County Championship 2021 preview (II) – teams

With six days to go until the County Championship begins, here’s my view of how each county will fare, based on player by player ratings. Analysis of conditions is in part I which is here.

Expected Standings

  • Expect Division 1 to comprise Essex, Warwickshire, Surrey, Hampshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire.
  • Note that Group 2 is the toughest: Somerset or Middlesex would probably qualify if they were in Group 3.
  • Warwickshire’s depth means I rank them second in Group 1 – even though Durham and Nottinghamshire have a better first XI.
  • Other than last place in each group, and Essex winning Group 1, the tournament is pretty open.

Group 1

Essex: Obviously the best team in Group 1. May be beatable in the spring, before Harmer is effective. Khushi may be able to displace Walter or ten Doeschate. Good pace bowling reserves

Warwickshire have the best chance of joining Essex in Division 1, with a tasty pace attack and the Brookeses, Lamb & Miles waiting in the wings. The batting may rely on Sibley, Rhodes and Malan. Hopefully Mousley (age 19) gets a good run in the side.

Nottinghamshire have a strong starting XI, with three all-rounders providing balance. They’re better than the 2019 and 2020 tables say. I like the number of above-average players who’ll be playing 2nd XI. Impressive team that Peter Trego might not get into the best XI.

Durham: I like their top five. They also bat deep. My analysis says their batting’s as good as Essex’s(?) At 25-1 I like those odds. Hopefully Borthwick can bounce back on his return from Surrey. Weak in the spin department, but Durham in April doesn’t really call for it. Expect they’ll finish fourth but they are underrated.

Worcestershire are asking a lot of Mitchell’s batting. RHB vulnerable to LS/SLA. Good enough bowling; a bit more in reserve/spin options would be nice. 2nd bottom in Division Two in 2019 (last full season); not expecting too much from Worcestershire this year

Derbyshire are a young team. Did well last year. Historic data may not do them justice as the core of the team reach their peak. Abbott and Reece mean just three specialist bowlers needed. Lots of unknowns: Just need a couple of them to come good.

Group 2

Surrey: should win Group 2. Huge & talented squad; availability better than last year. Just the Currans & Roy missing from the Group stage. Burns and Pope should find the lack of spin to their liking after a challenging winter. Can Surrey keep the momentum up in Division 1 without Burns, Pope, Foakes, Roach?

Hampshire: Division 1 beckons. Batting depth covers slight shortage of quality (with apologies to Vince and Northeast). Openers have previously exposed the middle order too often. Good signings Abbas/Abbott. Opponents will be hoping one of those two is resting when they face Hampshire.

Somerset‘s bowling ensures results, but batting not at the same level. Lammonby’s three 2nd inns Bob Willis Trophy hundreds tell us he can bat. Only one batsman aged between 24 and 33; Hildreth & Davies may find age catching up with them. de Lange a brave choice of Overseas: I’m not certain he makes their strongest red ball XI.

Middlesex are by no means a bad team, but much to do to reach Division 1 from a tough group. No big weaknesses for April/May conditions. An opportunity for Walallawita (22) to become the side’s premier spinner (or for Middlesex to be bold and play without a spinner in conditions that don’t necessarily need one). Harris ensures a short tail (if selected!)

Gloucestershire – Higgins, Brathwaite and Dent are class. The rest of the relatively young top order will have to find a way to make runs. Gloucestershire are normally competitive, but a top two finish is likely beyond these bowlers. Would be good to see Howell play this year.

Leicestershire are a bowler light. Second best openers in the group. Best chance is if Azad/Harris can wear down the opponent’s pace attack. Look out for Rishi Patel, don’t let the First Class average of 17 fool you. Average age 25: this is a squad that could grow together.

Group 3

Lancashire: Best batting in the group. Two very good bowlers will miss out when Anderson plays. Will be interesting to see how Lancashire balance their XI around Parkinson: will they go with five specialist bowlers if they want to include a spinner?

Yorkshire are good enough for Division 1. Bess and captain Patterson are by no means guaranteed a place. Jordan Thompson is worth looking out for. Heck of a lot of youth players in the squad.

Kent have a nice attack. Podmore will be a handful early in the season. Stevens has still got it, even though he’ll be bowling to a keeper half his age. The Crawley-Denly axis may decide whether Kent can pip Lancs/Yorks for a D1 spot. Can Crawley improve FC avg of 32? Denly’s LS mean Kent can go with four pace bowlers. Should they be worried about the size of their squad?

Northamptonshire can trouble any batting order, I think they are under-rated. Ben Sanderson the star player. Wayne Parnell and Tom Taylor add batting depth. An overseas all-rounder was definitely the right choice.

