LV= County Championship: Sky Sports News took a tour of the country to visit all 18 first-class teams
Last Updated: 05/04/14 2:01pm
Graham Onions: Was a leading light in Durham's title triumph in the summer of 2013
While it has been a difficult winter for England, capped off with a shock defeat to Holland at the ICC World Twenty20, there are still reasons for cricket fans to be cheerful.
The new domestic season gets underway on April 6 with the opening round of fixtures in the LV= County Championship - and plenty of players will be eager to impress the national selectors with spots up for grabs in the Test XI.
Sky Sports warmed up for the 2014 campaign by calling in to catch up with the preparations of all 18 first-class counties, the six-day long tour ending at the home of the reigning champions, Durham.
The final stop on the long tour around the country was, quite rightly, at the home of the reigning champions. Durham are determined to put up a strong title defence, though international call-ups could hamper their progress. Graham Onions admitted to Sky Sports it had taken a while to move on from missing out on selection for the Ashes, while the county could be set to see much less of all-rounders Ben Stokes and Scott Borthwick. Still, head coach Jon Lewis is confident: "It's going to be tough but nobody expected us to do a great deal last year and we achieved an awful lot."
The White Rose county came up just short in their bid to win the four-day competition in 2013, so will be eager to go one better this summer. Jason Gillespie is the man in charge at Headingley and the Australian feels he has a squad at his disposal capable of challenging for trophies, even if he believes wicketkeeper Jonathan Bairstow will be absent due to England commitments. "The way he plays, he can take attacks apart. His keeping is improving all the time and I think England are on a winner there," Gillespie said to Richard Graves after a very early start in Leeds!
It has been all change at Derby during the winter after their relegation from the top tier in the Championship. Graeme Welch is now there as elite performance director, while Stephen Moore and Scott Elstone have been drafted in to bolster the playing ranks. Captain Wayne Madsen has certainly been impressed by the new faces: "“All of them have had a big impact on the team so far. Graeme has come in and given the team a new lease of life in terms of the training set-up and the ethos and environment that we have created. It is an exciting time for the club."
Notts kick off the season on Sunday when they host Lancashire at Trent Bridge - but they will be without Peter Siddle for the season opener. The Australia international has been held up by visa issues, meaning he will have to wait to make his debut for his new employers. Coach Mick Newell, who also talked about his England ambitions, admitted it was a blow to be without the experienced Siddle. Batsman Alex Hales, meanwhile, is hoping to turn his Twenty20 form into four-day runs after his century in the ICC World Twenty20 against Sri Lanka.
Sam Robson will be hoping to Lord it over a few county bowlers in the early months in Division One, as he looks to boost his bid for a place in England's Test side. The opening batsman told Sky Sports that he is determined to make his international debut sooner rather than later, particularly after he did so well for the Lions on their tour of Sri Lanka. "“I feel I am ready for international cricket. Obviously the last five months have been pleasing; scoring runs for the Lions is a good start," the Australian-born right-hander, who also excelled for Middlesex last summer, said.
Former South Africa captain Graeme Smith is in charge at Surrey this season and he's hoping it goes better than last year. Smith's county campaign was cut short by injury and, in his absence, the south Londoners were relegated from Division One. Now retired from international cricket, Smith is looking forward to working with Surrey's new head coach Graham Ford and former England batsman Kevin Pietersen. "We want to put in good performances," said Smith. "It's always about the cricket and there's a nice young group of guys here. The coaching structures have changed since last year if we can put in some wins, get some results and start moving forward we'll be happy."
The Pears have been forced to leave their New Road home and head to Kidderminster to conclude their preparations for the new season. Despite the issues caused by flooding at their ground, head coach Steve Rhodes and skipper Daryl Mitchell were happy with how the squad were shaping up. They also feel that it is time for some of their young talent to step into the breach, following the departure of Alan Richardson and the possible absence of Moeen Ali, who could be away on international duty with England.
