British & Irish Lions 2013 – The Squad

Tuesday 30th of April: the most important day in every British and Irish rugby player’s season.  The day when they will know whether they have achieved the highest accolade the game of rugby can offer: the chance to tour with the British & Irish Lions.  Some will be expecting the call from Warren Gatland, others will be waiting nervously by their phones.  Whoever is chosen will join a select group of players to have proudly worn that red jersey.  Here, my brother and I pick our 37 man band of merry men hoping to roar to success down-under this summer.

Full-back/Wing:

Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, George North (Wales)

Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo (Ireland)

Tim Visser, Stuart Hogg (Scotland)

One of the easier selections.  The Welsh trio of North, Cuthbert and Halfpenny are shoe-ins, and in Halfpenny, the Lions have a genuinely world-class performer.  Simon Zebo and Stuart Hogg are relatively inexperienced at this level but consequently should play without fear, and most importantly they have an abundance of pace and skill.  Visser is a physically imposing player who is an impressive finisher and Tommy Bowe provides experience having toured to South Africa in 2009.  Rob Kearney will be on stand-by should any injuries occur.

Centre:

Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies (Wales)

Manu Tuilagi (England)

Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland)

We have picked only four centres on the provision that Tommy Bowe can provide cover as can James Hook and Owen Farrell.  This midfield is not exactly brimming with creativity and Billy Twelvetrees was seriously considered, but we decided to stick with experience.  All four have played down-under before and Roberts and O’Driscoll formed an effective partnership four years ago.  Tuilagi is a wrecking-ball of a centre and will cause havoc in both attack and defence, and O’Driscoll, although he doesn’t have the pace of old, will be equally tenacious.  The Irishman is also a dab hand as a makeshift back-rower.

Fly-Half:

Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)

Owen Farrell (England)

James Hook (Wales)

Injury permitting, Ireland’s Sexton is a guaranteed starter.  He seems to be back to full fitness and played a key role in Leinster’s victory over Biarritz on Saturday.  Elsewhere, Farrell does the basics well, has a very solid kicking game and can be trusted to close out games.  James Hook should provide some flair which will be crucial if they find themselves with a deficit to overcome.  Dan Biggar is unlucky to miss out, but his lack of versatility counts against him, and Jonny Wilkinson won’t be available for the start of the tour.

Scrum-Half:

Mike Phillips (Wales)

Danny Care (England)

Greig Laidlaw (Scotland)

Phillips is an easy choice.  He was in good form for Wales during the Six Nations and had a storming last tour to South Africa in 2009.  His deputies are less obvious.  Greig Laidlaw had an equally impressive Six Nations and has the passing ability to provide quick ball to the backs.  He is also dead-eye as a place-kicker.  Danny Care is selected for his tireless running and sniping around the rucks.  He hasn’t always played his best in an England shirt, but he has been in good form for Harlequins.  The Englishman will be effective off the bench against tiring Wallabies and he has that edge to his game to get under the opposition’s skin.  He just edges out Ben Youngs who doesn’t quite have a good enough passing game.  Conor Murray is also an option, but in our opinion he is just a less-good version of Mike Phillips.

Prop:

Adam Jones, Gethin Jenkins (Wales)

Dan Cole, Mako Vunipola, Andrew Sheridan (England)

Cian Healy (Ireland)

One of the key positions in the squad.  The Aussies are not renowned as strong scrummagers and if the Lions can compete up front, the platform will be laid for victory.  Adam Jones and Dan Cole will give the Wallabies sleepless nights in the scrum whilst Gethin Jenkins and Cian Healy will make an impact marauding in the loose.  Vunipola is a young loose-head who has come on leaps and bounds in the past 18 months.  The Englishman may not be a first-choice but can make a difference in both the scrum and the loose.  Andrew Sheridan is our wild-card pick for his experience and his scrummaging ability.  He has previous against the Aussies and seems to save his best performances for the Green and Golds.

Hooker:

Rory Best (Ireland)

Richard Hibbard (Wales)

Ross Ford (Scotland)

Another key position for the Lions.  Best and Hibbard both had good Six Nations tournaments, with Hibbard taking advantage of Matthew Rees’ injury to put himself firmly in the Lions frame.  Best has good leadership qualities which will be vital down-under.  He also has the knack of scoring tries which is no bad thing.  The final spot was between Ken Owens and Ross Ford, the Scotsman edging it due to his superior throwing ability.

