Welcome to the murky depths of Division Two county cricket, where forgotten clubs lie ruinous on the seafloor and players old enough to be your grandfather lead the attack. Many of these teams have never even tasted the glory of the top division, since the shift in standings occurred. It’s a place for youngsters to test their skills, dreaming of international stardom and where you may not know 80% of a side. Hence why I had to go and do some actual research this time. Really earning my corn. (Editor – I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, he receives no pay, in corn or any other trade-able produce.)

County Championship Division 2

This division is certainly a place which can be easy to get trapped within, just ask Durham who after being relegated in 2016 stood no chance with their 48 point deduction in return for a monetary bail out by the ECB last year. Okay, so that may be an anomaly but it’s certainly struck the northern club harder than an Anthony Joshua uppercut, with a player drain, leaving only Paul Collingwood still at the club. However far from merely being there as a big name, Colly was phenomenal last season racking up over 1000 runs in county cricket, the first time since the heady days of ’05 he’s reached the milestone. Add to that a maiden T20 century and the top ‘Royal London Cup’ average and the chiselled all-rounder will be chomping at the bit to get cracking.

However, it would be crackers to suggest Durham can claw their way to the top, for their bowling attack relies too heavily on England and IPL star Mark Wood, whilst young batsmen Cameron Steel and Graham Clark are still developing their game. There may be some hope in overseas players Tom Latham and Aiden Markram, the latter of whom has shot to 1000 runs in just ten tests for South Africa, but any title challenge for Durham would be an eye rubbing surprise. They are a club still in transition but hopefully one who will, in the next few years, gain a deserved seat at the county cricket royal banquet.

A side who have a very real chance of tasting expensive wine and succulent beef are Sussex, who are looking to build on last year’s fourth place. Supporters appetites will be whetted by the arrival of ex-Aussie and all round good egg (not normally phrases which go together) Jason Gillespie, who is now in charge. Famous for his piratical appearance and double century against Bangladesh, Gillespie has become one of the most sought after coaches in world cricket, leading Yorkshire to county cricket titles in ’14 and ’15 and more recently bashing the Big Bash trophy in Adelaide.

In the shorter format he brings with him one of the stars of that tournament in Rashid Khan, who takes his wickets at around 14 apiece, whilst in the red ball format another oft wearer of long hair, Ishant Sharma, joins as overseas bowler. With his pace and the chain swinging Chris Jordan, Sussex have an exceptional attack, further bolstered by superstar Joffra Archer. Luke Wells will look to emulate his 1292 runs in 2017, whilst new skipper Ben Brown has a superb chance to haul his side out of the well, guided by the watchful bucket of Gillespie.

One side who suffered the ultimate county cricket fall from grace last season were Middlesex who went from heroes to zeros, albeit only suffering relegation by two points. But this is high octane thriller writing and we have no place for sentimental stats. Middlesex were relegated. That’s the cold hard fact. Who cares by how many points? Now they need to offer a spirited revival drawing on the experience and guile of seamers Roland-Jones and Finn. In their triumphant year of 2016 the former was sensational and needs to hit the ground running this week; both metaphorically and literally.

A teeny positive note from England’s eternal winter was the emergence of Dawid Malan as a viable middle order batsman and he will seek to score big in the first five county cricket matches, before England duty begins against Pakistan in May. When he departs much will rest on England hopeful Nick Gubbins and fellow opener Sam Robson, both of whom were as poor as a student with a debt of fifty grand last year. Interest will be high in how Middlesex fare and members will be expecting, nah demanding a return to the top tent. I reckon they’ll just about do it. But hey, what do I know, I thought Hilton Cartwright was the name of a hotel where you can buy carts at unreasonable prices (Ed – is he going for a gag about Carpet Right here? It’s about as soft as some of their rugs).

Moving swiftly onto Northamptonshire who gave most sides a good beating last year, as they won nine matches of county cricket, only missing out on promotion thanks to a fine for slow over rate. Where was this incurred? Oh at Trent Bridge, not that I’m suggesting anything amiss here you understand. Just pure bad luck which was a shame as Northants are very much a ‘team’ based side (a sly way of admitting I don’t know many of their individual players). New signings though include gritty Luke Procter and New Zealander Doug Bracewell who’ll be looking to add fire to a bowling attack that actually did fairly decently last season with five seamers taking more than thirty county cricket scalps each. A name which does leap off the team sheet is Ben Duckett whose winter problems are an aid to his county, for there are slim chances he’ll be fostering a call by England anytime soon. Duckett will be looking to make a splash and throw all his energy into knuckling down and scoring big runs. If only Carlsberg did cricket days eh? Northants will challenge but batting will be an issue.

