Division One preview
Read our guide on the top-flight teams in the LV= County Championship ahead of the new season.
By Graeme Mair and Joe Drabble
Last Updated: 05/04/12 4:09pm
It is time to dig out your favourite pair of bermuda shorts, unfold the deckchair and settle down with a nice cold drink. You guessed it - the start of the county cricket season is almost upon us!
Lancashire proved good things really do come to those that wait when they finally got their hands on an elusive County Championship title last season, their first outright triumph since 1934.
Armchair fans are in for a treat with Sky Sports showing 65 live matches across all three competitions. Each county will be shown a minimum of three times - click here for further details.
Ahead of the opening round on Thursday, we have put together a county-by-county guide and picked out a key player for each team.
Click here for Division Two guide
Captain: Phil Mustard
Head coach: Geoff Cook
Overseas: Herschelle Gibbs (South Africa, for t20), Mitchell Johnson (Australia, for t20)
Outs: Kyle Coetzer (Northamptonshire), Ben Harmison, Mark Davies (both Kent)
Durham produced another consistent campaign in 2011 but missed out on silverware, finishing third in the Championship and losing in the knockout stages of both one-day competitions.
Dale Benkenstein plundered his usual quota of runs, his 1,353 tally placing him third behind fellow old stagers Marcus Trescothick and Murray Goodwin in the top flight, while England seamer Graham Onions returned from back surgery to take 50 wickets in 11 matches.
Durham have lost three players during the winter, Kyle Coetzer's loan move to Northants has become permanent and Ben Harmison and Mark Davies both joined Kent.
Since being granted first-class status two decades ago, the north-east county have produced an impressive conveyor belt of local talent.
And tead coach Geoff Cook is happy to continue to rely on the home-grown formula that brought back-to-back titles in 2008 and 2009.
In that context it is no surprise the only winter signings are an overseas pair for the Friends Provident t20 only, South African batsman Herschelle Gibbs and Australia seamer Mitchell Johnson.
Key player: Ben Stokes - The Christchurch-born all-rounder drew comparisions with Andrew Flintoff and earned a call-up to England's one-day squad after a flying start to last season. His rise was halted by a finger injury that eventually required surgery but he should be back stronger than ever and keen to get back in the England mix.
Captain: Glen Chapple
Head coach: Peter Moores
Overseas: Ashwell Prince (South Africa, for LV=CC & CB40)
Ins: Naqaash Tahir (Warwickshire)
Outs: Mark Chilton (retired), Steven Cheetham (released)
After ending a 77-year wait for an outright County Championship title on a thrilling final day of last season, Lancashire must now try and come up with an encore at their newly-redeveloped Old Trafford.
While the builders were in at HQ, Glen Chapple's men benefited from playing their four-day matches on the result-oriented wicket at Aigburth.
And the Red Rose county will return to the Liverpool venue for half of their eight home Championship matches in 2012, with the others taking place back at Old Trafford, where the square has been moved 90 degrees.
Aside from former skipper Mark Chilton's retirement, the title-winning squad remains intact and is boosted by the recruitment of South African batsman Ashwell Prince.
Prince, assuming he remains out of favour with the Proteas who tour England in the second half of the summer, will be available for all Championship and Clydesdale Bank 40 fixtures.
Seam bowler Naqaash Tahir has been picked up on a one-year deal following his release from Warwickshire to provide some extra competition for places.
Key player: Kyle Hogg - Of all the players to rise to the occasion last season, Hogg was the most unexpected. After recovering from injury, the seam bowler claimed 50 wickets in 12 Championship matches and, at the age of 28, finally moved from the fringe of Lancashire's squad to centre stage. He will again be relied on for a cutting edge with the new ball.