Sussex: I’ll disagree with the bookies here – I think Sussex will struggle. Wiese, Archer and Jordan are hard to replace. Overseas players and Ben Brown will hold the batting together. Lots of young reserves – which I may have under-rated (see the Notes section)

Glamorgan: Labuschagne could win them some games in May. But will it be too late by then? Neser, Hogan, van der Gugten will concern openers, but lower-middle-order batting will get an opportunity as they tire. Will need to see more from the batting of Selman, Lloyd, Root, Carlson.

Notes

  • Bat rating = expected batting average
  • Bowl rating = expected bowling average
  • The lack of 2nd XI games and abridged Bob Willis Trophy mean 2020 has less weighting than most years. This is likely to adversely impact the rating of young players where their data is mostly from when they were less experienced. Don’t get angry if the numbers under-rate your favourite 23-year-old.

County Championship 2021 preview (I) – conditions

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.

Fig 1 – County Championship data from April and May 2019

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.

Bob Willis Trophy preview: part one

Strange times. This year’s County Championship makes the best of a bad situation by fitting in a five-match group stage across August and September. Here’s what I think will happen, based on the Playing Conditions; disrupted squads; and the weather. Part two of this post will look at which players and teams I expect to do well.

Playing conditions

  • A reduction from a minimum of 96 overs to a minimum of 90 overs in a day’s play.
  • Each county’s first innings of a match can last no longer than 120 overs
  • The follow-on will increase from 150 to 200 runs
  • The new ball will be available after 90 overs rather than 80 overs
  • Eight points for a draw
  • Three regional groups of six. Two group winners with the most points contest the final.

Impacts

Perversely, more draws. Fewer overs per day removes up to 24 overs from a match. Capping an innings at 120 overs limits a team’s ability to go big batting once. Add to that the increased points on offer for a draw, and canny captains (once behind in the match) may change focus to points accumulation. While there is need to win the group and outscore one of the other group winners, a defeat makes qualification very unlikely – so conservative cricket may dominate the first two rounds. The last thing you want to do is give your rivals a 20 point head start.

Mismatches – all 18 counties together for the first time since 1999 gives an opportunity for the stronger players in the second division to prove themselves. However, there is the potential for some mismatches. Gary Ballance against some of the weaker attacks in the North group, for example.

Lopsided groups. The South group is toughest, and thus we are obliged to tag it the “group of death”. Sussex and Middlesex are the second division teams in that group, but are better than that. It will be difficult to win the South group, and the winner may not even qualify for the final if their victories don’t yield sufficient points.

Nothing to play for. After two defeats, a team is almost certainly out of contention. With no relegation, I hope teams do the decent thing and give 100 percent. This will be difficult. “Come on lads, let’s do it for the fans streaming this whilst working from home!” Hopefully something resembling the best possible team is selected, though it would be totally understandable if this weren’t the case: players may have other priorities in a pandemic.

Spinners to the fore. A new ball after 90 overs favours spinners (who will have the ball in their hands more) and lower middle order batsmen (who get easier conditions for longer). Win the toss and bat, surely.

Timing and weather

August / early September matches should slightly favour the bowlers. Last year’s first innings scores were 20 runs lower in August/September than the rest of the season. The Test matches have offered turn, indicating what pitches might do given the dry summer we’ve had.

The long range forecast from the Met Office is understandably vague, though hints at more weather disruption in the north than the south.

Confidence is low, but the second week of August is likely to see a mixture of dry and settled conditions, interspersed with occasional bouts of wetter and windier weather. The majority of the unsettled weather will most likely be in the north and west, though it may spread further south and east from time to time. Temperatures are likely to be around the average for this time of year, with any particularly warm weather being short-lived and generally towards the south or southeast. Looking further ahead into late-August, there are some tentative signs that conditions could become more widely dry and settled, particularly in the southeast.

Availability

These aren’t the county sides you’re used to. No overseas players. No England Test players. Won’t see much of the England white ball crew either. That means ignore the 2019 league positions and look at who will actually be playing. Are Hampshire a credible force without Vince, Dawson, Edwards and Abbott?

This is a great opportunity for the 200-250th best cricketers in England & Wales to get a run of five games. Let’s see how many of them can translate second XI success to First Class.

I’d normally end with a proper conclusion- but without analysing the squads that would be a mistake. Will save that for next time- once the teams announce their squads, I can pull in the ratings from my database to see who is best on paper.

For now- my hunch is that the Central group is the best one to be in. Can’t wait to run the numbers on Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire and Somerset and see who is best placed.