Team guides, key players and expert predictions

As English cricket prepares for the start of the 123rd County Championship season this week, talk of the decline of red-ball cricket has never been louder.

The explosion of short-form franchise tournaments around the world, including The Hundred in this country, has not helped matters in recent years.

Yet the enduring appeal of the Championship remains, as does the esteem it is held in by cricketers from around the world.

This year alone the list of star names is striking with former West Indies captain Jason Holder, who has signed for Worcestershire for the first five rounds of games, the latest to join the party.

Among the others are Nathan Lyon, whose full-season stint at Lancashire has only been cut short until July because Cricket Australia are watching his workload, fellow Aussies Marnus Labuschagne and Scott Boland, former South Africa captain Dean Elgar, West Indies fast bowler Kemar Roach and Indian great Cheteshwar Pujara.

Elgar, who has signed for last year’s Division One runners-up Essex for the season as he attempts to replace Sir Alastair Cook at Chelmsford following the former England captain’s retirement, spoke for many when expanding on just why he rates the Championship so highly.

“I think it’s up there with possibly the toughest four-day cricket in the world,” the opener said. “I’m not the only guy that’s come over from another country, you get your overseas players also playing for every other team. So that obviously creates a lot of strength. I’ve always felt county cricket is the toughest.”

This year’s early rounds will feature many homegrown superstars as well, with Joe Root and Harry Brook playing for Yorkshire, Ollie Robinson turning out for Sussex and England Test captain Ben Stokes confirming this week he will be preparing for this summer’s series against the West Indies and Sri Lanka by playing county cricket for Durham rather than the Indian Premier League or the Twenty20 World Cup in the Caribbean and USA.

Stokes, who is expected to start his season at the end of this month or in early May, is working his way back to becoming a genuine all-rounder again following knee surgery last November. He has not played in the Championship since May 2022 but his presence with bat and ball for Durham at the start of their first season back in Division One for eight years is a genuine boost for the county and wider domestic game.

In terms of the nitty gritty of the season, we will have four rounds of games played with the Australian Kookaburra ball this year. Trialled for two rounds last summer in an attempt to help prepare players for Ashes cricket in the future, the controversial plan did not go down well with everyone. The Dukes ball, whose more pronounced seam offers more assistance to bowlers, is the staple of English red-ball cricket.

Yet the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) deemed it a success and so this year there will be a pair of two-week blocks – the first two round of games and then rounds 12 and 13 in late August and early September – using the Kookaburra.

There will also be a change in the number of points for a draw, with last year’s decision to reduce the number from eight to five in an attempt to incentivise teams to go for the win reversed.

The ECB felt the increase in batting bonus points last year cancelled out the effect of reducing points for a draw. So they have made the call to go back to the way things were. It seems to run counter to the Bazball philosophy that all 18 counties have been encouraged to embrace. Whether it will inhibit teams this year remains to be seen.

On the field, Surrey will be favourites to wrap up a third consecutive Division One title. Essex, their closest challengers last year, Hampshire and possibly Nottinghamshire will be the teams with the best chance of denying them. At the bottom, promoted Worcestershire and Durham will be aiming to survive, while Kent, who escaped relegation on the final day last year, might also struggle.

In Division Two, Yorkshire hampered last year by off-field issues and a points deduction following the racism scandal, will hope a new season will lead to a new dawn and promotion. Sussex and Middlesex are also strong contenders for a return to the top-flight.

The spin trio of Shoaib Bashir, Tom Hartley and Rehan Ahmed who so impressed for England in India earlier this year will hope to have plenty of time on the field this summer for their respective counties. Hartley has been helped by Lyon’s abbreviated spell at Lancashire, while Bashir will give Jack Leach a run for his money at Somerset and Ahmed should, hopefully, get a clear run of things at Leicestershire.

Their fortunes are among a number of subplots that are sure to unfold this summer. And fans will be pleased that there will be Championship cricket in every month of the season after last summer’s schedule that prioritised a window for The Hundred in August meant there was no Championship or Test cricket for the prime month of the summer.

