County Championship preview - Group 3: Are Yorkshire and Lancashire the sides to beat?
The County Championship returns on Thursday, so who are the contenders to qualify from Group 3? Roses rivals Yorkshire and Lancashire look strong but Kent, with veteran Darren Stevens in tow, could push them all the way...
By David Ruse
Last Updated: 07/04/21 1:09pm
The County Championship returns on Thursday so how are the sides in Group 3 shaping up?
Overseas players: Marnus Labuschagne (Australia, from May), Michael Neser (Australia, from May), Andrew Balbirnie (Ireland, April), Colin Ingram (South Africa, potential cover for Labuschagne)
Ins: James Weighell (Durham)
Outs: Marchant de Lange (Somerset), Graham Wagg, Kieran Bull, Connor Brown, Owen Morgan (all released), Craig Meschede (retired)
Story of last season: Glamorgan were one of four sides to go winless in the Bob Willis Trophy, losing two and drawing three of their five games as they finished at the foot of the Central Group. A century on first-class debut for Callum Taylor - the 22-year-old hitting 106 against Northants - was one of the few highs in a disappointing season for the county batting-wise, while seamer Dan Douthwaite ended as leading wicket-taker, with 14.
What's changed? Those batting woes could be alleviated by the return of Marnus Labuschagne. The right-hander scored over 1,000 runs for Glamorgan in the 2019 season before he became a fulcrum of the Australia side and is now committed to the Cardiff club until the end of 2022, having seen a planned return in 2020 shelved due to the coronavirus pandemic. Fellow Australian Michael Neser is Glamorgan's second overseas player for Championship cricket, although Ireland's Andy Balbirnie will step in during April with Neser and Labuschagne unavailable. Veteran all-rounder Graham Wagg has been released after 10 seasons, while fast bowler Marchant de Lange has made the switch to Somerset as an overseas player and Craig Meschede has retired due to a chronic shoulder issue.
Century-maker? Labuschagne, obviously, but as good as he is - five hundreds and 10 fifties in 18 Tests at an average of 60.80, third in the ICC Test batting rankings - he will need support and, plus, he won't be available for the April fixtures due to the extension of the Australian domestic season. That may require Billy Root, the younger brother of England captain Joe, to stand up. Billy made one century and one fifty last season, finishing behind only captain Chris Cooke in the club's run-scoring charts. The return of David Lloyd, who missed much of the 2020 season with a foot injury, is a big boon for Glamorgan, who look the outsiders for a top-two finish.
Wicket-taker? With the pacey De Lange having moved on to Somerset and Australian seamer Neser unavailable for the early rounds, the wicket-taking workload, at least initially, will fall on Michael Hogan, who turns 40 at the end of May. Hogan bagged his 600th first-class wicket last season and Glamorgan will hope there are a few more scalps left in him yet and that Douthwaite, Timm van der Gugten and new signing James Weighell can back him up before Neser's arrival.
Overseas players: Heino Kuhn (South Africa), Miguel Cummins (West Indies)
Ins: Nathan Gilchrist (Somerset)
Outs: Sean Dickson (Durham), Calum Haggett, Ivan Thomas (both released), Adam Rouse (retired)
Story of last season: Kent finished as eventual champions Essex's closest challengers in the South Group, ending eight points behind Tom Westley's side after three wins and a draw from their five fixtures. Their sole loss proved a crucial one - going down to Essex by two wickets in a thriller in round one at Chelmsford after Ivan Thomas' four-wicket burst had threatened a comeback victory for Kent. The highlight of the season was an innings win over Sussex, in which Jordan Cox (238no) and Jack Leaning (220no) put on an unbroken club-record partnership of 423 for the second wicket as Kent racked up 530-1. The evergreen Darren Stevens picked up a five-wicket haul in that game en route to 29 scalps for the campaign, behind only Essex's Simon Harmer (38) and Somerset's Craig Overton (30).
What's changed? Thomas has been one of those to depart but Kent have swooped to bring in West Indies seamer Miguel Cummins for the first few months and turned young Zimbabwe-born quick Nathan Gilchrist's loan deal from Somerset into a permanent move. The batting remains as you were and looks rather formidable. Captain Sam Billings may be missing early on due to his IPL commitments but a line-up featuring Heino Kuhn, Daniel Bell-Drummond - who is now vice-captain and will lead in Billings' absence - Zak Crawley, Joe Denly, Cox and Leaning could pile on the runs.
Century-maker? Crawley's coming-of-age double hundred for England against Pakistan last summer showed what a supreme talent he is and, after a tricky tour of Sri Lanka and subsequent wrist injury in India, he returned to the Test side in Ahmedabad with an enterprising fifty in the pink-ball game. Crawley will want a strong start to the campaign ahead of the New Zealand Tests in June. When he does depart for international commitments, though, Kent should have the batting resources to cope.