Captain: Neil Dexter
Head coach: Richard Scott
Overseas: Chris Rogers (Australia)
Ins: Joe Denly (Kent), Ollie Rayner (Sussex)
Outs: Ben Scott (Worcestershire), Dan Housego (Gloucestershire), Jamie Dalrymple (released), Scott Newman (Kent, loan)
Middlesex are tasked with bridging the gap to the top flight after earning promotion as Division Two champions last season.
Tim Murtagh, with 85 first-class victims, spearheaded a dominant group of seam bowlers who proved altogether too much for their lower-tier rivals, Middlesex finishing 13 points clear at the top after winning half their 16 matches and losing just twice.
The Panthers narrowly missed out on the semi-finals of the Clydesdale Bank 40, finishing second to Sussex in Group A, but were appalling in the Friends Life t20, ending up bottom of the South Group with only two wins out of 16.
There are several areas of concern in a squad that does at least contain a nice blend of youthful promise and hard-nosed experience.
Only Chris Rogers passed 1,000 runs and the recruitment of opening batsman Joe Denly - who played nine ODIs for England in 2009 - is intended to bolster the upper order. Scott Newman has been sent to Kent on loan in what is effectively a job swap.
Middlesex will need one of their finger spinners, Ollie Rayner and Tom Smith, to step up and play more than just a supporting role to the seamers.Key player: Joe Denly - The opening batsman has fallen off England's radar through a combination of injury and loss of form but still has time to revive his international prospects. Having represented Kent as man and boy, Denly took the difficult decision to switch counties. He represents a clear upgrade to a Middlesex batting line-up that will be under pressure against the superior bowling attacks and pitches in Division One.
Captain: Chris Read
Director of cricket: Mick Newell
Overseas: Adam Voges (Australia, from late May
Ins: Michael Lumb (Hampshire), Harry Gurney, James Taylor (both Leicestershire), Karl Turner (trialist)
Outs: Charlie Shreck (Kent), Mark Wagh, Ali Brown (both retired), Akhil Patel (released)
Back-to-back innings defeats consigned Nottinghamshire to a sixth-placed finish last season - their worst showing since they were relegated in 2006.
Many predicted a serious title challenge from the Outlaws in the four-day format last term, but it was in limited-overs cricket where the Trent Bridge outfit impressed the most.
After topping the North Group of the Friends Life t20 with 11 wins from 16 matches, they ran into Somerset in the quarter-finals, falling on home turf to a final-over defeat.
Batting frailties at the top of the order were largely to blame for Notts' failings in the Championship as only Alex Hales (1,023) passed 900 runs in first-class cricket. In a bid to address those batting woes Notts have swooped for England hopeful James Taylor from near-neighbours Leicestershire and Michael Lumb from Hampshire.
Taylor has been prolific in Division Two over the last few seasons and a successful year could well pave the way for a Test call-up.
The Outlaws will also be boosted by the return of Australian batsman Adam Voges for the majority of the season, however they will start the campaign without an international star due to David Hussey's Indian Premier League commitments.
Key player: Samit Patel - England all-rounder Patel would have been close to registering 1,000 runs and 50 wickets had he featured in more than just 11 of 16 County Championship fixtures last term. His form for both county and England's one-day team propelled him into the Test XI in Sri Lanka this spring and he will be keen to press for further honours with another strong showing for the Outlaws.
Captain: Marcus Trescothick
Head coach: Andy Hurry
Overseas: Vernon Philander (South Africa, for early part of season), Chris Gayle (West Indies, for t20), Albie Morkel (South Africa, for t20)
Outs: Charl Willoughby (Essex), Murali Kartik (Surrey)
It was a familiar story last season as Somerset challenged in all competitions but finished with a bare trophy cabinet.
A slow start and poor finish ended any hopes of a maiden Championship, Marcus Trescothick's men finishing in fourth place to go with final defeats against in-form Surrey in the Clydesdale Bank 40 and, less forgivably, Leicestershire in the Friends Provident t20.
The overseas component of the squad has undergone a gentle reworking during the winter in the hope of finally shedding the bridesmaid tag that is starting to sit uncomfortably at Taunton.