Second Row:

Paul O’Connell (Ireland)

Ian Evans, Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)

Richie Gray (Scotland) (fitness permitting)

The engine room of the team – this selection was rather more obvious.  After the disappointment of missing out on the Six Nations, Ireland’s Paul O’Connell has put in a series of strong displays for Munster in recent weeks and has been chosen as our captain.  He is joined by two Welshmen, Alun Wyn Jones, a perennially top-class performer, and Ian Evans who did himself no harm with his sterling performances in the Six Nations.  Richie Gray has not had a vintage season but is an absolute animal in the loose and has pace to burn.  If his hamstring injury clears up then the Lions have a formidable second row capable of overpowering the Wallabies.

Flanker/No. 8:

Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric, Toby Faletau (Wales)

Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)

Chris Robshaw, Tom Croft (England)

The most hotly debated position in the squad.  Warburton and Lydiate are genuine world-class performers in their respective positions, so are guaranteed spots on the plane.  Tipuric is arguably in better form than Warburton at the present time, and has to be a contender for the all-important no. 7 jersey.  Chris Robshaw has been immense all season and just edges Sean O’Brien out of the equation.  Toby Faletau is the obvious choice at No. 8, and Jamie Heaslip completes the touring party.  Nick Easter and Johnnie Beattie were considered, but the Irishman has the imposing physicality required of a No. 8 and had a successful tour with the Lions to South Africa last time around.

So there you have it.  We’ve selected our 37.  Warren Gatland, you are welcome.  Whichever players the New Zealander picks, they have the opportunity to become immortalised.  The Lions are the pinnacle of every  British and Irish rugby professional.  They will need to be at 100% from Aussies will definitely be raring to go.  I like how Gatland has said his selections will be determined by current form.  He is learning the lessons from Clive Woodward’s disastrous tenure in 2005.  A player cannot  find form during the tour – it is a fruitless exercise and a waste of a touring spot.  For me, The Lions desperately need to have a strong showing to keep the mystique and intrigue of this quadrennial tour going.  They haven’t won a tour since 1997 and have only won two test matches out of 9 since then.  The absence of influential open-side flanker David Pocock for the Wallabies may well tip the balance in the Lions’ favour.  Whatever the touring party, it promises to be a titanic battle.  Roll on the summer.

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The Luis Suarez conundrum

Luis Suarez is one of the most prodigiously talented players to grace the Premier League.  But events on Sunday afternoon once again confirmed many people’s view that the Uruguayan’s behaviour has no place on a football field.  If you didn’t see/hear about it, Suarez sunk his teeth into the forearm of his marker, Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic during an attack for his team, Liverpool.  This was an action that would look out of place in an under-10’s match, let alone an important Premier League clash broadcast around the globe.  What sort of message does this send to aspiring young footballers, followers of Liverpool football club and the rest of the world?  An extremely negative one at best.  This beggars the question does Suarez have a future at Liverpool?

 

            Sunday’s incident is not Suarez’s first transgression in English football.  In December 2011 he was found guilty of racially abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra and received an 8-match ban.  Whilst playing for Ajax he was suspended for biting another opponent, Otman Bakkal.  His controversial deliberate handball in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final stopped a certain goal for Ghana which would have won them the game and a place in the semi-final.  Suarez has also clashed with a few managers on the subject of diving, most notably Tony Pulis and David Moyes.  He’s had his fair share of controversy.

 

            Before we publicly crucify Luis Suarez we should also remember that there have been a few other footballing bad-boys that have committed crimes and served their time.  Eric Cantona was not exactly the embodiment of a saint but is feted as one of the finest foreigners to play in England.  Cantona physically assaulted a member of the crowd, via a kung-fu kick in 1995.  Is that really worse than a bite on the arm of an opponent?  True, Cantona received a lengthy ban (9 months), but the footballing fraternity forgave him.  New Sunderland Paolo Di Canio infamously pushed referee Paul Alcock in 1998 and also received a lengthy ban, but is remembered fondly by the majority of football fans too.  Will we look back in 10 years’ time and recall Suarez with such misty-eyed emotion as a loveable rogue?  I severely doubt it.