Wicket-taker? Stevens just keeps on going. The all-rounder will turn 45 in April and become the oldest County Championship player since Eddie Hemmings ended his career with Sussex aged 46 in 1995. Stevens will now surely be eyeing the tally of 600 first-class wickets, a milestone he is currently 54 away from. If Cummins, Matt Milnes and Harry Podmore can support him with the ball - Milnes and Podmore did last term with a combined 34 wickets - and that tasty batting line-up fires, Kent should make a real push for Division One.
Overseas players: Dane Vilas (South Africa), Jackson Bird (Australia - April 22-June 6)
Ins: Luke Wells (Sussex), Jack Blatherwick (Nottinghamshire)
Outs: Brooke Guest (Derbyshire), Stephen Parry (released), Toby Lester (released), Graham Onions (retired)
Story of last season: It was a frustrating campaign for Lancashire in some ways as they finished third in the North Group with just two wins from five having seen their squad depleted by injuries and England commitments. However, it gave them a chance to blood a promising batch of youngsters with 18 players used across the season. The major disappointment will be that no batsman was able to post a century, with Josh Bohannon's 94 against Derbyshire their highest individual score.
What's changed? A back injury has forced Graham Onions to retire but the former England seamer remains at Emirates Old Trafford as bowling coach and will surely relish working with the attack at Lancashire's disposal. In Bailey, Jackson Bird, Saqib Mahmood and Richard Gleeson, the Red Rose have real depth, which will be supplemented by Jack Blatherwick, a new recruit from Nottinghamshire, and James Anderson, with the latter sure to get some games in ahead of England's Test summer. Ex-Sussex man Luke Wells has come in to bolster the top order, while spinner Stephen Parry, who predominantly played white-ball cricket, has left after 16 years.
Century-maker? In Lancashire's century-less 2020 season, Alex Davies was the leading run-scorer, totting up 337 in five games and passing fifty four times. With England's top order far from settled, if the 26-year-old can start turning those knocks into three figures then he could be in contention for higher honours. Wells, meanwhile, will feel he has a point to prove after struggling for runs for Sussex in the 2018 and 2019 seasons and not being selected at all during the truncated 2020 campaign.
Wicket-taker? Take your pick! Bailey has been a consistent performer for years, while Bird has bags of experience and over 400 first-class wickets and James Anderson is, well, James Anderson! However, it could be a big few months for Mahmood. Pacey and well capable of producing reverse swing, the speedster should be a tough proposition for county batsmen - and if that proves to be the case, an Ashes call-up could follow.
Overseas players: Wayne Parnell (South Africa)
Ins: Tom Taylor (Leicestershire)
Outs: Brett Hutton (Nottinghamshire), Rob Newton, Blessing Muzarabani, Tom Sole (all released)
Story of last season: Northants never threatened to make it to Lord's, picking up their sole win in the Central Group in their fourth match with a victory over Glamorgan and ending in fourth spot in their pool. Northants will, though, have been pleased with the progression of some of their young batsmen, with Charlie Thurston hitting a century and two fifties and Ricardo Vasconcelos and Ben Curran managing two half-centuries apiece.
What's changed? Seamers Brett Hutton and Blessing Muzarabani have departed, with the former returning to Nottinghamshire and the latter resuming his Zimbabwe career. Muzarabani bagged 11 wickets last season but Northants have a decent replacement in South African left-armer Wayne Parnell, who has joined as an overseas player after the end of his Kolpak deal at Worcestershire. Parnell will miss at least the first game of the season due to quarantine regulations but will eventually form a potent seam attack with Ben Sanderson, Jack White and Nathan Buck.
Century-maker? Thurston was the leading light of Northants' batting last term and he may have to go big again if the club are to stand any chance of finishing in the top two in the pool. Adam Rossington will hope to fare better than 2020 - yes, he did score a ton against Warwickshire to help secure an unlikely draw but managed a total of 61 runs across his five other innings. Youngsters Vasconcelos, Curran - the brother of England duo Tom and Sam - and Emilio Gay will also want to step up.
Wicket-taker? Sanderson. At 32 and not blessed with extreme pace, the chances of an England call-up look slim but the former Yorkshire seamer is one of the most reliable and skilful county bowlers on the circuit, with his 244 first-class wickets having come at an average below 20.
Overseas players: Travis Head (Australia), Stiaan van Zyl (South Africa)
Ins: Sean Hunt (Surrey)
Outs: Laurie Evans (Surrey), Danny Briggs (Warwickshire), Luke Wells (Lancashire), Harry Finch, Will Sheffield (both released)
Story of last season: Very bad, you'd have to say. Having finished bottom of the South Group with 36 points after four defeats from five, they were then docked 24 points after seam bowler Mitchell Claydon was found guilty of ball-tampering, having applied hand sanitiser to the ball in a game against Middlesex. Claydon, George Garton, Ollie Robinson and Jack Carson reached double figures in terms of wickets but only two batsmen averaged 30 or above - Phil Salt topping out with 290 runs at 36.25.
