County Championship predictions: Can anyone stop Surrey’s title charge?

County Championship predictions: Can anyone stop Surrey's title charge?
Surrey are the team to beat once again - PA/John Walton

The County Championship season begins on Friday and there will be plenty of quality on show with a number of England players set to play the majority of the opening six rounds.

Telegraph Sport’s experts predict how the season will play out and which players to keep an eye on this campaign.

Championship winner

Nick Hoult: Durham look ready for a serious title tilt straight after being promoted. Essex did it in 2017, so why not?

Scyld Berry: It’s Surrey for a hat-trick because they are simply so well-stocked with batsmen and seamers.

Will Macpherson: Durham look strong, especially with Ben Stokes now available more, but it’s hard to look beyond Surrey for a ‘three-peat’. There’s a reason no team has done this since the seventies, but the emotion around Alec Stewart’s departure will drive Surrey.

Tim Wigmore: It will be fascinating to see how Durham fare in Division One, but Surrey’s all-round quality, which will be boosted by the availability of Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes, means they are still favourites.

Relegated and promoted

Nick Hoult: Kent and Worcestershire look the weakest teams on paper, and will go down. Yorkshire and Middlesex will put their respective (and quite different) troubles behind them to return to the top flight.

Scyld Berry: Kent, who just survived last year, and Worcestershire, who underachieve in this format, will be relegated. Yorkshire, bolstered by Harry Brook and Joe Root in early season, and Middlesex, who were relegated last year, to be promoted.

Will Macpherson: Alas, Worcestershire surely do not have enough to stay up in a decent-looking top flight. Even with the excellent addition of Matt Parkinson, Kent probably lack the incision in their attack to survive. Yorkshire look the strongest side, and Sussex might just have turned a corner under Paul Farbrace.

Tim Wigmore: Worcestershire and Kent to be relegated. Yorkshire look the standout side in Division Two; the new ball partnership of Ollie Robinson and Jayden Seales could mean that Sussex join them.

Player of the season

County Championship predictions: Can anyone stop Surrey's title charge?
Can Durham's Ollie Robinson break into the England team? - Getty Images/Stu Forster

Nick Hoult: Ollie Robinson (the Durham one). Too soon for England, but at the heart of a strong team.

Scyld Berry: Surrey’s Jamie Smith as a batsman, as long as he doesn’t get weighed down with wicket-keeping. For now, he and Ben Foakes sit beautifully in the same side.

Will Macpherson: Ed Barnard just keeps putting in performances. Warwickshire do not look too strong to me, so his all-round excellence could be the difference between survival and relegation.

Tim Wigmore: Liam Dawson remains a formidable all-round package and should play every game for Hampshire.

Breakout star

Nick Hoult: Warwickshire’s Dan Mousley did not make loads of runs for England Lions this winter but he did impress some very fine judges.

Scyld Berry: Gloucestershire’s Ollie Price. The younger of the two Price brothers is a good batsman and useful off-spinner, who has a fine temperament.

Will Macpherson: Sussex’s James Coles finally turned 20 this week, having made his first-class debut in 2020. A batsman who bowls left-arm spin (and is working with Graeme Swann through England), Coles firmed up his spot last year and is ready to kick on.

Tim Wigmore: Aged 23, Kent’s Tawanda Muyeye can transform his abundant potential into regular County Championship runs.

Top run-scorer

County Championship predictions: Can anyone stop Surrey's title charge?
Essex signed Dean Elgar on a three-year deal. - Getty Images /Alex Davidson

Nick Hoult: Keaton Jennings, whose England days may be behind him, remains a class act at county level as Lancashire’s captain.

Scyld Berry: Jake Libby, as Worcestershire’s pitches are improving (when New Road dries out), and he will have a huge role to play if they are to survive.

Will Macpherson: Dean Elgar is a very canny addition at Essex now that Alastair Cook has retired. Will just pip Alex Lees.

Tim Wigmore: The terrific Leus du Plooy should thrive after moving to Middlesex from Derbyshire, and can make up for the lack of an overseas signing.

Leading wicket-taker

Nick Hoult: It doesn’t matter what time of year games are played, Simon Harmer picks up wickets. A phenomenon for Essex.