Kolpak seamer Charl Willoughby has left for Essex, India spinner Murali Kartik for Surrey and West Indies all-rounder Kieron Pollard will not be back due to his international commitments.
South African Vernon Philander, who has taken 51 wickets in his first seven Tests, has been brought in for the first two months of the season and should relish English conditions. Philander's countryman Roelof van der Merwe, a feisty spin-bowling all-rounder, could take over in the second half of the season if he can secure a work permit.
Pollard's absence should be covered by the additions of former West Indies captain Chris Gayle and South African all-rounder Albie Morkel for the Friends Life t20, a competition Somerset have lost in the final of for three straight years.
Key player: Jos Buttler - In a loaded batting line-up, Buttler stands out as a superior talent and, at 21, has already made it into England's limited-overs set-up. The Taunton-born right-hander has a wide array of shots at his disposal and uses them aggressively whenever possible. Given the struggles of England's Test middle order recently, a Test call-up before the summer is over is not beyond the bounds of possibility.
Captain: Rory Hamilton-Brown
Cricket manager: Chris Adams
Overseas: Jacques Rudolph (South Africa, for early part of season), Murali Kartik (India, from late May), Dirk Nannes (Australia, for t20)
Ins: Jon Lewis (Gloucestershire), Murali Kartik (Somerset), Jacques Rudolph (Yorkshire)
Outs: Michael Brown (retired), Chris Schofield, Simon King (both released)
Surrey rediscovered their strut in the second half of last season as the Chris Adams revolution finally began to bear fruit.
Marooned in the lower tier since relegation in 2008, Surrey secured promotion back to the top flight by finishing as runners up to Middlesex in Division Two, surging up the table by winning their final four games.
And they added a piece of silverware with victory over Somerset in the Clydesdale Bank 40 final at Lord's, a triumph that owed much to skipper Rory Hamilton-Brown's innings of 78 off 62 balls.
Experience has been added in the shape of former England seamer Jon Lewis, who has joined from Gloucestershire on a two-year deal, and the additions of South African batsman Jacques Rudolph for the first two months of the season and Indian spinner Murali Kartik thereafter.
At 24 and heading into his third year in the role, Hamilton-Brown remains the youngest captain on the county circuit and has the chance to push his England claims. And that goes for several others in a talent-filled squad, including Jade Dernbach, Stuart Meaker and Tom Maynard.
Key player: Rory Hamilton-Brown - A controversial choice when parachuted in from Sussex as captain two years ago, the Millfield-educated right-hander has already crammed much into his career. A powerful strokemaker, excellent fielder and able to fill some overs with his off-spin, it will be interesting to see how Hamilton-Brown gets on in Division One.
Captain: Mike Yardy
Head coach: Mark Robinson
Overseas: Steve Magoffin (Australia, for early part of season) Scott Styris (New Zealand, for t20)
Outs: Ollie Rayner (Middlesex), Lou Vincent (released)
Sussex have kept faith with a squad that finished fifth in Division One and reached the knockout stages of both the Friends Life t20 and Clydesdale Bank 40 in 2011.
Michael Yardy's men were the picture of a mid-table team in the Championship with six wins and six losses meaning they were never really in contention for the title or under serious threat of relegation.
The Sharks' Friends Life t20 hopes ended in an away defeat at Lancashire in the quarter-final and the last chance of a trophy disappeared when they went down to Surrey at the Oval in the semi-final of the Clydesdale Bank 40.
Spinner Ollie Rayner has made his loan move to Middlesex permanent, Queensland seamer Steve Magoffin will join for the early weeks of the season after a deal for New Zealand's Tim Southee fell through, and former New Zealand batsman Lou Vincent has been released in the only personnel changes during the winter.
Murray Goodwin, Ed Joyce and Chris Nash scored heavily at the top of the order last season and seam bowler James Anyon proved a revelation, producing consistent swing and hostility with both new and old ball.