What's changed? Plenty. Head coach Jason Gillespie has left after three years at the helm to take up a role with the South Australian Cricket Association, with James Kirtley and Ian Salisbury now splitting the head coach role - Salisbury in charge for the County Championship and One-Day Cup and Kirtley stepping up during the Vitality Blast. Former England Women star Sarah Taylor will coach the side's wicketkeepers on a part-time basis, a role she will blend with playing for Welsh Fire in the inaugural edition of The Hundred. Playing-wise, big names Danny Briggs, Luke Wells and Harry Finch have left, while David Wiese's Kolpak deal has ended and he will only play for the club in the Vitality Blast as an overseas player, alongside Afghanistan leg-spinner Rashid Khan.
Century-maker? Batting proved tricky for Sussex last term with Ton Haines hitting their only century, against Surrey in their final game at The Kia Oval. Australian left-hander Travis Head, who averages a lick under 40 from his 19 Test appearances, returns to Hove and should improve the run output, having had a fine Sheffield Shield season for South Australia with three hundreds, as many fifties and 893 runs at an average close to 70. Salt is one to watch, too. He is more renowned for his white-ball batting at the moment but is advancing against the red ball.
Wicket-taker? Robinson. Who else!? The right-arm seamer, 27, has taken 166 wickets at 17.74 since 2018 and picked up 14 in just two games last season having seen his involvement with Sussex limited by being in England's bio-secure bubble. Robinson - who now has 250 first-class wickets to his name in 58 games - is eyeing a Test debut this summer and seems like a natural long-term successor to James Anderson and Stuart Broad in Test whites. Sussex also appear to have found a gem in off-spinner Jack Carson - the 20-year-old Irishman claiming 15 wickets in just four matches last term at an average of 22.66.
Overseas players: Duanne Olivier (South Africa), Mat Pillans (South Africa)
Ins: Dom Bess (Somerset)
Outs: Tim Bresnan (Warwickshire), Jared Warner (Gloucestershire), Ed Barnes (Leicestershire), James Logan (released)
Story of last season: Yorkshire went unbeaten in the Bob Willis Trophy as they topped the North Group but missed out on a spot in the final having accrued fewer points than South Group champions Essex and Central Group winners Somerset. Victories over Durham and Nottinghamshire made it two wins from two to start the campaign but rain-affected draws against Derbyshire and Roses rivals Lancashire dashed their hopes of reaching Lord's and a 10-wicket thrashing of Leicestershire in their final game came in vain. Still, that form suggests they may be the team to beat in their pool this time around. Something Lancashire fans won't like to hear...
What's changed? Dawid Malan - who scored 332 runs in five innings last year, including a double ton against Derbyshire - will miss the start of the season due to landing an IPL deal with Punjab Kings but England Test skipper Joe Root will be involved in at least the first two games of the season while Gary Ballance is back for all of it having missed the whole of the 2020 campaign due to stress and anxiety. Dom Bess, meanwhile, has joined Yorkshire permanently after a loan spell in 2019, with the former Somerset off-spinner hoping to bounce back from a pretty chastening winter with England and become a first-choice pick at county level having spent much of his time at Taunton as back-up to Jack Leach. Elsewhere, seamers Duanne Olivier and Mat Pillans have seen their Kolpak deals become overseas ones, while Tim Bresnan has completed a permanent switch to Warwickshire after an initial loan spell.
Century-maker? Root, for as long as he is around, and Ballance are the obvious contenders, with the latter the only man to place in the top six run-scorers in the top division of the County Championship in each of its previous three seasons. He is a true run machine at domestic level. Harry Brook, though, continued his development in 2020, with the 22-year-old passing fifty on three occasions - a feat equalled by wicketkeeper-batsman Johnny Tattersall - while Jordan Thompson matched being the club's leading wicket-taker with scoring 234 runs, including a career-best 98 against Nottinghamshire. Add in Adam Lyth and Yorkshire's batting seems to have depth, which will swell even further if Tom Kohler-Cadmore bounces back from a poor 2020 in which he averaged 18.14 with a best of 41.
Wicket-taker? Thompson will be hoping to continue in the role of Yorkshire's Ben Stokes by firing with ball as well as bat, the seamer snaring 15 wickets last term, including a maiden five-wicket haul against Leicestershire. But wickets should not be a problem as far as the White Rose are concerned, with Olivier, David Willey, Matt Fisher, Steven Patterson and Ben Coad among the pace options. A thigh injury limited Coad to only two games in 2020 but he still struck 12 times, meaning he now has 157 first-class scalps in 38 matches at an average below 20. Spin-wise, Adil Rashid remains on a white-ball-only deal so Bess should get an extended run. Anyone with a heart will hope he can get among the wickets for a Yorkshire side looking well equipped to challenge for silverware.