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County curtain up
10:17am Thursday 17th April 2008 in Sport
The County Cricket Season that began yesterday with a full round of LV Championship matches will run until 27 September.
Forget all the varied limited-overs thrashes, including the trillion dollar IPL affair starting in India tomorrow and the Texan billionaire's promised bonanza next year. The four-day, two-innings Championship is the only competition that will prepare players for Test matches and is the one the counties will be most anxious to win.
Since 2001, the 18 counties have been divided into two divisions and this will be the third season when two, rather than three, counties are promoted from Division 1 or relegated to Division 2.
Assessing candidates for the Division 1 title, or for promotion and relegation, has been clouded by the extraordinary number of players who have been released, transferred or recruited during the winter.
No fewer than 552 players feature in the County Register in my 23rd edition of the Playfair Cricket Annual. Of those, 98 have retired or been released, 34 have moved counties and 82 have been freshly recruited. The 420 currently registered players including 70 who are not qualified to represent England.
Durham (29) has the largest playing staff, Leicestershire (15) and Derbyshire (13) culled most players from their 2007 list, Surrey (10) have recruited most players and Durham (9) have the most who cannot play for England.
The bookmakers back Lancashire to win their first outright Championship since 1934. Today Thursday they return to The Oval where their bid for last year's title narrowly ended in defeat and tears. Stuart Law has replaced Mark Chilton as captain (one of five newcomers to that role this summer) and is likely to live up to the abrasive Captain Grumpy' image that he gained while leading Queensland to four Pura Cup titles Down Under. The Red Rose's success may depend on how long Andrew Flintoff's return to England colours is delayed.
Sussex, with Mushtaq Ahmed narrowly avoiding a ban for playing in the rogue Indian Cricket League, have an excellent chance of becoming the first county since Yorkshire, 40 years ago, to complete a hat-trick of titles. The leg-spin wizard has taken 457 Championship wickets at 24.60 runs apiece in five seasons: 103, 82, 80, 102 and 90.
Certainly Chris Adams, the longest-serving current county captain by seven years, will be hoping to celebrate his 11th season in that role with a third visit to Buckingham Palace to collect the Lord's Taverners Trophy and another Pennant.
Geoffrey Boycott has been drumming up Yorkshire's chances in Darren Gough's final season as skipper. Much will depend on the fitness of Rana Naved-ul-Hasan and the early season form of his deputy, South Africa's new speedster, Morne Morkel.
Kent, the only team never to have been relegated to the Second Division, has one of the most astute captains in England's forgotten man, Rob Key. They could win their first title since 1978 if their bowlers stay fit.
Surrey, my tip for last season, had an outstanding second half of the summer after facing relegation and discarding half their team. Although he should be batting first wicket down for England, Mark Ramprakash is likely to be available throughout the campaign. He needs just three centuries to become the 25th member of the Hundred Hundreds Club and will be trying to average three figures for the third successive season.
Two other Surrey landmarks beckon this summer with England's two oldest currently living cricketers, Arthur McIntyre and Sir Alec Bedser, due to celebrate their 90th birthdays on 14 May and 4 July respectively.