This preview is in two parts. Below is analysis of the expected themes from the season. Part two will use this insight, plus my ratings of every player, to predict how each team will fare.
Format: the group stage sees three groups of six; each team playing ten games. The top two qualify for Division One, next two Division Two, and the bottom two go into Division Three. These divisions play a further four games. The winner of Division One is the County Champion. The top two teams in Division One compete for the Bob Willis Trophy.
Group stage timing – Spin: Eight of the ten group stage games are in April and May. That means spinners will be relatively unimportant: they bowl only 19% of the overs while averaging 46% more than pace bowlers. Expect teams to pick one spinner (to get through the required 96 overs per day, and they can still be effective in the fourth innings). It will be the quality of pace attack that matters.
Group stage timing – Run scoring: Batting isn’t significantly tougher in April. Expect maybe the first two weeks of April where we’ll see some carnage. That’s the best time to cause an upset against the favourites in your group. Fortunately for Worcestershire, they play Essex twice in April.
Scheduling – Selection: Weekly fixtures, starting on a Thursday, should limit the need for rotation. Three rest days between games should suffice. With 13 players shaking their money-makers at the IPL, and England players likely unavailable for the last three Group stage games, it’s good that teams won’t be further weakened by rotation.
Scheduling – Overseas: The IPL means a much reduced overseas player pool. With two overseas players allowed per team (post Kolpak), this is an area where teams can differentiate. Would you rather have Kyle Abbott and Mohammed Abbas (Hampshire) or Marchant de Lange and TBC (Somerset)? Odd that there haven’t been more Pakistani players recruited (they don’t participate in the IPL); maybe budgets are tight and post-COVID many counties don’t have the funds to lure the players they want.
Divisions timing: There’s a gap after the Group stage. The four matches that make up the second stage of the competition start on 30th August. While September’s overhead conditions feel like they benefit pace bowlers, the Test data says otherwise. August and September are as good as it gets for spinners in England.
We might find an all-pace attack sails into Division One, but then struggles on wickets that demand two spinners.
July & youth players: Hopefully the opportunity to win Division Two or Three appeals to counties that start the season slowly. And it’s not just the games in September where teams may refocus onto development. What about a team that after May realises they won’t be winning the County Championship, and so rather than risk their best players for the two July fixtures, rests them to keep their focus on T20? I hope I’m just being pessimistic, but those July Championship games are going to look decidedly inconvenient to the teams hunting a Blast quarter final spot.
Impact on England: In April and May 2019 just under half of the overs were delivered by Medium or Medium-Fast bowlers. Which makes sense: Harry Podmore hooping it is a handful. But more than half the games being played at a time that suits the medium pacer is not great preparation for Test Cricket. To predict which players will thrive at Test level needs data beyond raw averages. Dom Sibley’s County Championship average of 70 against spin might not be as strong as it appears (who did he face, and in which months?) I’ll have to start a County Championship ball by ball database.
Eight points for a draw – Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic: With low value for draws, the County Championship was decided by wins. It was hard to finish above a team that won more than you. Now there’s eight points for a draw, you can pick up 16 points in a dull draw, while a win is worth at most 24 points.
There’s an incentive for inferior teams to bat time, and force the better team to attack to move the game along. I prefer teams to be chasing wins. If the new system had been in place in 2018 and 2019, 32 of 38 placings would be unchanged. Just three pairs of mid-table teams would swap places.
Best case scenario this change makes no difference. I think it’s a change for the worse.
Weather: The Met Office’s long range forecast for the first half of April looks cautiously optimistic.
At the start of this period, unsettled and changeable conditions are likely to continue across northwestern areas. However, high pressure may spread northwards through early April, which will bring a period of settled conditions for most. Following this, drier than average and brighter conditions may prevail, with areas away from the far northwest of the country receiving below average rainfall. Temperatures will mostly be around average or above, with any cooler periods likely to be short-lived, and mostly across northern areas.