Division One


Captain: Scott Borthwick

Key signing: Scott Boland – Australia seamer is available for first nine games of the season

Key player: David Bedingham – South Africa Test batter is back for whole summer

2023 finish: 1st Division Two

Won Division Two by 66 points and with Aussie cult-hero Boland and Bedingham, South Africa’s breakout Test star of the winter, in their ranks they have a squad that should be more than capable of staying in the top flight this summer.

i prediction: 8th


Captain: Tom Westley

Key signing: Dean Elgar former South Africa captain spent more than a decade excelling in Test cricket before international retirement in January.

Key player: Jordan Cox – explosive batter from Kent a shrewd signing after Dan Lawrence left for Surrey.

Ran champions Surrey close last season and should do so again. Recruiting former South Africa captain Elgar to replace the retired Cook at the top of the order was inspired. Signing explosive batter Cox from Kent another shrewd piece of business after Dan Lawrence left for Surrey. Bowling attack of Jamie Porter, Sam Cook and spinner Simon Harmer as dangerous as ever.

2023 finish: 2nd

i prediction: 3rd


Captain: James Vince

Key signing: Ali Orr young batter’s departure from Sussex caused a stir and is a quality addition.

Key player: Mohammad Abbas Pakistan seamer has taken 143 wickets over the past three seasons.

2023 finish: 3rd

Title contenders with real squad depth. There are no better pair of overseas signings than Kyle Abbott and Abbas, who took 97 wickets between them last summer. No wonder Pep Guardiola was refused when he requested the penthouse suite at the hotel attached to the Rose Bowl when Manchester City came to town for a Premier League game against Southampton last April – the room was reserved for Pakistan fast bowler Abbas for the whole summer.

i prediction: 2nd


Captain: Daniel Bell-Drummond

Key signing: Matt Parkinson – two years after his Test debut the off-spinner looks to relaunch his career at Canterbury after losing his way at Lancashire

Key player: Tawanda Muyeye – the Zimbabwean-born opener is one of the most exciting young talents on the circuit

2023 finish: 8th

Only managed to stay up on the final day of last season. Despite having England opener Zak Crawley available for the first half of summer and new captain Bell-Drummond and Muyeye in their top six, their bowling attack lacks the quality that might keep them in the division. Expect another relegation battle.

i prediction: 9th (relegated)

Lancashire have pulled off something of a coup with the signing of Nathan Lyon (Photo: Getty)


Captain: Keaton Jennings

Key signing: Nathan Lyon – Australia spinner now only available for seven games this summer but still a brilliant acquisition

Key player: Josh Bohannon ­- must be close to England recognition after stellar 2023 summer with the bat

2023 finish: 5th

Before Cricket Australia cut short his stay over workload concerns, the signing of Lyon was the coup of the close season. Yet Lyon’s absence for the second half of the season will give young left-arm spinner Tom Hartley a chance to show what he can do after starring for England in the winter. Not good enough to contend for title or bad enough to flirt with relegation.

i prediction: 6th


Captain: Haseeb Hameed

Key signing: Josh Tongue – will miss some games while away with England but signing the quick from Worcestershire was astute

Key player: Joe Clarke – hit more than 1,000 Championship runs last summer and has a big role to play again

2023 finish: 6th

Will the captaincy inspire Hameed to score big runs and contend for an England place again? Who knows but there’s a strong squad at Trent Bridge bolstered by the signing of Tongue, who may well miss much of the second half of the season with England but can make a big impact in the opening months. Opening game against Essex may signal whether they can be genuine title challengers.

i prediction: 4th


Captain: Lewis Gregory

Key signing: Jake Ball – another injury-hit pace bowler who has fallen off England’s radar. Could cause havoc in the shires though

Key player: James Rew – young wicketkeeper-batter is on England’s radar after fine 2023 summer

2023 finish: 7th

It’s not long ago since this team were perennial – and always unlucky – title challengers. They’re unlikely to trouble the top of the table this season and have more of a chance of being dragged into a battle for survival. Yet in Rew and Shoaib Bashir, the spinner who excelled for England in India recently, they have two of the most talented young players in the country.

