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Cricket news - 2019 County Championship: A season full of opportunities

Can Surrey defend their crown?

Welcome to the most wonderful time of the year! Sure, a lot of events lay claim to such a tag - we see you, Christmas - but the start of the County Championship fills many an Englishman and woman with similar feelings of excitement. There's something tangible in the air - a cocktail of hope and expectation with a splash of rain - that this could be *your* year, whether a fan or player.

Whether you're braving the cold or keeping a sly eye on proceedings at work, Cricbuzz will be here to take your hand and guide you through the next six months. It's going to be a heck of a ride...

WHO'S WINNING IT?

Let's just cut straight to the chase. That's the only reason why you're here, right? Mug's game, this prediction lark. Every year we go through the ins and outs of the counties; who's been promoted; availability of England players; sizing up those in the 22 to 26-year-old sweet spot of coming good but not yet good enough to be whisked away to fill the various holes in the Test side. All that to say, well, there's no reason Surrey cannot defend their title. Or that Essex can ride again on their knight's watch. And, well, yeah - both are true. Last season's Champions look just as vibrant and just as well-stocked this time around. Alastair Cook gives Essex a threat like no other: colour us staggered if anyone scores more Division One runs than Cook this summer.

Somerset have pushed the Champions close twice in three years and will feel they're only stronger this year: able to call on Pakistan batsman Azhar Ali for the whole season, with Jack Brooks strengthening the seam bowling reserves. There is a lot on the line for players in their dressing room with regards to international ambitions: Jamie Overton will finally want to make the step-up to Test cricket after a number of close calls, Jack Leach has an Ashes place to secure - Dom Bess a first XI one - and James Hildreth just wants to let the selectors know he's still around. Will this, finally, be their year?

But there's something about Nottinghamshire. You might say their preparation ahead of this campaign has been very football, but an ambitious recruitment drive has given them a squad with almost every box ticked. Ben Duckett and Joe Clarke, with the reliable Ben Slater, offer the perfect blend of run-scoring styles with equally fresh faces. Their attack, too, has been reinforced with former Leicestershire quick Zak Chappell and a return from injury for Paul Coughlin, brought in from Durham for 2018. With Jake Ball set for a full summer and Stuart Broad around for the first three months, there's certainly something brewing there. Think of them as the darkest of horses (Vantablack horses anyone?). Because obviously, Surrey are winning it again, aren't they?

GOING DOWN?

A far more treacherous prediction, this. For starters, only one team will be relegated as Division One moves to 10 teams in 2020, supplemented by three coming up (more on that later). There also isn't much to choose between the sides duking it out at the gritty end. Looking at the two newly promoted teams, it is Kent who look the most susceptible to dropping back down. Without captains Sam Billings and Joe Denly for the start of the season, Heino Kuhn will have to pick up where he left off in 2018 and Zak Crawley - 21, bee's knees - will have to continue his heady progression. Australian Matt Renshaw offers more than suitable cover, too. Warwickshire though, who finished top of Division Two, have added firepower to their ranks in the ex-Gloucestershire quicks Craig Miles and Liam Norwell. They join Olly Stone and Henry Brookes in a pack that can be shuffled regularly and not lose any zip. Signing Duanne Olivier gives Yorkshire a world-class edge. They scrapped last year and may have to do so again. May 14 is a date for your diary - when Kent host Yorkshire in an early 48-pointer.

PROMOTED FROM DIVISION TWO?

So, as mentioned above, the 2020 reshuffle means three are promoted from the second tier. The romantic in me wants to throw Durham into the mix and, actually, why not? Allrounder Ben Raine has returned home and, as allrounders do, gives the XI a better balance. Jack Burnham returns from his drug suspension just as talented but even hungrier to put things right and repay the faith of the club. Former Yorkshire skipper Alex Lees brings some experience to the top order. Cameron Bancroft is going to captain them, too. Yep, that's happening. They certainly won't be boring. The issue for them will be the strength of Lancashire, Middlesex and Sussex - in that order - who are Cricbuzz's favourites for the jump. Perhaps Middlesex can take top spot. Injuries to Steven Finn and Toby Roland-Jones last summer curtailed the 2016 Champions' attempt at returning to Division One immediately. Both are raring to go again and form part of an international quality attack with James Harris, Tim Murtagh and Tom Helm.

WOODEN SPOON

Eesh, not a nice one this. But Glamorgan again? Losing Aneurin Donald feels symbolic: the young Welshman touted early for big things has moved to Hampshire to come good on those promises. They will be a force in the Twenty20 format but when it comes to red ball cricket, they are nowhere near as savvy. They may be saved by Gloucestershire who, shorn of two key bowlers, and with a very green look to their batting, are also set for a difficult summer. The more docile surfaces at The Brightside Ground, Bristol, may get them out of trouble.

CHART-TOPPERS

Rory Burns should play all six Tests which paves the way for Hildreth, 2018's second-highest Division One run-scorer, to take No.1. He's batting number three this summer and though there is no doubting his ability, it just seems so very likely that selectors will overlook the 34-year-old once more. If so, a full programme awaits. Burns' Surrey team-mate Ollie Pope is likely to churn once more. From left-ish-field, Sam Hain - perennially tipped in these conversations because he's really that good - turns 24 in July and is slowly maturing into a world-class red ball batsman, while being closer to that level against the white one. Lower down, Wayne Madsen (Derbyshire) is always going to get his share and is your safe bet for the first to a thousand runs. Might we see another opener plucked from Division Two? A strong start from Middlesex left-hander Nick Gubbins could extend that run. Fellow southpaw Luke Wells (Sussex) might also be a few performances away from getting his queue number for a go on the England opener merry-go-round.

Ball in hand, Lancashire's Tom Bailey and Graham Onions shared 121 wickets between them in Division One, so expect a collective haul around that figure now they are operating a level blow. Though maybe this paragraph should just stop at the mention of Duanne Olivier with his Test match bowling average of 19.25, thanks to 48 wickets across 20 innings. Just quietly, Surrey's Conor McKerr, a 21-year-old beanpole quick who has filled out over the last 18 months - put him down for at least 40. Kid's the new Morne. Seriously.

KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR...

Haseeb Hameed. Just like, if you see him around this summer, ask how his day is going. Maybe even give him a hug, but only if it seems right. His contract's up at the end of the year and Lancashire are only so willing to keep him on. Last year's dire slump - 170 from 18 innings at an average of 9.44 - has been attributed to many things, all of which have some case to answer for the wider problem that the 22-year-old has lost his off stump. Most around him say he puts too much pressure on himself. That there is outside pressure on him to succeed every time he goes out to bat which means he looks a dream in the nets and a nightmare in the middle. Can't imagine the recent words from his director of cricket, Paul Allott, have helped.

Durham are still finding a way of churning out talent, so watch if Josh Coughlin, younger brother of Paul, can take his chances when they invariably arise. Will Jacks (Surrey) has something ridiculous like a 120-ball 150 in him. If it's bowlers you're after then Worcestershire's Dylan Pennington is perfect bandwagon material. Though 24 might be too old to be touted a prospect, Abi Sakande could finally get a good run at Sussex after some impressive pre-season spells.

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