Our final group offers plenty of interest. A battle of the roses, some counties have focused their minds elsewhere and may struggle and others are likely to launch an understated challenge.
As we stated for the other groups, this year takes a slightly different format, though it is fuller than last year’s Bob Willis Trophy. The 18 counties are split into three groups of six, playing each side both home and away. 1 & 2 in each group will go forward to a second group where they will play four further matches against the other 1st and 2nd place finishers across the other two groups (note four and not five fixtures which you may expect). The top two at this stage will play in the Lord’s final for the chance to be crowned County Champions, winning in the process the Bob Willis Trophy. Teams 3 and 4 and teams 5 and 6 will go two further divisions but will more or less be playing for nothing.
Last season’s finish (Bob Willis Trophy): 6th Central Group
Glamorgan could do with the talents of Marnus Labuschagne as they did in 2019 but his recent success means it will be a case of making the most of when he can play. Around him however is a more balanced team than perhaps their 2020 form suggests. Fellow Australian Michael Neser joins as a bowler who has hovered around the periphery of the Test side and boasts a first class bowling average of just 25.83. Colin Ingram has been brought back into the four day side as a reserve for Labuschagne and will provide some suitable steel at the top of the order in his absence. An evergreen Michael Hogan will hope to add to over 600 first class wickets and Billy Root still averages 33.03 despite not gaining a fraction of the plaudits of his brother.
Player to watch: A strong year over Glamorgan’s T20 campaign last summer, 2021 represents an opportunity for spinner Prem Sisodiya. Highly touted as a youngster the former England U-19 international will hope to add to a limited first class career so far.
Our Predictions: 4thEmbed from Getty Images
Last season’s finish (Bob Willis Trophy): 2nd South Group
Kent will benefit from the return of Joe Denly to the side, who hit 89 in his only innings in the Bob Willis Trophy last year. Whilst his England career is well over he offers a serious class on the county stage. They will miss Sam Billings to his form in an England shirt and will rely on the experience of Heino Kuhn and an evergreen Darren Stevens. Jack Leaning has proved a very useful signing since his move from Yorkshire last year and Daniel Bell-Drummond will be important provided he has not impressed too much in his participation in the Sri Lankan T20 league.
Player to Watch: Born in Afghanistan, right arm off spinner Hamidullah Qadri will hope to make the most of a winter spent honing his craft in South Africa. Still only twenty-one he came to the country age ten and may hope to make the most of England’s lack of genuine spin options. He has already played for England U-19s.
Our Predictions: 2ndEmbed from Getty Images
Last season’s finish (Bob Willis Trophy): 3rd North Group
Jos Buttler, Jimmy Anderson, Saqib Mahmood, Liam Livingstone, Lancashire have a side blessed with extraordinary talent but unlikely to be seen much in the red rose. Which Lancashire will we get? The side that finished second in 2017 or the damp squib that were relegated the next year. Much will rely on Keaton Jennings and we may not yet have seen the last of him in an England shirt.
Player to Watch: All-rounder Luke Wood is now 25 and will hope lessons learnt at Nottinghamshire and Worcestershire will leave him well placed to step out of the shadows and become a recognised match winner in Manchester.
Our Predictions: 3rdEmbed from Getty Images
Last season’s finish (Bob Willis Trophy): 4th Central Group
It remains to be seen whether Northants can translate relative short form success (T20 Blast Winners in 2013 and 2016) to the longer format, and in all honesty it seems it might not be a priority. Who can blame them? It’s a format which has promoted them from being a bit of a laughing stock to a genuine force. Josh Cobb, Richard Levi, Alex Wakely and Luke Proctor will all play to those strengths but they will require more to mount a creditable challenge over the longer format.
Player to Watch: Batsman Charlie Thurston made three notable contributions in the Bob Willis Trophy last year, finishing with an average of 63.19. He will hope to continue that form into 2021.
Our Predictions: 5thEmbed from Getty Images
Last season’s finish (Bob Willis Trophy): 6th South Group
Sussex’s may have a very impressive T20 side but in all truth its difficult to back them over four days. In Club Captain Ben Brown they have a useful wicketkeeping batsman (First class average 39.34) but there best players have been signed with the limited overs game in mind. Ravi Bopara, Luke Wright, Jofra Archer, Chris Jordan, Tymal Mills and Delray Rawlins all have the highest of short game credentials but will play little if at all over four days. Stuart Meaker, Stiaan van Zyl and Mitch Claydon all offer significant experience to the side but they will rely on some big breakthroughs to launch any real challenge.
Player to watch: The twenty-year old spinner from Northern Ireland Jack Carson took a very useful five wicket haul against Surrey last year and has picked up fifteen wickets across four first class matches. They will rely on youngsters such as Carson to fill the hole made by the limited overs focus.
Our Predictions: 6thEmbed from Getty Images
It is difficult to see Yorkshire not launching some sort of title tilt this year, with an established side now used to the international absences of Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Adil Rashid (who is on a limited overs deal with Yorkshire)
Ben Coad should continue to lead the line and was excellent in 2020, taking twelve wickets at 7.25. With David Willey’s place in the international one day side under consistent pressure, Yorkshire may benefit from the presence of him alongside Steven Patterson and the South African Duanne Olivier. On their day it is a bowling line up that can do damage to any side.
The batting line-up isn’t half bad either, Adam Lyth and Gary Ballance bringing international experience and Tom Kohler-Cadmore now more than justifying his place in the side.
Player to Watch: Matt Fisher clearly has talent, that much is plain to see. The right arm seamer will be hoping 2021 allows a better level of consistency and the wickets to fire Yorkshire to their first County Championship title since 2015.
Our Predictions: 1st