Cloudy skies, Arctic conditions, winter coats and one mini heatwave. What else could we be talking about but the start of the 2018 Specsavers County Championship? Yes, after six months of watching Vince continuously nick to slip, Lyon preying on Cook and Mo forgetting how to spin the ball, proper cricket is back. The sort of cricket where you willingly huddle against the gusty gales blowing in off the south coast at Sussex or borrow an elderly lady’s Sudoku in the rain delay (just me then?). We love the county championship because it is the very foundation of our great game. Last year saw a season of drama; Harmer ripping through Yorkshire, Stevens proving he’s still way off his bus pass and Middlesex being relegated on the final day of the season. Essex were worthy winners and had the two highest wicket takers with Jamie Porter and Simon Harmer both reaching the vaunted 70 figure mark. As Middlesex’s year was tragic, Essex from promotion to champions was magic. But that was last year. We’ve had a whole winter since then. It’s time to stop looking back and instead peer into the cloudy visage of Whitto’s crystal ball to see part one of his county championship predictions.

County Championship Division 1

With Essex proving to be the surprise package last year and previous champions Middlesex going down, I can confidently declare that I have no bloody clue who is going to emerge victorious in 2018. Now whilst that may be the most sitting on the fence county championship prediction you’ve ever heard, it really is the truth, for essentially anybody can win the damn thing. End of.

Sadly for you though I don’t get paid for writing nothing. (Editor – he doesn’t get paid anyway reader. Who’d pay for this crap?) There’s a word quota to fill here. So prepare to be dazzled as I take a look in closer detail at the riders and runners in my county championship predictions. Let’s start with the champions Essex (cue topless fat man shouting Eaglesssss at the top of his voice).

Now we’ve already touched on how magnificent 2017 was for the Chelmsford boys and they’ll certainly believe they can do something never done by an Essex side since 1992. Retain the title. Lead by the effervescent Ryan Tendoeschate, Essex will look to their new ball attack dog Jamie Porter and spin king Simon Harmer to do the damage. If Ports and Harms can do even half the um… harm they inflicted last year then Essex will mount a serious challenge. The story of young Jamie Porter is an inspirational one, from almost giving up the game four years ago to being Wisden Cricketer of the year, Porter has learnt from county veterans David Masters and Graham Napier that you don’t have to bowl 90mph to collect wickets in bunches. With further experience this year coming in the guise of Aussie Peter Siddle, Essex have only strengthened in the bowling department. Where they may fall down, is if opposition batsmen have figured out how to pick Harmer, thus neutralising his threat. With a fearsome batting line up of Cookie, Browne, Westley, Lawrence, Bopara and Tendo, Essex will seek to defend their title with spirit and skill. You’d be a fool to bet against them.

As I’ve been called a fool many times though, why don’t I offer some wilder county championship predictions to the trophy going back to the flat lands of Essex. How about Surrey or Lancashire? Yes I know you may accuse me of purely going off the positions from last year but really these two teams have a fantastic chance. Let’s start with Surrey who have signalled their intent to challenge with the signing of Morne Morkel for two years. Having recently retired from international duties, Morkel’s signature is a massive coup for shirt sales and tumbling wickets alike, for the long limbed paceman is pretty much still in his pomp. He will demonstrate just how wide the gap is between county and country level, with young England hopefuls such as Alex Davies at Lancs and Sam Northeast at Hamps required to step up to the plate.

With terrier Gareth Batty handing over the skipper reigns to Rory Burns, who himself notched up over 1000 runs last year, Surrey have an eclectic mix of youth and experience. Somebody who’ll be greatly missed though, as he would by absolutely anyone, is Kumar Sangakkara whose 1491 runs at 106.50 were his last in the county championship. How about this for further evidence of the gaping hole? In his three years in London, Kumar racked up 4391 runs including nineteen centuries!

However who better to replace one of the greatest batsman in the world than… one of the greatest batsman in the world, for there are strong rumours Virat Kohli may be coming! If he arrives then Surrey will challenge and if Mitchell Marsh regains fitness then they’ll have an international all-rounder on the books. A lot of ‘if’s there though. What IS certain in my county championship predictions then? Well with Morkel, Surrey have a super chance to turn those ten championship draws last year into wins. If they do, then look out Eagles!

