Stewart’s swansong, Yorkshire stars back – talking points ahead of county season

By Sports Desk April 03, 2024

The domestic cricket season is set to get under way this week, with the 2024 Vitality County Championship rolling into town on Friday.

Here, the PA news agency looks at some of the most compelling stories to keep tabs on as the action begins.

Three in a row for Stewart’s swansong?

It will be the end of an era when Alec Stewart takes his leave as Surrey’s director of cricket at the end of the year, with the former England captain already established as first among equals in the county’s modern history. After dominating the championship for the past two seasons, their hunger to see him off with a third successive title will now be even stronger than ever. “We’ll give it a red hot go,” he told the Sky Sports Cricket Podcast. “I know the appetite is there from the players. Is it going to be harder again? Definitely, because every side wants to beat us.”

England’s spin conundrum

England’s Test coach Brendon McCullum teed up a new narrative during the recent tour of India when he claimed it would be “slightly mad” if the strides taken by rookie spinners Tom Hartley, Shoaib Bashir and Rehan Ahmed were stymied by a lack of overs early in the domestic campaign. But it is tough to be overly optimistic about their short-term prospects. After finishing his maiden series as England’s top wicket-taker, Hartley’s path at Lancashire is blocked by the signing of Nathan Lyon, who is still available for seven of the first nine rounds despite Cricket Australia’s workload intervention. At Taunton, Bashir could be reduced to running drinks once England number one Jack Leach is back to full fitness. Ahmed has a clearer road at Leicestershire following the departure of Callum Parkinson, but he is perhaps the least ready to step up as a front-line bowler in home conditions. As ever, county cricket’s distant relationship with spin could cause headaches.

Gloves up for grabs

There is sure to be plenty of speculation over the identity of England’s Test wicketkeeper over the course of the summer, with Jonny Bairstow’s long-term status uncertain and Ben Foakes’ impeccable handiwork in India undermined by modest returns with the bat. Like Bairstow, Phil Salt is away at the Indian Premier League at the start of the English season, leaving the door open for a host of up-and-comers to elbow their way to the front of a busy queue. Durham’s Ollie Robinson was first choice for the England Lions over the winter and plays an ultra-aggressive ‘Bazball’ style already. The same is true of Foakes’ Surrey team-mate Jamie Smith, while James Rew has been tipped for great things after a breakout 2023 season at Somerset. Let battle commence.

Stars to shine for Yorkshire?

Good news has been perilously thin on the ground for Yorkshire in recent times, with the fallout of the Azeem Rafiq racism scandal casting a long shadow. Relegation to Division Two in 2022 was followed by an underwhelming promotion push last time out and Darren Gough has been shown the door as director of cricket. Fans expecting another miserable campaign have two good reasons for optimism: Harry Brook and Joe Root. Having stepped away from the IPL, two of the finest batters in the country will be available for five first-class games each in the first seven rounds, including four together. It is inconceivable they will not raise the standard dramatically and go a long way to positioning the White Rose for a top-flight return.

Durham back where they belong

There is a tangible feeling of righteous indignation when it comes to Durham’s re-emergence at the top table of English cricket. In the midst of grave financial problems in 2016, they were penalised not only with enforced relegation but also a draconian 48-point penalty for the following season. A talent drain followed and hopes of coming back up were further affected by coronavirus complications. Now they are back in a spot they never lost on sporting grounds, with a progressive coach in Ryan Campbell and a fearless squad powered by Test hopefuls Matthew Potts, Brydon Carse, Alex Lees and Ollie Robinson. Every point will taste sweet for fans who have rightly felt aggrieved for eight years.

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    With Surrey already in the ascendancy after posting 428 for a first-innings lead of 143, Lawrence was surprisingly entrusted with the new ball alongside Jordan Clark and snared both Somerset openers.

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    Matt Critchley took five for 105 as Kent slipped from 251 for one following centuries from Ben Compton (165) and Daniel Bell-Drummond (135) to 413 all out and give Essex a 117-run lead at halfway.

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    Will Williams had both Hampshire openers caught behind second time around as the hosts closed on 39 for two.

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    John Simpson’s 205 not out and Danny Lamb’s 134 underpinned Sussex’s 694 for nine declared against Leicestershire, who closed on 86 for one and need 270 to make their opponents bat again at Grace Road.

    Derbyshire closed on 40 for one after being set 401 to win by Glamorgan, who had Chris Cooke’s unbeaten 126 to thank for ushering them to 361 for seven declared at Cardiff.

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    She memorably took a hat-trick at the 2018 T20 World Cup against South Africa before England were again denied by Australia in the final.

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