This April morning, like so many before, a couple of hundred young men woke with their hearts thumping, their bathroom reflections questioning every dry-mouthed gulp of anticipation and fear. As they unpack their bags of box-fresh whites in six dressing-rooms around the country, we wish them luck and fortune over the following months. For counties big and small, there will also be doubts: will the new signings, only ever chosen with as much whim as certainty, work; will the weather be kind; will England whip away their stars; will the eyes and knees of the trusty stalwart hold out for just one more year?
Out on the pitch, we have six cracking contests – Hampshire, boosted by Sam Northeast and Hashim Amla, play promoted Worcestershire at the Ageas Bowl; Lancashire take on Nottinghamshire at Old Trafford; and at the plum tie at Headingley champions Essex spearheaded by Jamie Porter, freshly crowned Wisden Cricketer of the Year, take on the Yorkies, still smarting from the last-minute losses of Liam Plunkett and David Willey to the IPL and without their Voice of Cricket, legendary broadcaster Dave Callaghan who died last month aged 63.
In Division Two, Kent, under the temporary leadership of Joe Denly with Sam Billings at the Chennai Super Kings, take on Gloucestershire at Canterbury. A slightly creaking Warwickshire are at home to Sussex who have a new coach in Jason Gillespie, who in 2014 and 2015 coaxed Yorkshire to the title. Middlesex, who went from 2016 Champions to relegation in a year, play Northamptonshire’s motley crew at Lord’s.
Two young’uns to watch: Yorkshire’s Harry Brook who captained England’s U-19 World Cup side, and had a good tournament despite being dropped for a misdemeanour off the field; and near-namesake, the strapping Henry Brookes of Warwickshire, who was injured out of the World Cup and is desperate to make up for lost time.
Here at Old Trafford it is cold, grey and damp, but there is much to see. The Lancashire top four: Haseeb Hameed, on whom so many hopes are pinned, Keaton Jennings, fresh from Durham, Alex Davies and new captain Liam Livingstone all have points to prove. There’s no Jimmy Anderson, tasty as he’d be on an April pitch. Maybe that explains the signing of Graham Onions from Durham – and Lancashire also have a fancied young leg-spinner Matt Parkinson up their sleeve, although this may not be his kind of day. Nottinghamshire, fresh from Division Two promotion, start their campaign with three difficult away games. New captain Steven Mullaney, Billy Root, Joe’s brother, Tom Moores, Peter’s son, and Jake Ball, back from a disappointing winter tour, all have shadows to eclipse.
There has been change here too. Last year’s county blog superstar Will Macpherson has hopped across to a super new job at the Standard while Vithushan Ehantharajah has been snaffled by Cricbuzz for the summer. We wish them both much luck (they won’t need it), so bear temporarily with your late call-ups – think a dressing-gowned Ted Dexter vainly perusing his astrology charts. Below the line remains unchanged and is waiting with open arms for your whimsy and wisdom.
Eoin Morgan this week questioned the future of the County Championship. “I’m not sure the Championship matters to everyone anymore,” he said. “I would say I am the last generation of people who care about it.” But, squeezed though it is into the arse-ends of the season, it is hanging on – there are England places to be won and resurrected, and a summer of glories, small and large, to be savoured.