i prediction: 7th


Captain: Rory Burns

Key signing: Dan Lawrence – the England batter who joins from Essex only strengthens an already imposing squad

Key player: Kemar Roach – West Indies quick is available for first seven games. Likely to be lethal

2023 finish: 1st (champions)

Did not run away with title last summer – they were 20 points ahead of Essex, so about one win. Yet can anyone stop them this year when their squad looks even stronger? This is a group under coach Gareth Batty who will have many of their England stars available for the first half of the season and will be determined to ensure director of cricket Alec Stewart’s last summer at the club ends in glory.

i prediction: 1st


Captain: Alex Davies

Key signing: George Garton – now 26, the left-arm quick could be a revelation if he gets a consistent run of red-ball cricket after joining from Sussex

Key player: Sam Hain – a key batter across formats (he averaged 47 last summer in the Championship) and rewarded with England one-day cap last September

2023 finish: 4th

Weren’t far off the pacesetters last season and might, at a push, get amongst the title race this year. Experienced and battle-hardened squad are without England’s Chris Woakes for the first couple of months thanks to his Indian Premier League commitments.

i prediction: 5th


Josh Tongue joined Nottinghamshire after the expiration of his Worcestershire contract (Photo: Getty)

Captain: Brett D’Oliveira

Key signing: Rob Jones – no, not the former Liverpool and England right-back but the batter who has signed from Lancashire

Key player: Jake Libby – his county’s best batter last season as he plundered more than 1,000 Division Two runs

2023 finish: 2nd Division Two (promoted)

It’s never easy for promoted teams but Worcestershire’s task has been made almost impossible after three of their best players – Tongue, leading wicket-taker last summer Dillon Pennington and highly-rated batter Jack Haynes all decamped to Nottinghamshire. Wicketkeeper Cox is another big loss. They have brought in replacements, including fast-bowling all-rounder Ethan Brookes and Jones. Yet they still look doomed before a ball has been bowled.

i prediction: 10th (relegated)

Division Two


Captain: David Lloyd

Key signing: Ross Whiteley – veteran all-rounder returns to club after signing from Hampshire

Key player: Luis Reece – left-hander averaged 87 with the bat last summer

2023 finish: 6th

i prediction: 7th


Captain: Sam Northeast

Key signing: Mason Crane – one-time England leg-spinner on a season-long loan from Hampshire

Key player: Marnus Labuschagne – Australian master is back again in Wales to stack up the runs

2023 finish: 5th

i prediction: 4th


Captain: Graeme van Buuren

Key signing: Cameron Bancroft – former Aussie ball tamperer joins for the whole summer

Key player: Ollie Price – 22-year-old batting all-rounder will want another big season after winter England Lions stint in India

2023 finish: 8th

i prediction: 8th


Captain: Lewis Hill

Key signing: Ben Cox – experienced wicketkeeper-batter joins from Worcestershire

Key player: Marcus Harris – Australia opener is back for another season after averaging 57 last year

2023 finish: 4th

i prediction: 5th


Captain: Toby Roland-Jones

Key signing: Henry Brookes – highly-rated 24-year-old seamer looks for a fresh start after leaving Warwickshire

Key player: Sam Robson – former England opener remains as important at top of the order as ever

2023 finish: 9th Division One (relegated)

i prediction: 2nd


Captain: Luke Proctor

Key signing: George Bartlett – former Somerset batter has signed on a three-year deal

Key player: Karun Nair – Indian who once scored a Test triple hundred against England available for seven games

2023 finish: 10th Division One (relegated)

i prediction: 6th

Ollie Robinson returns to Sussex amid questions over his England future (Photo: Getty)


Captain: John Simpson

Key signing: Jayden Seales – West Indies quick available until Test series against England in July

Key player: Ollie Robinson – England seamer has point to prove after nightmare tour of India with England

2023 finish: 3rd

i prediction: 3rd


Captain: Shan Masood

Key signing: Dan Moriarty – spinner arrives on three-year deal from Surrey

Key player: Harry Brook – star England batter available until T20 World Cup in June

2023 finish: 7th

i prediction: 1st


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