Six rising stars
We've picked out some county cricketers worth keeping an eye on
By Paul Vinnell. Last Updated: 10/04/13 6:46am
The new county season starts on April 10
The snow has cleared, the sun is occasionally peeping through the clouds and England have just returned from a disappointing tour.
Such things point to only one thing - the start new county cricket season on Wednesday!
Ahead of the first round of fixtures, we take a look at some players ready to make an impact in the domestic game.
Chris Wood - Hampshire
Hampshire need a big season from Chris Wood, their hugely promising fast-medium bowler.
He has been played for his home county - he hails from Basingstoke - at every age group from U10s, but he is yet to make his presence felt in four-day cricket. This may be the year the former England U19s star makes the big breakthrough.
The 22-year-old was a key man in Hampshire's CB40 and Friends Life t20 double-winning campaign, turning in several apparently nerveless displays of death bowling.
But Hampshire's priority this season is promotion to Division One, and he needs a better return than the 19 wickets he chipped in with from his nine matches in 2012.
Wood has a fine yorker and excellent slower ball - tremendous weapons in limited-overs cricket - but can he make them count in white clothing? Seasoned observers of the Hampshire cricket scene insist he will.
The left-armer is also a useful lower-order batsman, proving it by smashing his maiden first-class century off 80 balls against Leicestershire but it is wickets Hampshire will need from him.
If he can provide the support to David Balcombe and James Tomlinson, Hampshire should go up.
Shiv Thakor - Leicestershire
Shiv Thakor hinted at what is to come by finishing top of Leicestershire's Championship batting averages last season, his first in first-class cricket.
The England U19 captain played six matches, and in his 10 innings he scored four half-centuries to finish with 427 runs at 61, confirming what everyone involved in Leicestershire cricket has known for years - the boy can bat.
Earlier in the season he scored 134 on his first-class debut against Loughborough UCCE, the first Leicestershire-born player to achieve the feat for the county.
Thakor, who once scored 237 for Loughborough Grammar School in the - wait for it - U13 National Cup semi-final, has been talked about in hushed tones for several years now.... 'Leicestershire have got a lad called Thakor - have you heard about him...?'
Tom English, organiser of that schools cup competition, has seen most county cricketers pass through at schoolboy level and he reckons only Marcus Trescothick hit the ball as hard at that age.
Thakor is a classy right-handed batsman, but he can bowl handy medium-pace too, and his intent is to be a genuine all-rounder. Few who have seen him doubt he will one day play for England, and expect him to make a real name for himself in 2013.
Ben Foakes - Essex
Ben Foakes, a 20-year-old from Clacton, was fast-tracked into the England Lions squad for their winter tour - despite having been the third-choice wicketkeeper-batsman at Chelmsford last season.
Why the Lions call? Because he is one of the most exciting batsmen in England, and is likely to play much more cricket this year now that last season's second choice - Adam Wheater - has departed for Hampshire.
Essex gave him his Championship debut against Leicestershire last season and he responded by scoring 93. He has played for England from U16 level and was the top-scorer for the U19s in their World Cup campaign in Australia.
He had the coaches drooling as he walloped 90 off 94 balls for the England Performance Programme in their three-day match against DY Patil Academy XI in Mumbai in November.
A powerful and fast-scoring batsman, he has also been working hard on his glovework this winter, and the Lions management are known to have been hugely impressed by his commitment and attitude.
James Foster captains Essex this season so Foakes will not be behind the stumps much but he could well force his way into the Essex top-order as a batsman alone, particularly in limited-overs cricket.
He is certainly the long-term successor to Foster at Essex and many believe he will leapfrog the likes of Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler and Craig Kieswetter and be an England Test and one-day player in years to come too.
Sam Billings - Kent
What were you doing on Sunday, August 12 last year? You probably either can't remember, or you can say you were at Canterbury and saw Sam Billings smash 143 against Derbyshire in a CB40 match.
That was the biggest innings by a Kent player in limited-overs cricket - not just last season, ever - and that from a player yet to play in the Championship.
In shortened formats though he is already a key player at the age of just 21, finishing last season as top scorer for Kent in the CB40 and Friends Life t20 campaigns.
He has all the shots, and plays with the kind of fearlessness that brings to mind Ali Brown, the ferocious former Surrey batsman.
Billings and Daniel Bell-Drummond - who we tipped up last year - are two major young talents at Canterbury, and with Kent keen to give youth its head this season, it could be an exciting year for both.
Billings, who has spent the winter honing his skills at the Darren Lehmann Academy in Australia, is a wicketkeeper too but finds himself in a similar position to Ben Foakes at Essex.
In Billings' case, for James Foster, read Geraint Jones - he will have the gloves again this season. But when the former England man calls it a day, Kent have a potentially stellar replacement waiting in the wings.
Moin Ashraf - Yorkshire
Moin Ashraf was one of the key players in Yorkshire's surprise run to the Friends Life t20 finals, taking 15 wickets.
The 21-year-old seems to be able to deliver yorkers on demand at slippery pace, and his performances in t20 cricket earned him a regular spot in the Championship side which went on to win promotion to Division One.
The Bradford-born starlet has come through the ranks at Yorkshire, playing for all the age-group teams before signing professional terms. He is also the subject of a parody Twitter account and - unlike Kevin Pietersen - he enjoys the notoriety it brings.
The season 2013 will be a big one for him - he faces stiff competition from Ryan Sidebottom, last year's unsung hero Steve Patterson, Tim Bresnan and new signings Jack Brooks and Liam Plunkett to be part of the pace attack.
But if he continues his upward curve, Ashraf can become a real star in all forms of the game.
Ross Whiteley - Derbyshire
Last season Ross Whiteley made the breakthrough for Derbyshire but there is much more to come from this big-hitting all-rounder.
A graduate of the Derbyshire Academy, he did little in his first couple of seasons in the first-team squad. But he was a pivotal player in the county's surprise promotion-winning campaign in 2012, scoring 498 runs and taking 20 wickets with his left-arm medium-pace.
Whiteley is making a nice habit of scoring runs when his team really needs them, most recently in the title-winning match against Hampshire when he scored 57 and 38 and took 4-43.
He can hit a long ball too, and his fireworks brought international recognition when he was selected to play for England in the Hong Kong Sixes.
He has spent the summer playing Grade cricket in Australia and was a major success, being named in the Team of the Year.
Something of a late developer, the Yorkshire-born Whiteley will be a key man in what is likely to be a tough first Division One campaign for Derbyshire this season - expect him to deliver.