Sussex must hope Monty Panesar, who was Division One's top spinner last season with 69 wickets, will not be required by England as the bowling attack is overly reliant on him, especially at spin-friendly Hove.
Key player: Monty Panesar - The left-arm spinner has rebuilt his career on the south coast since arriving as a forlorn figure from Northamptonshire ahead of the 2010 season. After re-establishing himself as Graeme Swann's chief Test deputy with strong displays for England in the UAE and Sri Lanka during the winter, Panesar knows another big season for Sussex could force the national selectors to consider a two-spinner policy regardless of conditions.
Captain: Jim Troughton
Director of cricket: Ashley Giles
Overseas: Jeetan Patel (New Zealand)
Ins: Chris Wright (Essex)
Outs: Naqaash Tahir (Lancashire), Ant Botha (retired), Maurice Holmes (released)
Warwickshire were pipped by Lancashire for the title on the final day of the last season when they failed to take the seven wickets needed to beat Hampshire.
Nevertheless, a team shorn of England batsmen Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell for much of the campaign exceeded expectations.
A seam attack of Boyd Rankin, Chris Woakes and Rikki Clarke claimed more than 150 first-class victims between them, while opener Varun Chopra, a former England Under 19 skipper, enjoyed a career resurgence.
The one-day arena was an area of concern, the Bears failed to get out of the group stage in either the Friends Provident t20 or Clydesdale Bank 40.
The squad has undergone little change during the winter aside from a couple of like-for-like swaps to the bowling ranks.
Seamer Chris Wright, a success after joining on loan from Essex last season, has moved permanently to Edgbaston, while New Zealand spinner Jeetan Patel is the overseas pro for the entire campaign. Naqaash Tahir was released and injured forced Ant Botha's retirement. Tahir has since joined champions Lancashire.
Key player: Chris Woakes - The all-rounder will miss the start of the new campaign after damaging ankle ligaments during the pre-season tour of Barbados. When he does return, Woakes will be aiming perform well enough to elevate himself back onto England's radar. The 23-year-old probably lacks the pace to be a frontline bowler at international level but his powerful batting in the lower middle-order means he could challenge Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan for a place as an all-rounder.
Captain: Vikram Solanki
Director of cricket: Steve Rhodes
Overseas: Michael Klinger (Australia, for early part of season), Phil Hughes (Australia, from late May), Saeed Ajmal (Pakistan, for t20)
Ins: Ben Scott (Middlesex), David Lucas (Northamptonshire)
Outs: Matt Mason (retired), Chris Whelan, David Wheeldon (both released)
Worcestershire pulled off a remarkable escape act last season, staying up despite losing 11 of their 16 Championship games, including the first five.
Their first win in the four-day format did not come until the start of June but, led by the wickets of Alan Richardson and Saeed Ajmal, ended up retaining their top-flight status by four points.
The Pears struggled in the limited-overs arena, failing to get out of the group stage in either the Friends Life t20 or Clydesdale Bank 40.
Finances remain tight at New Road ensuring there has been no major overhaul of the squad, the addition of Australian opener Phillip Hughes being the only major piece of winter business.
Another top-order batsman, South Australia's Michael Klinger, will cover until Hughes' arrival in late May, while Pakistan spinner Ajmal is returning for the Friends Life t20 only.
Considering only Vikram Solanki passed first-class 1,000 runs among a misfiring top order in 2011, Klinger and Hughes will need to score heavily if Worcestershire are to avoid another season-long relegation scrap.
Key player: Alan Richardson - With his 37th birthday coming a month into the new season, it is asking a lot of Richardson to replicate his heroics of last season. Without his 73 wickets, the most in Division One, Worcestershire would have finished adrift at the bottom of the table. Concentrating solely on four-day cricket helped the much-travelled seamer avoid the injuries that thwarted his England ambitions earlier in his career and the Pears will be desperate for more of the same.