Relegated Warwickshire had an atrocious 2017, only winning three matches in red ball and 50 over cricket, with a semi-final T20 Blast the only success. Having two ex-England internationals can thus be seen as more of a curse than a blessing, with Ian Bell handing the captaincy to Jeetan Patel and Jonathan Trott, never switching out of um ‘Trott’ mode. Spending more time gouging out his crease, old Trotty will be hoping for one last hurrah in 2018 which may come about in assisting the development of some promising youngsters. The likes of Dom Sibley and Sam Hain add firepower but will need to assimilate pretty darn quickly to county cricket if the Bears are to appear threatening with bat in hand. My guess is they’ll find it a struggle against stronger opposition and may find themselves stuck in Div Two for a while to come, just like Pooh bear found himself trapped in Rabbit’s front door.

Gazing out of the pavilion window at rain will be Welsh side Glamorgan, who have the wettest summers on record. Indeed 2017 proved to be a damp squib for them, performing woefully in the county championship, with only a semi-final ray of light in the T20 Blast. On a batting front Nick Selman will look to surf on his 872 run wave to the four figure mark, but long time servant Jacques Rudolph has hung up his bat to go and focus his attentions on Santa. One exciting present this year is the arrival of Australian Shaun Marsh, who ripped apart the England bowlers in the winter and will be seeking to add sparkle to an otherwise pretty average team. You’ve got to wonder really why Marsh chose Glamorgan. A belief it stands for ‘glamorous’ in Welsh? As a bet with his bro? Or maybe he wants to continue drinking watered down beer? Whatever the reason, I say ‘Galwad Da mate’. Which in English translates as ‘Bad call mate.’ Should’ve gone to Specsavers when he chose his county cricket side.

And propping up the bottom…

One player who still, at the ripe old age of 44, passes every eye test with flying colours is Kent’s Darren Stevens. Old enough to be the father of most of his teammates hasn’t slowed Stevens down, indeed last season’s outstanding return of 62 wickets and over 700 runs, earned him a place in the BBC’s county cricket team of the season. Heavy set, with a grizzled beard and bald head, Stevens doesn’t look much like a cricketer, but then neither do the rest of his Kent side. It’s his never say die attitude though which makes him a cut above the rest. With newly appointed captain Sam Billings flying to foreign shores for lucrative T20 deals, it’s down to Stevens and young Daniel Bell-Drummond to ensure Kent’s season isn’t a total bore-fest. I reckon it’ll be about as interesting as visiting garden centres with my grandparents was. Need I say more?

Seeds of embarrassment have also been sown at Leicestershire who made a complete horse chestnut of last season. With nine defeats and no wins in county cricket, rapid improvement is required in all departments. Securing the services of Michael Carberry is about as optimistic as growing sunflowers in Manchester, whilst Ben Raine will desperately hope overseas signings Varun Aaron and Mohammad Abas help him rain on a few batsmen’s parades. Certainly Abas looks a decent signing with 23 wickets in five test matches at an average of 21.34 and has been described by coach Paul Nixon as ‘ticking all the boxes.’ If that means being able to hit those upright wooden poles with that funny small plank on the top, then hopefully the foxes will be craftier in 2018.

Two more sides to slog through folks and then you can all go back to watching dodgy videos on the web. First up we have Gloucestershire who had one of the most economical bowlers in Liam Norwell last year, stealing 59 scalps at just 17.39. Add to that young Ryan Higgins and well, pace will be their forte. New skipper Chris Dent offers a steady flow of runs but aside from him, Gloucestershire will undoubtedly struggle.

Glossing over them, we move onto our final county team Derbyshire, who will likewise struggle this year. Keeping Hardus Viljoen fit is a priority, for the South African paceman is hard as nails, proven in his match figures of 15/152 versus Sussex in 2016. If you’re a cricket nerd like me, you’ll be pleased to hear that was the first time since 1952 a Derbyshire bowler took fifteen victims in county cricket. Wonder what the odds are on that happening again? Well, if I’m still blogging in 2074 I’ll let you know. Viljoen is joined by Duanne Olivier and Ravi Rampul in making up a three pronged pace attack, which is about as likely to cause sleepless nights to batsmen as this article is in causing readers to laugh out loud. The most exciting thing to come out of Derby this year will be the continued progress of young off spinner Hamidullah Qadri, who at 17 years of age is mathematically young enough to be Darren Stevens’ grandson. And with that superb link here ends my preview (mic drop).

Whitto’s Table
  1. Middlesex
  2. Sussex
  3. Northamptonshire
  4. Warwickshire
  5. Durham
  6. Gloucestershire
  7. Glamorgan
  8. Kent
  9. Leicestershire
  10. Derbyshire

There you have it then, Whitto’s county cricket 2018 predictions, all here for you to disagree with. Can Archer hit the bullseye? Could Middlesex finish top? Will Warwickshire Trott out batting collapses, making their batsmen look like Bell-ends? Find out right here on the only blog giving a full toss about the cricket and make sure you’ve subscribed to the weekly podcast. Now don that waterproof jacket, pack the corn beef sandwiches, polish those binoculars and hurry on down to your local county ground!