 

            The conundrum with Suarez is that he comes from a culture where ‘cheating’ and conning the referee are seen as admirable traits.  If you watch Suarez closely in games he is forever trying to gain an advantage over an opponent by maybe a tug of the shirt here, an elbow in the ribs there or little push.  This is all part and parcel of being a successful Premier League striker (Alan Shearer carved a career out of it).  It is Suarez’s job to score goals for his team and he is as determined as anyone I have ever seen to put the ball in the net.  He will try anything and in his view, it is up to the referee to spot his little indiscretions.  If he commits a little foul but the referee doesn’t spot it, then all the better.  This is an attitude entirely alien to the British psyche, where honesty, integrity and fair play are valued higher than a ruthless will to win (almost certainly a reason why England has failed so frequently on the international stage).  This is why Suarez’s actions, whilst indefensible in this case, generally sit so uneasily with English football fans.

 

            His club have reacted in an appropriate manner – fining him and publicly denouncing his behaviour.  Suarez has himself apologised to Ivanovic and admitted an FA charge – but in his view a three-match ban should be sufficient.  The FA have other ideas and have slapped him with a 10-match suspension which, if upheld, will see Suarez out of action until late September.  Many former players have called for Suarez to be sold as his actions are not befitting of a Liverpool professional.  This reeks of double standards.  Is assaulting someone in a bar behaviour befitting of a Liverpool captain (Steven Gerrard 2008)?  Although he was officially acquitted, I’ve seen the CCTV, and he was guilty as sin.  Is dancing naked with a stripper at the club’s Christmas party (Jamie Carragher) befitting of a Liverpool professional?  Absolutely not.  I’m not trying to defend Suarez’s actions, no-one can, but I’m putting it into some sort of context.    In England, it is more socially acceptable to be drunk in public than to go down in the area under pressure.  In Uruguay, the opposite is true.  Almost all top English professional footballers have transgressed in one way or another but we, the public, forgive them (witness the public perception of David Beckham in contrast to 1998).  We should do the same to Suarez.  He has apologised.  End of story. Suarez deserves his ban lengthy ban – 10 matches is a bit steep in my opinion, but the FA is clamping down on serious foul play and this is to be commended; plus, Suarez is a serial offender.  He should accept the ban – vow to improve his behaviour and move on from this episode and continue to showcase his undoubted talents.

 

            There has been recent debate on whether Suarez has damaged the club’s image irreparably and that Liverpool should cut their losses and sell him.  I agree with Graeme Souness that the Uruguayan is entering ‘the last chance saloon’ with Liverpool.  There is no doubt that his behaviour must improve – if he is suspended for 6-8 games per season Liverpool are missing out on his talents for almost a fifth of the campaign and that is not good enough.  But can Liverpool afford to lose him?  I dread to think where Liverpool would be without Suarez.  His form this season has been nothing short of superb; he has been, over the course of the campaign, the most consistently excellent player in the Premier League and fully deserving of his PFA Player of the Year nomination.  His 30 goals this season are 20 more than the next Liverpool player, and if he is sold, you imagine that the club would struggle to attract a player of equal calibre, especially if, as looks likely, they fail to qualify for Europe.  They might get £40 million for Suarez but what use is £40 million if you can’t replace him with someone of equal ability?  Players of Suarez’s ability aren’t exactly two-a-penny.  The manager Brendan Rogers is trying to build a lasting legacy at Liverpool and the Uruguayan is at the centre of that plan.  To remove such an integral piece of the jigsaw would deal Liverpool a huge blow and set them back to the dark days of Hodgson.  Andy Carroll might even have to come back.  It’s simply not worth contemplating.

World Snooker Championships 2013

It’s that time of year again; the time when spring is in full bloom, the days are getting longer and wearing shorts is not just for posh Chelsea boys.  Yes it’s time to head indoors for 17 days (ignore that sunshine – it’ll be back, probably) and watch the world’s best snooker players battle it out for the sport’s most prestigious prize – the World Snooker Championships.  Snooker, the ‘sport’ that is perfect for background watching, or insomnia.  Stick it on and you’ll be asleep in minutes.  But if you’re one of the few (like me) who can fight its soporific effects then here are some of the main contenders for this year’s title.

Mark Selby (England)

World Ranking: 1

The jester from Leicester has been in sparkling form this season and comes into the tournament as the World No. 1.  He is a man for the longer-form of the game as proved by his victories in both the Masters and the UK Championship this season.  A former finalist back in 2007, Selby has the talent and more importantly the concentration for this format.  The World Championships are not only a test of snooker ability but also the mental fortitude of every competitor – and Selby is one of the best at both.  The Crucible can quickly become a lonely place if the balls are not running your way and sitting in your chair watching your opponent knock in break after break can be demoralising.  The player who can overcome such challenges will not be far off the famous trophy come the 6th of May, and I expect to see Selby in the latter stages of the tournament, if not the winner.

