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County Cricket 2011: Who will be the front runners?

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County Cricket is back on again at lastSaturday marked the moment when the first competitive cricket of our great English Summer began. Those hoping for a good start to the season will not be disappointed, as for one of the few times in living memory; the season is beginning in glorious sunshine and high temperatures.

The season begins with the County Championship, which many believe a dying art. However Nottinghamshire’s performance in the final game of last season, where they literally pipped Somerset at the post, proved that the excitement is still there and that four day cricket still has a place in the T20 era. As we move into May, early match ups in the Clydesdale Bank 40 take place but the competition doesn’t really get going until July after the takeover of Twenty20 has occurred. The Twenty20 tournament has transformed domestic cricket to the point that it almost completely shuts down the other formats of the game whilst the country is gripped by the more ‘exciting’ format.

It’s hard to tell just who are the front runners are going to be before the season begins. There is no, Manchester United and Chelsea of cricket, in fact, the situation in County Cricket at present is more one of panic over losses sustained by many counties last season.

Surrey, under young skipper and ex-Millfield boy, Rory Hamilton Brown, look set to mount a challenge for promotion from Division Two of the four day game. Imports include Zander De Bruyn from Somerset and Kevin Pietersen, although it remains to be seen how much he will feature. Their batting line up is held together by stalwart Mark Ramprakash, who continues to churn out run after run at the age of 41 plus Wicketkeeper-batsman Steven Davies who proved last year he can score runs at the highest level. They also look certain to mount a threat in the One-Day formats with a lively bowling attack which has raw pace in the form of Stuart Meaker. Leg spinner Chris Schofield and the experience of Yasir Arafat add vital components to an impressive bowling threat from the Kia Oval side. If Ramprakash can use his experience and talents and keep making hundreds for fun Surrey may well find themselves promoted next season.

One to Watch– Jade Dernbach. The raw pace of Dernbach, along with his canny use of the slower ball will cause concern amongst opposition batters, especially in T20 and Pro40.

Also looking threatening in Division Two are Essex who will be looking bounce straight back from relegation. They’ll also be hoping to mount a strong campaign in One Day cricket which offers a more realistic chance of a trophy. They’ve managed to bring in Owais Shah from Middlesex which could turn out to be a fantastic signing if they manage to get through the first six rounds of the championship which Shah and Dutch World Cup Hero Ryan Ten Doeschate are unavailable for due to the IPL. Essex remain under the leadership of Wicket-keeper James Foster, arguably the best gloveman in the country, and he’s certainly capable with the bat too. He’s shown he has the ability in all forms of the game, batting patiently in the championship and despite being no slogger, being able to accelerate the run rate when needed too. Essex possess a powerful batting order which also includes Ashes Hero Alastair Cook and look to have the potential to score a lot of runs this season.

One to watch– Ravi Bopara. The wristy, leg side dominant batsman showed he can make runs for England in the world cup and should welcome a return to domestic games. He looks set to make a lot of runs this summer, if he doesn’t get called up for England.

Somerset will be looking to one better in every competition this summer. Beaten finalists in the Friends Provident T20 and the Clydesdale Bank 40 in 2010 as well as being overtaken at the last hurdle in the championship, Somerset look set to improve on last year and end the streak of bad luck where finals are concerned. Marcus Trescothick offers the experience at the top of the order and has seemed to find county cricket easy since his return from mental illness. The Cidermen will be looking for the ex-England opener to come good at the top of the order and give them a great platform at the start of the innings which the likes of Kieswetter, Trego and Youngster Jos Buttler can thrive on. Somerset have looked to strengthen their bowling attack over the winter in order to give them a better chance of producing a result when playing at home which has been nigh on impossible over the past few years due to the batter friendly surfaces at Taunton. Steve Kirby has been signed from Gloucestershire and will offer movement through the air as well as more control in the One Day game especially. Alfonso Thomas, one of the stars of the T20 competition last year, leads the bowling attack with his wide range of slower balls and other variations including a fearsome bouncer. In the spin department, Somerset have replaced Murali Kartik with Ajantha Mendis for the first half of the season before Kartik returns to rip through batting line up’s later on this summer. Somerset will be hoping Mendis can reproduce Kartik’s performances last summer where he seemed the only bowler capable of picking up wickets on a regular basis at Taunton.

One to watch– James Hildreth. He had a great tour of the Caribbean with the England Lions over the winter and looks set to stake a claim for England selection with a hatful of runs this summer. Lots of hundreds for this man.

Nottinghamshire have an excellent chance of defending the title they won so dramatically in 2010 but Durham and Hampshire will certainly be in contention come September.

Durham have already made a good start to their Championship campaign amassing an impressive 413-6 on the First day of their match against Hampshire at the Rose Bowl. The evergreen Michael Di Venuto continues to make runs at the top of the order and a middle order boasting the likes of Benkenstein and the powerful hitting of Blackwell has the capabilities of producing match winning performances. Durham will be bolstered by the likely return of Paul Collingwood which will help them in all forms of the game. Since his retirement from International cricket, Steve Harmison has been improving with every game and with his pace and bounce should take wickets on a regular basis. Harmison, plus two more ex-England fast bowlers Graham Onions and Liam Plunkett make up a threatening trio for Durham and opposition batter’s could be reduced to tatters if these three get going.

One to watch– Phillip Mustard- The wicketkeeper-batsman has a lot of power at the top of the order in One day cricket and could provide the racing start that modern day cricket seems to require.

Predictions.

CCD1– Somerset to finally overcome their frailties in finals and bring home the trophy. Durham to be 2nd.

CCD2– Essex’s batting order has to be too strong to keep them down in Division 2 for another year. They along with surrey will be promoted.

FP T20– Anybody could make finals day this summer, the most likely is probably Somerset, Hampshire, Essex and Durham.

CB40– Hampshire to reach the final but lose to Surrey as the brown caps bowling attack blows them away.

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