The Women’s County Championship begins this weekend with two rounds of games across the Bank Holiday. The counties will be missing all their England players, who are at a training camp in Abu Dhabi – but that is something they are going to have to get used to, as the home World Cup in June/ July, followed by the KSL in August, means that is likely to be the rule rather than the exception this season.
WHO’S GOING TO WIN IT?
Raf Nicholson: Sussex – The County Championship has almost always been a two-way fight to the finish between Sussex and Kent, but Sussex’s main rivals have now lost Charlotte Edwards, Suzie Bates and (probably) Lydia Greenway in one foul swoop. Meanwhile Sussex are pretty much at full strength, with a solid contingent of non-England players (including Academy stalwarts Freya Davies and Georgia Adams) in a season where that will really matter. They’ve got to be favourites.
Syd Egan: Lancashire – With the star names missing across the board, this looks set to be the closest County Championship in years. I’ll be massively surprised if anyone wins all their games, and in fact I think we’ll see a four-or-five-horse race for the title. The last time Lancashire were promoted, two seasons ago, they lost all their matches and went straight back down again; but that’s not going to happen this time. They have the same core squad, but with two years more experience; and although the re-signing of Alex Hartley is probably moot, as she’ll be playing for England most of the summer, grabbing Eve Jones from relegated Staffs is a major coup; and they will also have Amy Satterthwaite behind the guns for a few games too prior to the World Cup. Are Lancashire racing certainties? Absolutely not! Do they have as good a chance as anyone? Yes!
WHO’S GOING DOWN?
SE: Nottinghamshire – The bottom of the table is likely to be just as close as the top – I reckon everyone will win at least a game or two, and the fate of relegation is likely to be decided by the random cruelty of bonus points, which sadly are so dependent upon the weather and the state of the pitch, because they are absolute (how many runs/ wickets) not relative. As a Berkshire fan, I refuse to believe they are going down, so I’m afraid I’m tipping newly promoted Notts to drop back into Div 2 again this season.
RN: Berkshire – Sorry, Syd, but life isn’t looking particularly rosy for the Beavers right now, especially in the bowling department. Amanda Potgieter, now living in New Zealand, will no longer be steaming in with the new ball; Rachel Hardy has gone off to America on a soccer scholarship; Daisy Gardner is still struggling with injury; Linsey Smith has recently defected to Sussex. With the prospect of Heather Knight unlikely to feature much, if at all, it’s going to be a tough season and, much as I’d like them to, I’m not sure they’ll be able to survive in Div 1.
WHO’LL GET PROMOTED?
RN: Somerset – Somerset have got to be in with a shout. They went down last season only as a result of the triple-demotion ruling, and they still have most of the players available (including Sophie Luff) who in 2015 secured promotion by not losing a single game.
SE: Hampshire – I watched Hampshire absolutely hammer Middlesex in their pre-season friendly last weekend… and the thing was, Middlesex weren’t actually that bad. Hampshire were just very good – they batted first, timing their innings perfectly to put 223 on the board; and then they were sharp as razors in the field to bowl Middlesex out for 82! They are a young side, and last year wasn’t quite their time, as they missed out narrowly on promotion; but Charlotte Edwards will have them well-organised, and Suzie Bates will add even more firepower when she is available prior to the World Cup – if they don’t make the top 2, it will be a massive surprise.
SE: Yorkshire – If you thought the 50-over County Championship was going to be close, the T20 Cup is likely to be even closer. But I’m tipping Yorkshire for this one – they will be in the mix for the WCC too, but I think maybe the T20 is where they can come good – like everyone else, they will miss their England players, but they have a strong youth system and the T20 format often favours that.
RN: Birmingham Bears (aka Warwickshire) – As with Sussex they have a good number of established players who won’t be distracted by England duty, not least Becky Grundy and Georgia Hennessy. Pipped to the post at the last minute by Kent in 2016, they’ll be looking to go one better this year, and are in with a good shot at doing so.
RN: Emma Lamb (Lancashire) – This could be a make-or-break season for Lamb, who has been on the verge of making the jump to international cricket for a while now and was actually in the squad for England’s tour of Sri Lanka (though her debut remains elusive). She was a standout player for Lancashire Thunder in KSL, the only non-international player to feature among the top ten group-stage run scorers. She’ll be out to prove her worth in this season’s County Championship.
SE: Lauren Bell (Berkshire) – Lauren Bell is something of a veteran already – despite being only 16, this will be her third season at the top level. Having been selected for England’s Academy program over the winter, she has been working hard up at Loughborough, where she has added a yard of pace to a ball which was already pretty quick – making her one of the fastest bowlers in the women’s game. With bounce (she’s well over 6 feet tall) and movement off the pitch she can be unplayable on her day… and her day is coming!
BEST OVERSEAS BUY?
SE: Holly Huddleston (Middlesex) – The Hudd Missile is back again for Middlesex this season, having basically resuscitated a career there which looked to be somewhat on life-support when she first arrived a year ago. She has since been recalled for New Zealand and seems virtually certain to be a big part of their World Cup squad. Her bowling may not be “fast” fast, but it’s nippy enough, and she is very consistent – she’s a very “English” bowler in a sense, and it isn’t just Middlesex who will reap the benefits of that in 2017 – watch out for her in the World Cup Final too!
RN: Suzie Bates (Hampshire) – Not only is Bates one of the best cricketers in the world, but she’s shown she can cut the mustard in English conditions. Across last year’s English summer she scored 678 runs at an average of 42, and took 30 wickets, helping Kent “do the double” and win both the County Championship and the T20 Cup. Hampshire will benefit hugely from having her around.
SE: Eve Jones (Lancashire) – An opening batsman who has been part of the Academy setup for a while, Jones was one of only two players to score a century in Div 1 last year. Unlikely to figure for England, she should be available for most matches and she has the temperament to have a big impact – if Lancashire do indeed win the Championship, she is likely to have been a big part of the reason why.
RN: Charlotte Edwards (Hampshire) – Given that most internationals will have very little chance to play county cricket this season, someone with as much top-level experience as Edwards is going to be invaluable. England’s loss is Hampshire’s gain!
With fewer games, and rules that make rearranging fixtures close to impossible, I think just enjoy playing or watching and spin a coin on who takes the silverware home. It’s hard to think of this, with all the players who’ll be missing for such a large part of the season, with most games finished before June, as a County Championship any more. With so much progress made from the 5 days at Cambridge to England Players always available, more matches etc., it’s sad to see a great tournament being sacrificed. Just rock up, play or watch, and enjoy, and forget the standings.