Neil Robertson (Australia)

World Ranking: 2

‘The thunder from down-under’, ‘the blonde bombshell’.  I could come up with more nicknames for Neil Robertson but I can’t think of any, so on with the preview.  Along with Selby, Robertson has been the form player this season, winning the China Open as well as 3 runner-ups and two other semi-final appearances.  A man with ridiculous natural talent, Robertson combines this with a rather stereotypical Aussie grit.  He is the best long-ball potter in the game and if he plays to his full potential, he is nigh on untouchable.  If he can avoid an early upset, he should meet Selby in a mouth-watering final.

Judd Trump (England)

World Ranking: 3

The poster-boy of snooker, Trump has had a bit of a lean year so far.  He won the inaugural International Masters, and reached the final of the Shanghai Masters, but apart from a semi-final appearance at the Welsh Open and a quarter-final at the Masters in December, Trump has been uncharacteristically quiet.  The flashy Bristol-born 23 year-old stormed to the final of the World Championships in 2011 where he received a bit of a lesson from John Higgins.  For me, Trump needs to start showing a bit more humility – he has yet to achieve a great deal in the game but still comes out with some controversial comments which rile the more established professionals.  He carries this petulant streak onto the table which can often get him into trouble when he comes up against a great match-player such as Peter Ebdon or Marco Fu, real competitors who will fight until the last ball is potted.  Trump definitely has the talent but he has yet to prove he has the metal aptitude to triumph when it matters.  He has a difficult first round in Dominic Dale, and if he can come through that, he can go far this year.

John Higgins (Scotland)

World Ranking: 7

The Wizard of Wishaw has previous in the World Championships.  He is a four time winner at the Crucible and always seems to save his best for these two weeks.  The 37 year-old won the Shanghai Masters in September but since then he hasn’t been troubling the scorers much.  A quarter-final at the Masters in December is his best since then.  However Higgins is one of those players who can find form during a tournament.  He often starts slowly but when it comes to the big matches he seems to find an extra gear or two.  He isn’t the best break-builder, safety-player or long-potter but he is a complete all-rounder with no weakness to his game.  He is another who relishes the long-format of the World Championships.  If he can avoid a metaphorical banana skin in the opening rounds, he will definitely feature up with the big boys well into the second week (cue early exit in opening round).

Mark Allen (Northern Ireland)

World Ranking: 6

The ‘Pistol’ (beats me) is never afraid of the limelight.  He seems to spend more time slagging of World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn and his fellow professionals than actually doing anything of note on the table.  That said, rent-a-quote Allen did manage to defend his World Open title this season but apart from a quarter-final appearance at the Masters, the gobby Northern Irishman has done little of note this season.  He has a good record at the Crucible (one semi-final and two quarters in six appearances) so you can never rule him out, but Allen is too inconsistent to win in his current form.  Whilst he may not represent good value on the table, expect to see some hilarious sound-bites in his press conferences.

Ronnie O’Sullivan (England)

World Ranking: 28

Who knows what to expect from the ‘Rocket’ this year.  Widely regarded as ‘the most natural talent the game has ever seen,’ O’Sullivan has returned from a self-imposed exile to defend the title he so spectacularly won last year.  The 2012 World Championships was an absolute procession for O’Sullivan.  The Englishman seemed so at ease round the table, serenely beating all and sundry to claim his fourth title.  This year could be a repeat; the man is so gifted that when he’s on form, no-one can match his level.  O’Sullivan is often his own worst enemy away from the table.  If an opponent can get into Ronnie’s head, they can often wear down his patience as Peter Ebdon famously did in 2005.  However O’Sullivan is in a much better place since those dark days and he has taken up running and worked on a farm since his ‘retirement’ in November.  He could go out in the first round, he could go on to win it.  We should simply be honoured that he is competing and that we can once more marvel at his awesome skill.

 

So there you have it.  As comprehensive a preview of the 2013 World Championships as you’re ever likely to see.  There are a few outsiders who may make it to the latter rounds, like Ding Junhui, the ‘captain’ Ali Carter, Shaun Murphy and Marco Fu, but I stand by my prediction of a Selby v Robertson final.  I wouldn’t be too upset if O’Sullivan made it to the final.  It would be nice to see John Higgins have a good run and if omens are to be believed, then he is due a victory: he won in ‘07, ’09 and ‘11 and went out in the first round in ’08, ’10 and ’12.  I just can’t see it happening though.  Nonetheless it should be a riveting(ish) 17 days.  To coin MC Rob Walker: “Let’s get the boys on the baize.”

