County Championship 2024 season: Ben Stokes’ quest for fitness, England’s search for the next Stuart Broad and which teams will contest for the title? | Cricket News

The English cricket summer officially gets under way on Friday – yes, hard to believe given the frigid early-April conditions – and so what should we be looking out for in the County Championship?

England are not in action in Test cricket until they face the West Indies on July 10, so there is quite the red-ball run-up to that opening Test at Lord’s for players to stake their claim.

Here we take a look at some of the biggest names to keep an eye out for in the early-season exchanges as well as assessing which counties look best-placed for a title push in the top tier and who is gunning for promotion from Division Two.

2024 County Championship

Division One: Durham, Essex, Hampshire, Kent, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Somerset, Surrey, Warwickshire, Worcestershire

Division Two: Derbyshire Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Leicestershire, Middlesex, Northamptonshire, Sussex, Yorkshire

Stokes’ quest for fitness

Durham were the runaway winners of Division Two last season and could prove surprise challengers in their first year back dining at the top table since a 2016 points deduction for financial issues relegated them.

Such reason for optimism is in large part due to the increased availability of England’s Test captain Ben Stokes, who this week ruled himself out of playing in the Men’s T20 World Cup which will take place in June in the West Indies and USA.

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Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain believe Ben Stokes missing the T20 World Cup to focus on the County Championship is the right decision

Having had surgery on a long-standing knee injury over the winter, Stokes said of his self-imposed absence: “I’m working hard and focusing on building my bowling fitness back up to fulfil a full role as an all-rounder in all formats of cricket.

“The recent Test tour of India highlighted how far behind I was from a bowling point of view after my knee surgery and nine months without bowling. I’m looking forward to playing for Durham in the County Championship before the start of our Test summer.”

Stokes certainly will not feature in all eight of Durham’s red-ball matches prior to that first of three Tests against the West Indies but he can hopefully gradually build the miles back into his legs in a handful of run-outs.

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Athers, Nasser and Durham CEO Tim Bostock discuss how Stokes’ superb Durham performances set the tone going into his England captaincy

And with the bat, England’s loss is most certainly Durham’s gain. His last three first-class appearances for the county came back in 2022 and included among them was a simply devastating innings of 161 off just 88 balls in a win against Worcestershire, a knock that contained a County Championship-record 17 sixes.

County bowling attacks, look out!

County Championship: Week one fixtures (April 3-6)

Division One: Durham vs Hampshire, Kent vs Somerset, Lancashire vs Surrey, Nottinghamshire vs Essex, Warwickshire vs Worcestershire

Division Two: Derbyshire vs Gloucestershire, Middlesex vs Glamorgan, Sussex vs Northamptonshire, Yorkshire vs Leicestershire

Who will fill Broad’s sizeable shoes?

Talking of county bowlers, there is an opportunity for the Test cricket hopefuls among them to really stake a claim for an England starting spot over the early months of the season following the legendary Stuart Broad’s retirement last year.

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England bowler Stuart Broad turned in a hero’s performance in his last match for England, taking two wickets to level the Ashes series against Australia

James Anderson, and his 700 Test wickets, is still going strong aged 41 – and will no doubt be taking his usual hatful of wickets for Lancashire in helpful early-season conditions – but who will fill the sizeable void of Broad’s 604 Test scalps alongside him in leading England’s attack?

Mark Wood‘s pace will be prioritised, albeit he will be wrapped up in cotton wool ahead of the T20 World Cup, while Ollie Robinson told Sky Sports ahead of the season’s start with Sussex: “It’s about putting my name forward to take over and take the reins with Jimmy.”

Both have had problems staying fit, however, as has Nottinghamshire pace bowler Olly Stone and 2019 World Cup hero Jofra Archer, with his availability this summer still unknown.

Josh Tongue, who impressed with 10 wickets in two Tests last summer – including a maiden Ashes bow at Lord’s – is in the early stages of recovery from a pectoral injury and so will not be rushed back for new team Notts, neither will Saqib Mahmood at Lancashire after an injury-plagued two years since making his Test debut in early 2022.

So, could that open the door for the likes of Gus Atkinson (Surrey), Matthew Potts, Brydon Carse (both Durham) and Matt Fisher (Yorkshire) to stake a claim?

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Gus Atkinson took four wickets on his England debut in the second T20 international against New Zealand at Emirates Old Trafford last summer

The former has looked fiery and fast in his nine ODI and three T20I appearances but is yet to make his Test debut, having gone unused in the spin-friendly conditions of India over England’s most recent tour.

Potts, Carse and Fisher could also find themselves in the mix after impressing on the Lions tour of India this winter – Potts, in particular, having taken 20 wickets at an average of 16.95 across the three matches.

Carse, his county team-mate in the north-east, is another who is yet to make his Test debut.

England’s spin bowling conundrum

Turning our attention to the spin department, the future for England certainly looked bright given the showings of youngsters Tom Hartley, Shoaib Bashir and, to a slightly lesser extent, Rehan Ahmed in India this winter.

