, across all formats.
That was underlined when they won the T20 Blast in 2019, and their key man at the heart of it all over the last few years has been spinner Simon Harmer. Formerly a Kolpak player, he is now re-registered as a full overseas after the rules changed, and he should again prove to be one of the country’s most lethal bowlers.
Joining him in the overseas category will be Australian quick Peter Siddle, who will bolster an already brilliant pace battery, and Jimmy Neesham, who mixes being a brilliantly witty presence on Twitter with actually being a very high-quality limited overs all-rounder.
It is hardly surprising that Essex have made no domestic acquisitions, not least because there are very few county players who will actually improve them. They are a fearsome juggernaut, with England living legend Sir Alastair Cook at the top of the order and strike bowler Jamie Porter at the tail end. I also fancy bowler Sam Cook to have another good season.
Qualification for Division One in the Championship is almost a necessity for Essex to consider this season successful, and as one of the country's very best sides, it would not be a surprise to see them lift the Bob Willis Trophy again at Lord's this year. However, they aren't unbeatable, and I have someone else in mind for that particular trophy, so we'll leave it at Division One.
In white-ball cricket, I am backing Essex to win the One-Day Cup. They will lose only one player - batsman Dan Lawrence - to the Hundred, so glory in that competition is most certainly achievable. I also think they should manage a T20 Blast quarter-final, thereby making this season another very successful one.
Even without the threat of a global pandemic, 2020 was an unpleasant year for Glamorgan. In identical fashion to Durham, they failed to win a red-ball game and finished in the lower half of their T20 Blast group, having tasted victory just four times.
However, there are signs that 2021 could be better. The return of Australian batsman Marnus Labuschagne is a huge boost, with his Test match ranking of third meaning he will officially be the best batsman to play first-class county cricket this year. The ever-present South African Colin Ingram will also add his usual firepower to their ranks.
From my point of view, it would be lovely to see Billy Root in the runs, as he was last year, but it will be even more interesting to see if both 24-year-old seamer Dan Douthwaite and 22-year-old spinner Prem Sisodya can build on their 2020 seasons in the bowling department. David Lloyd (no, not that one) is another player who has the ability to post good numbers too.
I hope Glamorgan can continue to build on what they have. I think qualification for Division Two is a good target to aim for, but I would expect Division Three to be more likely. Unfortunately, I do think it's a group stage exit in both the One-Day Cup and T20 Blast, but they might be able to score some good victories in the former as another side that won't lose too many players to the Hundred.
As first-class and limited overs cricket become more and more specialised, it becomes increasingly difficult for teams to compete on two fronts. Nowhere was that truer in 2020 than in Bristol, where Gloucestershire bulldozed their way to Finals Day in the shortest format, but won just once and finished fifth in their group in the Bob Willis Trophy.
The main reason for their first-class failures was their fragile batting order, as they picked up only three batting bonus points across five games, the lowest of any county. The arrival of West Indian opener Kraigg Brathwaite, who has found a rich vein of form in the ongoing Test series against Sri Lanka, should improve matters in that area, however.
It is entirely understandable they have picked up Brathwaite for the Championship only, and not yet signed a T20 player from overseas, as it was largely their English players that saw them reach Finals Day. Batsmen Chris Dent and Ian Cockbain were a huge part of that, but the unsung hero was bowler Ryan Higgins, who was Gloucestershire’s leading wicket taker in all formats last term and could further impress this year.
Another name to take note of in the white-ball arena is wicketkeeper James Bracey, and if he fires, I see no reason why Gloucestershire shouldn’t be looking for at least a T20 quarter final this year. As for the County Championship, let’s set a target of Division Two, but we’ll be realistic. It might be a while before they’re competitive in that.
If Gloucestershire can sort their batting woes out, Division Two might be up for grabs, but in the belief that that may prove to be a step too far, I'm sticking with Division Three for them. Unfortunately for their One-Day Cup hopes, Cockbain and Higgins have both been selected for the Hundred, so I think there's little chance of them making it out of their group there. However, they should remain a force to be reckoned with in the T20, so I can easily see them making the quarter-finals again in the shortest format.
I have to say it, Hampshire were disappointing in 2020. Their squad is jam-packed with talent, but a last-placed finish in the T20 and fourth in their Bob Willis Trophy group does not reflect that. However, James Vince and co should be poised to banish last year and deliver on their promise this time around.
They have recruited shrewdly in the overseas market, with Mohammed Abbas joining the side for the early part of the red-ball season. His skill was on display for all to see in last year’s Test matches against England, and he should thrive in those conditions. They have not yet signed a white-ball overseas player, but much like Durham, if they are focusing on red-ball cricket, I heartily applaud them for doing so.
I’m a long-term admirer of Keith Barker, who is one of the most established lower-order all-rounders on the circuit. His ability to dig in and add valuable runs at the end of an innings can wear down opposing attacks, and another impressive member of Hampshire’s complement of all-rounders is Ian Holland (more on him here) who was the team’s leading wicket taker in 2020.
It’s a shame batsman Aneurin Donald will be out for much of the season through injury, but I’d hope Joe Weatherley can continue to fulfil his promise. Meanwhile, Mason Crane will get the chance to bowl at both Taunton and the Oval in the Championship this year, and with the England spinner’s spot very much up for grabs, he has an almighty opportunity this year to post numbers that cannot be ignored.
I think we will know early on how Hampshire will do this year. If Abbas and Kyle Abbott can be quickly among the wickets, with Vince also racking up the runs, Division One is not an unrealistic target, and they certainly have the talent to make it all the way to Lord's. In fact, I'm even going to stick my neck out and name them my runners-up in the red-ball competition this year. The benefit of having a deep squad is that progress in the One-Day Cup later in the summer is not unlikely either, with a possible quarter-final beckoning, but I can’t see them finding much joy in the T20.
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Look out for part two, dropping tomorrow!