Masters 2013: the contenders

Early April can only mean one thing: it’s U.S Masters time.  The most prestigious prize in golf starts on Thursday and it promises to be one of the most fascinating in recent memory.  Can Tiger keep it all together to win his first major for five years?  How will Rory McIllroy fare in his first major since switching suppliers?  Can one of the Europeans mount a challenge for the famous green jacket?  Below are some of the main challengers for golf’s most famous trophy.

Tiger Woods (U.S.A)

World Ranking: 1

Tiger is the bookmakers’ favourite for his fifth green jacket and with three wins already this season on the PGA tour it would take a brave man to bet against him.  Didn’t play last week in Houston so as to be extra prepared for this week and he will need to bring his A game, especially off the tee.  He is apparently a lowly 142nd in Driving accuracy on tour and he can’t afford to be messing around in the tress round Augusta.  If he stays out of the long stuff he will be hard to stop because his short game seems to have returned better than ever.  If he’s leading after round 3, I can’t see him losing it.

Rory McIlroy (Northern Ireland)

World Ranking: 2

McIlroy had a timely return to form last week with a 2nd place in the Texas Open.  After such a poor start to the season, little is expected of the man from Holywood around Augusta’s hallowed turf so he goes into the tournament with slightly less pressure on him which could be to his advantage.  The course suits his style of play with lots of right to left tee shots and if he can find his range with his irons, he could go really low.  In the past couple of weeks the mental side of his game has improved drastically; the ghosts of the WGC Cadillac event last month where he withdrew have been firmly laid to rest.  Will definitely want to improve on his relatively modest T15th best at Augusta, and it would be a fool not to back him to do so.

Matt Kuchar (U.S.A)

World Ranking: 10

Kuchar came close to winning last year’s Masters and is definitely in good enough form to be up at the business end this week.  He has won the World match play title already this season and has yet to post an over par four-day total in 2013.  This consistency should hold him in good stead round Augusta but he may not quite have the game in his locker to produce the unpredictable and spectacular shots that are required once or twice per round.  I predict a top-10 finish.

Phil Mickelson (U.S.A)

World Ranking: 9

‘Leftie’ has had a quiet season so far, punctured by two outstanding performances at the TPC Scottsdale where he won and at the WGC Cadillac Championship at Doral where he finished a creditable 3rd.  If he makes it to the weekend anything can happen and if anyone can pull it out of the bag, the likeable Californian can.  He likes Augusta having won here 3 times in the past but he will need his putter to be hot for all four rounds if he is to add to his major tally.  This wedge wizard will feature strongly if he can drain those niggly 5 footers.

Ian Poulter (England)

World Ranking: 12

The gobby Englishman has been in strangely subdued form recently.  Two strong early-season performances at the Tournament of Champions and the World Match play have been followed by three midfield finishes.  His putting is second to none but he will need his long game to be firing on all cylinders.  Poulter doesn’t hit it a huge distance off the tee so his iron play really is key to success this week.  He has finished in the top 10 in three of the last four majors so he knows how to produce the goods when it matters.  My outside bet for the tournament.

Justin Rose (England)

World Ranking: 3

Other than Tiger Woods, the Englishman is the form player in the world right now.  In 6 stroke-play starts this term he has finished in the top 10 in five of those, and 16th in the other.  He has previous down Magnolia Lane with a tied 5th finish last year and a tied 8th in 2007.  Rose also knows how to win across the pond, winning a tournament on the PGA tour every year since 2010.  He will be looking to lengthen that streak with victory on Sunday, and he certainly has to golf game and the form to do so.  Expect to see him up on that leaderboard whilst you tuck into that second bottle of Rioja on Sunday evening.

Louis Oosthuizen (South Africa)

World Ranking: 6

The smiling South African has certainly shown that he isn’t a one-hit wonder.  After unluckily missing out to Bubba Watson in a play-off at Augusta last year, Oosthuizen has his sights set on going one better this time around.  He already has one victory to his name on the European tour this season and last week’s 10th finish in Houston confirmed that he is striking the ball as well as ever.  The 2010 Open Champion has the correct mental attributes to go with his undoubted golfing talent to win and lay last year’s heartbreak to rest.

Well there you have it.  As comprehensive a preview as you’re ever likely to get.  Some lucky fellow will be walking out of Magnolia lane on Sunday night with a brand spanking new natty green jacket to go with their fat cheque.  Who will it be?  Now that I’ve given them the kiss of death, probably none of the above.  All the same, it promises to be hugely exciting four days.

