his year the County Championship has a new format.
The 18 teams have been split into three groups which should be roughly equal, due to a ranking system based on red ball performance over the past two years (with a bit of leeway to incorporate local derbies). They will face the other five teams in their group at home and away, before moving to Divisions 1, 2 or 3 for the last four games against teams from the other groups. This will create a final ranking of 1-18 for each team after 14 matches. The top team will be crowned the County Champion, but will also face the second-placed team for the Bob Willis Trophy.
Surrey starts the season in Group 2 with (in order of meeting): Gloucestershire, Leicestershire, Middlesex, Hampshire and Somerset.
Abroad: Hashim Amla, Kemar Roach (until end of May), Sean Abbott (from end of May)
Ins: Roach, Abbott, Jamie Overton
Exits: Scott Borthwick (Durham), Morne Morkel
The story of 2020: Let’s be honest, the less we say, the better. Due to the English bubbles and injury hell, Surrey experienced a crisis of availability which saw them living week to week, with lots of loans (sympathy by the way, it should be noted, was slim on the ground). With a few England stars back, they won their last game against a deadpan Sussex side to at least finish fifth in the South group.
Strengths: In the first two months at least, Surrey should not be competing for the races. Their top six looks like: Burns, Stoneman, Amla, Pope, Foakes and Smith, which is full of class. Even with Borthwick gone and Jason Roy at the IPL, Will Jacks, Laurie Evans and Ryan Patel are waiting backstage.
The spin department is also healthy, with Amar Virdi likely to dig a lonely furrow early on before being joined by Dan Moriarty.
Weaknesses: Surrey has dozens of bowlers but, with Morkel gone, is there an obvious attacking boss? Some of their rapids aren’t young (Rikki Clarke, Liam Plunkett), others have a long history of injuries (Reece Topley, Jamie Overton, Matt Dunn), so there will likely be a lot of spinning, and it could be that Roach settle in quickly and play a central role.
Key player: Ollie Pope may have had a rough winter with England, but he’s averaging 71 in first-class cricket for Surrey and warmed up with a century on the weekend. Behind this chic stop three, he should flourish once again.
One to watch: Jamie Smith is only 20 years old and has numbers that don’t quite reflect how richly talented he is yet. He looks set to take the last place in that perfect typing order.
Overview: As always, Surrey looks strong. Their team is large and broad but disparate and vulnerable to the calls of the bright lights of international cricket and the IPL. Will need a senior bowler to emerge and for the Clark (s), Jordan and Rikki, to contribute regularly with the No7 bat and ball as the fifth bowler. If they click, they can challenge Somerset at the top of the group and push for the title.
Group 2 prediction: 1) Somerset, 2) Surrey, 3) Middlesex, 4) Hampshire, 5) Gloucestershire, 6) Leicestershire