An impressive side last year were Lancashire who in finishing second had their best season since 2011. In appointing young Liam Livingstone as skipper, Lancs have an energetic and powerful line up, with their top four potentially all being English. Featuring Haseeb Hameed, new signing Keaton Jennings, wickie Alex Davies and Livingstone himself, the Red Rose will seek to explore the future of the England test side or failing that, turn into a tribute act for Take That. That said, don’t be surprised Lancs fans if you’re Up All Night worrying about being 32/4, such is the curse of England’s batting these days. If with a little Patience, those guys Shine as a line up, there’s also the veterans Shiv Chanderpaul and Dane Vilas to come, which should see Lancashire’s batting Rule The World. Never Forget though that without overseas players Ryan McClaren and Kyle Jarvis, there’s a lot of pressure heaped on the creaking shoulders of Giants Jimmy Anderson, Graham Onions and new blooded Babe Saqib Mahmood. Get Ready For It because Lancashire could have the Greatest Day in their history this season. There I’ve Said It All!

Now whilst I wait for the sponsorship from Barlow to come flooding in, let’s have a quick look at some of the other sides in Division One this year. Dark horses in the county championship are Hampshire, who although only narrowly avoided relegation last year, have some canny additions to their squad. Notably in securing the services of South African legends Hashim Amla and later on this season Dale Steyn. Amla’s performances with the bat will contribute to much needed high scores for Hampshire, with no batsman averaging above 40 last year. Throw in a stolen Sam Northeast from Kent and runs will flow as heavy as the April showers this year. Kyle Abbott will also be seeking to carry on from his scintillating haul of wickets last campaign.

Aiming for mid table mediocrity are the land of savoury soggy puds and Geoff Boycott (one and the same really) Yorkshire. After two tremendous title winning years in 2014 and 2015 the ‘Vikings’ were about as marauding last season as our Geoff was in batting. With the stink of relegation in their nostrils until the final match, Ballance’s boys will be seeking to plug the stench quickly and ensure survival. Much will depend on the captain who almost reached 1000 runs last year and young seamer Ben Coad who had a breakthrough campaign with 50 victims.

Sharing the overseas responsibilities are Cheteshwar Pujara and Kane Williamson, with the former swinging his arms in the early part of the season while Williamson canes the bowling at the IPL. Ryan Sidebottom will be much missed, so too Adil Rashid, whilst aging Steven Paterson and Tim Bresnan will need all the sugary sweets they can scoff to keep up their energy levels over a gruelling six months.

Going Down Swinging

As for the relegation dogfight… Newly promoted Worcestershire will struggle as have only added aging Steve Magoffin and yet to be proven Travis Head to a line up, which admittedly stormed to promotion. It will be interesting to see how skipper Joe Leach copes in an under pressure environment, whilst youthful Josh Tongue will want to kiss some departing batsmen goodbye as he seeks to make the leap up a division (saucy I know). My county championship predictions for Worcestershire by the way have absolutely nothing to do with them being promoted and then immediately relegated four times on the bounce. If anybody is the proverbial ‘yo-yo’ side…

A team seeking to cement their status as a Division One side are Nottinghamshire who saw the dedicated servant Chris Read’s stunning retirement last year. Now under the able hands of Steven Mullaney, Notts have vital experience throughout their side with a formidable pace attack including Stuart Broad, Jake Ball, a concussed free Luke Fletcher, Mark Footit and Harry Gurney. Where they may struggle though is in the other 50% of cricket; with bat in hand. Losing Brendan Taylor and the inexplicable reasoning of Alex Hales to only play white ball cricket, means much will rest on Samit Patel’s hefty shoulders. If he carries on his brutal 2017 form with the bat and ties up opponents in knots then the Outlaws will probably survive.

All this means according to my calculations that I have just one more team to witter on about in my county championship predictions. Ah yes, Somerset. A side where captain Tom Abell couldn’t even hit a sweet smelling cider factory barn door last year. He was so poor, he dropped himself and almost his side into Div Two. A low point so them skittled out by Lancashire in one session and only James Hildreth put in any kind of season performances to write home about. Undoubtedly Somerset’s greatest weapon is spin in the form of twins Leach and Bess, however you have to fear for a side that are once again relying on veteran Trescothick to open the batting, with Cameron Bancroft no longer travelling to the south west due to important DIY jobs needing completing back in Oz…

Whitto’s Table
  1. Essex
  2. Surrey
  3. Hampshire
  4. Lancashire
  5. Yorkshire
  6. Nottinghamshire
  7. Worcestershire
  8. Somerset

There you have it then, a quota of words filled and a load of hard thought out county championship predictions for you to ponder on Division One. Can the Eagles soar once more? Could Onions cause Lancs fans to weep with joy? Will Ballance tip the scales in favour of Yorkshire? There’s much to find out.