County Season Preview

Ah, county cricket.  Ostensibly the start of the English summer, it is a shining beacon for the traditions of the great game.  Whilst all the razzmatazz of the Indian Premier League is taking place in the subcontinent, the start of the English County season has extraordinarily slipped under the radar.  It kicks off in haste on the 10th of April and what a season it is shaping up to be: a revamped T20 tournament with some of the biggest stars in the game: a new 50 over one-day competition that will (definitely not) guarantee England success on the international stage: and the County Championship, with more thrills and spills than a Hollywood blockbuster.  Even I’m struggling to contain my excitement.  What’s not to love?  This column looks at the 18 teams gunning for glory.

Derbyshire:

2012 Results:

County Championship (Division 2): 1st (promoted)

CB 40: Group Stage

FL T20: Group Stage

Captain: Wayne Madsen

Overseas player: Shivnarine Chanderpaul (West Indies)

In: Richard Johnson (Warwickshire), Billy Godleman (Essex), Jonathan Marsden (academy)

Out: Garry Park, Matt Lineker, Hamza Siddique (all released)

Derbyshire had an excellent 2012, winning promotion to Division 1 in the County Championship.  They traditionally have excellent seam bowlers but often struggle with the bat.  They will need the evergreen Shivnarine Chanderpaul to be at the top of his game if they are to avoid a rapid return to Division 2.  They don’t have a marquee signing for the T20 don’t expect them to pull up any trees, or anything else for that matter.

Durham:

County Championship (Division 1): 6th

CB 40: Group Stage

FL T20: Group Stage

Captain:  Paul Collingwood

Overseas player: TBA

In: none

Out: Michael Di Venuto (retired), Liam Plunkett (Yorkshire), Ian Blackwell (retired)

A strangely subdued 2012 by their standards, they have seen three key players leave and no replacements.  They could be hit hard by England call-ups mid-season if Onions, Stokes and Borthwick shine.  They still have plenty of experience with Paul ‘three shots’ Collingwood and Dale Benkenstein, and their bowling is also strong.  I feel they need a big overseas signing to take challenge for the championship but finances are tight so they might have to make do with what they have.  With a few promising youngsters, they might feature strongly in the T20s.

Essex:

County Championship (Division 2): 5th

CB 40: Group Stage

FL T20: Group Stage

Captain: James Foster

Overseas player: Rob Quiney (Australia, until end of T20 campaign), Shaun Tait (Australia, T20)

In: Sajid Mahmood (Lancashire)

Out: Billy Godleman (Derbyshire), Michael Comber (released), Charl Willoughby (retired), Adam Wheater (Hampshire)

Essex had a disappointing season for a side with so much talent.  They have brought in more firepower in the shape of Sajid Mahmood to join the exciting Reece Topley and the grizzled veteran David Masters.  They boast Fearsome T20 line-up in the shape of Ryan ten Doeschate, Graham Napier and Owais Shah with bat in hand and Shaun Tait haring in with the ball.  Their season will depend on their batsmen; if Ravi Bopara and Shah find form, they should be right in the mix.  If not, a season of obscurity awaits.

Glamorgan:

County Championship (Division 2): 6th

CB 40: Group Stage

FL T20: Group Stage

Captain: Mark Wallace (Championship), Marcus North (T20 & LO)

Overseas player: Marcus North (Australia), Dirk Nannes (Australia, T20)

In: Murray Goodwin (Sussex), Michael Hogan (Western Australia)
Out: Robert Croft (retired), James Harris (Middlesex), Chris Ashling, Aneurin Norman, Mike O’Shea (all released)

After 23 seasons of service, Robert Croft decided to hang up his boots, so at least the Dragons’ dressing room will be a little more spacious without the tubby Welshman.  Losing his experience and also James Harris to Middlesex is a big blow but signing Murray Goodwin was a shrewd move.  They will rely on Goodwin and South African Martin van Jaarsveld for runs in the championship but I can’t see where their wickets will come from.  With T20 specialist Dirk Nannes signed up, they’re an outside bet for a finals day spot.