Hartley finished as the second leading wicket taker for the series, with 22 wickets at an average of 36.13, while Bashir, appearing in two fewer Tests, was second only to Hartley from an England perspective, with 17 scalps at 33.35 – each playing in their debut series. Rehan took 11 wickets at 44.00 in his three Tests; their respective ages: 24, 20 and 19.

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Nasser and Athers assess Tom Hartley’s match-winning performance against India in the first Test in Hyderabad earlier this year

Given their performances, England head coach Brendon McCullum said post-series it would be “slightly mad” if the strides taken by the fledgling spinners were stymied by a lack of overs early on in the domestic season.

But it is tough to be overly optimistic about their short-term prospects.

Although he heralded his signing as a “game-changer”, left-arm spinner Hartley’s path at Lancashire is now blocked by the arrival of Nathan Lyon, who is still available for seven of the county’s first nine fixtures, and that is despite Cricket Australia’s recent intervention to reduce that figure for workload purposes.

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Sky Sports’ Ian Ward says England spinner Shoaib Bashir showed great character in adapting to conditions in the recent series against India

For Somerset, meanwhile, off-spinner Bashir could be confined to a place on the bench once England’s No 1 tweaker Jack Leach is back to full fitness for club and country.

Teenage leg-spinner Rehan has a clearer pathway at Leicestershire following the departure of Callum Parkinson to Durham, but he is perhaps the least ready to step up as a frontline bowler in home conditions.

As ever, county cricket’s distant relationship with spin could cause headaches.

England gloves up for grabs

As the county cricket season gets under way, there is also sure to be plenty of speculation over the identity of England’s Test wicketkeeper prior to the first Test against the West Indies.

Jonny Bairstow held the gloves last summer, with at times questionable results, while his batting form in India was called into question when they were taken off him and handed to Ben Foakes.

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Ben Foakes reflects on England’s Test series loss to India and looks ahead to a potential third consecutive County Championship win with Surrey

Bairstow failed to pass fifty once across the five Tests, averaging just 23.8, while Foakes’ impeccable handiwork behind the stumps was undermined with similarly modest returns with the bat and an average of 20.5.

Harry Brook will be available for the opening five matches of Yorkshire’s domestic campaign, having withdrawn from England’s tour of India and an IPL stint with the Delhi Capitals for personal reasons as he dealt with the death of his grandmother.

His likely return to the England middle order come July at Lord’s, and with top-order batting spots otherwise at a premium, means that Foakes versus Bairstow looks likely to be the biggest selection dilemma of the summer.

With Bairstow away on IPL duty for the start of the summer, does that open the door for Foakes to gain the upper-hand with some early-season red-ball runs for county champions Surrey, or might one or two other names throw themselves in the hat?

Durham’s Ollie Robinson was wicketkeeper for the England Lions over the winter and plays an ultra-aggressive ‘Bazball’ style already. The same is true of Foakes’ county team-mate Jamie Smith.

James Rew, 20, has been tipped for great things after a breakout 2023 for Somerset in which he was the County Championship’s third-leading scorer with 1,086 runs at an average of 57.15.

Which teams will contest for the title?

Having gone back to back in 2022 and 2023, Surrey, with their seemingly endless squad depth that is the envy of every county side, are surely favourites to make it a hat-trick of County Championship successes?

Rory Burns led Surrey to the County Championship Division One title in 2023
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Rory Burns led Surrey to the County Championship Division One title in 2023

Possibly aiding their efforts this year too is the fact that their director of cricket, former Surrey and England legend Alec Stewart, is bowing out at the end of the year?

“We’ll give it a red-hot go,” he told the Sky Sports Cricket Podcast last week. “I know the appetite is there from the players. Is it going to be harder again? Definitely, because every side wants to beat us.”

Alec Stewart has overseen three County Championship titles during his time as Surrey's director of cricket
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Alec Stewart has overseen three County Championship titles during his time as Surrey’s director of cricket

Chief among those teams looking to topple Surrey are last year’s runners-up Essex, with whom they have shared six of the past seven red-ball titles.

Warwickshire are the only other team since Middlesex’s final-day triumph in 2016 to emerge victorious, back in 2021, and they should find themselves in the mix once more.

And what about perennial bridesmaids Somerset? 2023 was a rare down year in which they finished seventh but a talented crop of youngsters is emerging in Taunton who will be all the richer for their experiences so far. Is this finally their year?

Another outside bet could be Durham. Promoted only from Division Two last season, but having claimed the crown at a canter – and with Stokes to add into the mix during the early-season sparring – they are well capable of upsetting the status quo.

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Durham chief executive Tim Bostock says the sport should be open-minded about adjusting English cricket schedules and structures to improve the quality of their product

In Division Two, Yorkshire, no longer burdened by a 48-point penalty, are heavy favourites for promotion back to the more familiar surroundings of the top tier.

Their biggest challengers are likely to be Sussex, having been pipped to the post and into third last season, and Middlesex, looking to bounce straight back from their relegation from the top flight last year.

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