Leicestershire coach Phil Whitticase and new signing Dan Redfern are hoping that the county can improve on their four-day form after they ended the 2013 season rock bottom of Division Two having failed to win a single game. "The lads themselves know they didn't do as well as they wanted to in the four day stuff and from what I've seen while I've been here they're working incredibly hard to put that right," he said. "There's a lot of belief in the changing room that we can do that, I'm sure that starting (with the) first game against Derbyshire we'll be ready."
Kent finished third from bottom in the second tier last season and are hoping for a big turnaround in 2014. Director of cricket Jimmy Adams has been enjoying the Canterbury sunshine but knows his team's focus cannot waver if they are to achieve their goal. "We want to play consistent cricket," Adams said. "Obviously the highlight would be if we could get promoted from Division Two to Division One but along the way we want to play consistently good cricket. I think consistency is the key to doing anything well and we haven't been as consistent as we would have liked in the last couple of seasons."
Warwickshire claimed County Championship honours in 2012 but could not retain their title last season. Captain Jim Troughton saying regaining the crown is at the forefront of everyone's mind but also hopes for a strong showing in the Natwest T20 blast and Royal London One-Day Cup. "The County Championship is always at the forefront of this squad's mind," the currently-injured Troughton said at a pre-season match with Gloucestershire. "T20s have been rather disappointing over the last couple of years so that is something we need to focus on. I think the 50-over competition will suit us nicely." Jonathan Trott is set for an extended campaign with the Bears as he tries to get back into the England fold.
England captain Alastair Cook could be forgiven for having his mind on other things but the Essex player still found time to make his way down to Chelmsford and join in the big countdown. Essex narrowly missed out on promotion to Division One last season and Cook says his team-mates, and the rest of the country's domestic cricketers, will be out to impress this year. "The County Championship season starts next week and it gives everyone a great opportunity to put their name forward," he said. "For a long time we've had a pretty settled team and we've had a lot of success, (but) when a side breaks up and you aren't successful, places are up for grabs."
Gloucestershire director of cricket John Bracewell is targeting promotion back to the top flight as the start of a resurgence at a county that has struggled in recent years. He said: "Continued development is our key. We've got a long-term plan and that is to eventually win the County Championship. One step at a time, it's a young group with two or three really good mentors at the top. If I'm realistic I think we can make the top two or three in the championship and can also definitely be competitive in 50-over cricket."
Hampshire captain Jimmy Adams thinks several of his players can make a strong case for England selection with a good start to the season. Adams said: "It's going to be a fascinating start to the year for everyone but particularly for a number of players in the (England) window. Carbs (Michael Carberry) is in the (Test) squad at the moment and hopefully has a good start to the year to maintain that, James Vince is I'm sure in their views after he had really good last year, Liam Dawson if he can put things together again. There are a number of guys here." Hampshire are hoping to continue their success in one-day cricket this season and are also targeting a return to the top flight of the County Championship.
Sussex's photo call offered the chance for the cameras to catch Matt Prior at Hove, while David Fulton also took the chance to take a tour inside the 'Cricket World' museum at the home of the Sharks, with vice-chairman Jon Filby offering a guide. There was also the chance to catch a word with coach Mark Robinson, who admitted he would have an interest in taking over in charge of England. "I think everybody's childhood dream is to represent their country. I wasn't lucky enough to do that as a player so if there is an opportunity to do it as a head coach I would grab it with both hands," he said.
Sky Sports was also at Taunton for Somerset's press day at the start of the week. The county struggled by their usual lofty high standards last summer, but a mild March has allowed them to get in some good preparation for 2014. Nick Compton is certainly refreshed and ready to go, with the batsman hoping he can push his claims for an England recall with some eye-catching performances in the early games. He told us: "There's a lot of players who are going to want to put their hands up and hopefully I can be one of those at the forefront. I'm going to be fighting as much as I can but first thing is to start strongly with Somerset and really give as much as I can here. Hopefully those England honours can take care of themselves then."