Gloucestershire:

County Championship (Division 2): 9th

CB 40: Group Stage

FL T20: Quarter-finals

Captain: Michael Klinger

Overseas player: Michael Klinger (Australia), Daniel Christian (Australia, T20)

In: Gareth Roderick, Cameron Herring, Craig Miles, Matt Taylor (all academy)
Out: Jonathan Batty (retired), David Wade (released)

Gloucestershire have a very inexperienced squad for 2013 and unfortunately I reckon a repeat of 2012’s lacklustre performance is on the cards.  They will need new captain and overseas signing Michael Klinger and ex New Zealand batsman Hamish Marshall to start scoring runs from the off.  They also lack firepower in the bowling department.  Let’s hope their fielding is good.  It could be a long summer for the west-country club.

Hampshire:

County Championship (Division 2): 4th

CB40: Winners

FL T20: Winners

Captain: Jimmy Adams

Overseas player: George Bailey (Australia, until August); Saeed Ajmal (Pakistan, from August)

In: Michael Roberts (Unicorns), Jack Sheppard (academy), Adam Wheater (Essex)

Out: Kabir Ali (Lancashire), Simon Katich (Lancashire), Bilal Shafayat (released)

Hampshire took a clean sweep in the one-day competitions in 2012, steamrollering opponents in the T20 Cup and winning a nail-biting final in the CB40 against Warwickshire.  Retaining those trophies may prove beyond them, but this season they will want to build on that success in the County Championship with promotion to Division 1 very much on the cards.  George Bailey will bolster their batting and Danny Briggs will hope to spin them to victory later in the summer.  With Tomlinson and Balcombe as the opening bowlers, they are my tip for the Division 2 title.

Kent:

County Championship (Division 2): 3rd

CB40: Group Stage

FL T20: Group Stage

Captain: James Tredwell

Overseas player: Brendan Nash (West Indies)

In: Calum Haggett (Somerset)
Out: Simon Cook (released)

2012 was season of what-might-have-beens for the Spitfires.  They just missed out on promotion and came close to qualifying from their groups in both the T20 and CB40.  James Tredwell has assumed the captaincy which will hopefully release Rob Key to score heavily.  Kent will need him and the young Sam Northeast to have good seasons if they are going to have any designs on promotion.  They don’t have any marquee signings for the T20s so don’t expect to see them at finals day.

Lancashire:

County Championship (Division 1): 8th (relegated)

CB40: Semi-finals

FL T20: Group Stage

Captain: Glenn Chapple

Overseas player: Simon Katich (Australia)

In: Wayne White (Leicestershire), Kabir Ali (Hampshire), Alex Davies, Gavin Griffiths, Luis Reece, Arron Lilley (all academy)
Out: Sajid Mahmood (Essex), Naqaash Tahir (released), Gary Keedy (Surrey)

2012 was a nightmare season for the Lightning.  12 months after winning the County Championship they had the ignominy of a return to the 2nd division.  They will be hoping for a quick return, and in Simon Katich and Ashwell Prince, they definitely have the batting to post intimidating totals.  The question is, will the bowlers have enough after letting go of Sajid Mahmood, Ajmal Shahzad and the wily old fox Gary Keedy?

Leicestershire

County Championship (Division 2): 7th

CB40: Group Stage

FL T20: Group Stage

Captain: Ramnaresh Sarwan (County Championship), Josh Cobb (T20 & LO)

Overseas player: Ramnaresh Sarwan (West Indies), Joe Burns (Australia, May-August), Shakib Al-Hasan (Bangladesh, T20)

In: Niall O’Brien (Northamptonshire), Anthony Ireland, Robbie Williams (both Middlesex), Tom Wells, Ollie Freckingham, Angus Robson (all academy)
Out: Wayne White (Lancashire), Will Jefferson, Paul Dixey (both retired), Robbie Joseph, Will Jones, Jacques du Toit, Nadeem Malik (all released)

Leicestershire have been down in the doldrums for some years now, and 2012 was no different.  They desperately need Matthew Hoggard to stay fit for an entire season, but even he may not be able to drag the Foxes towards the top end of the table.  They may have a chance of silverware in the shorter forms of the game, with Shakib Al-Hasan a very shrewd signing.  Expect to see them troubling the scorers at the T20 finals day.