Scyld Berry: There is only one Cook left at Essex, but Sam Cook is among the most consistent seamers in the country.

Will Macpherson: Northants’ Jack White took 50 wickets in Division One last year, and will take more in Division Two. The latest in their line of outstanding late blooming seamers.

Tim Wigmore: Simon Harmer. A boring answer, but no man with his quality can expect to play so many games, or be guaranteed such a large role.

Start of county season will be a throwback with England Test stars galore

Sport at the highest level is all about the big names and personalities, and even if the county championship ranks below international level, this season it will be given a glamour it has not had in recent years by the presence of England’s Test players.

Normally the Indian Premier League consumes England’s best cricketers and eats away at the championship throughout April and May but not this year. If Jonny Bairstow reads the signs before the first Test against West Indies on July 10, and retires from this format, all of England’s current Test players will be playing for their counties at some stage in the coming weeks.

Joe Root will miss Yorkshire’s opening game at Headingley against Leicestershire but he is due to play their second championship match at Bristol against Gloucestershire, and five in all before England duty. Given such a fillip, and Harry Brook’s availability for the first half of the championship, and without a big deduction in points this season, Yorkshire have to promote themselves back to Division One, no excuses.

Zak Crawley will not only be playing booming cover-drives for Kent but also picking up ones and twos behind point with softer hands, as he learned during the winter. Ben Duckett might leave the odd ball batting for Nottinghamshire; Ollie Pope might learn how to start an innings calmly. Even Ben Stokes is expected to play a couple of games for Durham, and to keep them in Division One he will no doubt be tempted to bowl more and more.

Tinkerings. There are always tinkerings: four of this season’s rounds will be played with a Kookaburra ball, the points for a draw will be increased from five to eight, but what matters most, and not only for spectators, is that the England players will be returning to their county dressing-rooms, passing on their international knowledge, inspiring successors, so the game’s upper echelons will be knitted together again.

Another change will be the use of hybrid pitches in the championship. A mixture of natural and artificial grass - and therefore a pretty standardised surface - has been accepted for white-ball county matches. But if England are going to encourage their younger spinners, like Tom Hartley, Rehan Ahmed and Shoaib Bashir, much preferable would be pitches that have already been used earlier in the season, if only for a practice game, and which in places have no grass at all, so spinners in April can play with some wear and tear.

County Championship predictions: Can anyone stop Surrey's title charge?
Shoaib Bashir is back in action for Somerset after impressing in India for England - Getty Images/Harry Trump

It makes for a delightful prospect. But English cricket will still be missing out on a repetition of what was arguably the most delightful event in last winter’s series in India: for what was more delicious than the way Kuldeep Yadav befuddled England’s right-handers with the ball dipping and ripping back from outside off stump? He bowled Crawley, more than once, with everything that a cricket ball can do, and dismissed Bairstow LBW, more than once, pinned in his crease. The only delivery of equal beauty in cricket is the leg-break to a left-hander, such as the late Shane Warne would unleash on Sir Andrew Strauss.

The sight of India’s spinners whipping through an over in two minutes should have whetted appetites in England and Wales. The prevailing style for the next two months will be fast-medium seamers bowling at 80 miles per hour, at four minutes per over, for about 85 of the 90 overs per day.

Does it have to be like this? No, because the red-ball rulers of English cricket - Rob Key, Brendon McCullum, Ben Stokes - have made it clear that they are not interested in 80 mph seamers, with Key spelling it out to Telegraph Sport that 85-88 mph bowlers - those with an extra yard of pace - are wanted for the Test team. The routine of six fast-medium balls nibbling outside off stump is the last thing England want, so why make it the staple diet of the county championship?

The future of our domestic game will be decided this season: the Hundred is being put back in its box to some small extent, determined as it is to replace the wheel with a pentagon, if the five-ball set can be so-called. By now it should have sunk into somebody’s brain at the ECB that downgrading the 50-over competition to almost Second XI status was not the way to retain that hard-won World Cup of 2019. And the future of the championship - a first division of 10 counties and eight in the second as now, with 14 fixtures? - is up for further debate.

But, despite the perennial structural issues of the English county game, the standard on the pitch should be refreshingly high and relatively franchise-free.