Middlesex:

County Championship (Division 1): 3rd

CB40: Group Stage

FL T20: Group Stage

Captain: Neil Dexter (T20 & LO), Chris Rogers (County Championship)

Overseas player: Chris Rogers (Australia); Adam Voges (Australia, T20)

In: Nick Gubbins (academy), James Harris (Glamorgan)

Out: Andrew Strauss (retired), Scott Newman, Tom Scollay (both released), Anthony Ireland (Leicestershire), Robbie Williams (Leicestershire), Steven Crook (Northants)

Middlesex had a strong 2012, finishing 3rd after promotion from the 2nd Division.  They will have their sights set even higher, but much depends on their top-order.  If they can score runs consistently, the platform will be set for the seamers to do the damage – and with new recruit James Harris joining Toby Roland-Jones and Tim Murtagh, the Panthers have a quality bowling attack.  This is a key season for ex-England opener Joe Denly – his batting is as loose as a clown’s pocket but if he can knuckle down and reign in his natural instincts he can be a match winner.

Northamptonshire:

County Championship (Division 2): 8th

CB40: Group Stage

FL T20: Group Stage

Captain: Stephen Peters (County Championship), Alex Wakely (T20 & LO)

Overseas player: Trent Copeland (Australia, April-June), Cameron White (Australia, T20)

In: Matthew Spriegel (Surrey), Steven Crook (Middlesex), Muhammad Azhar Ullah, Ben Duckett, Rob Keogh, Christian Davis, James Kettleborough (academy)
Out: Jack Brooks (Yorkshire), Niall O’Brien (Leicestershire), Chaminda Vaas, Ben Howegego, Rob White, Dave Burton (all released)

After a pretty disastrous 2012, Northants will be hoping to bounce back this season with a strong showing in all forms of the game.  Matthew Spriegel should bring some expertise to the limited-overs arena and Steven Crook will add much-needed experience to a young squad.  With Cameron White signed up for the T20s, they definitely have the ingredients to be in the mix come the knockout stages.

Nottinghamshire:

County Championship (Division 1): 5th

CB40: Group Stage

FL T20: Quarter-finals

Captain: Chris Read

Overseas player: Ed Cowan (Australia, April-June), David Hussey (Australia, June-August)

In: Ajmal Shahzad (Yorkshire)
Out: Darren Pattinson (gave up domestic status), Neil Edwards, Karl Turner, Scott Elstone (all released)

The Outlaws had a solid 2012 and look well equipped for an assault on all three trophies this time round.  The have added Ajmal Shahzad to their bowling attack who should shine in the seam-friendly surroundings of Trent Bridge.  They also have two current Australia internationals as the overseas players in the shape of Ed Cowan and David Hussey.  Add Michael Lumb at the top of the order and you’re looking at a formidable batting line-up.  Lead by the consistently brilliant Chris Read, Nottinghamshire are a decent bet for the title.

Somerset:

County Championship (Division 1): 2nd

CB40: Group Stage

FL T20: Semi-finals

Captain: Marcus Trescothick

Overseas player: Alviro Petersen (South Africa, April-July), Abdur Rehman (Pakistan, July onwards)

In:

Out:

The perennial bridesmaids of recent seasons have seen precious little action in the off-season, but they don’t really need any new blood in the squad.  Unfortunately you can’t acquire the ability to turn second into first.  2013 could be the last chance for this squad of players to win silverware; Marcus Trescothick isn’t getting any younger and Jos Buttler and Nick Compton will be increasingly involved in the England set-up.  The decision by the England management to drop Craig Kieswetter could be a blessing in disguise.  They’re always there or thereabouts for the one-day competitions too.  It’s now or never for Somerset.

Surrey:

County Championship (Division 1): 7th

CB40: Group Stage

FL T20: Group Stage

Captain: Graeme Smith

Overseas player: Graeme Smith (South Africa), Ricky Ponting (Australia, June-July)

In: Vikram Solanki (Worcestershire), Gary Keedy (Lancashire)
Out: Rory Hamilton-Brown (Sussex), Mark Ramprakash (retired), Matthew Spriegel (Northamptonshire), Chris Jordan (Sussex), Tom Lancefield (released)

A turbulent year off the pitch for Surrey ended on a high by securing their Division One status.  They pulled off an absolute coup in signing Graeme Smith over the winter and hopefully the South African can instil some much-needed discipline into the batting order.  After Mark Ramprakash’s retirement they have signed Vikram Solanki as his replacement and the vastly experienced ex-England man will aid the development of Surrey’s younger batsmen, Jason Roy, Rory Burns and Arun Harinath in particular.  I’m not totally convinced by the signing of Gary Keedy but in tandem with Gareth Batty, the spin twins could prove match winners later in the summer.  Also some bloke called Ricky Ponting is rocking up to play for a couple of months.  Throw Kevin Pietersen (hopefully) into the mix and the ‘Rey’ have an enviable batting order.  Have struggled of late in the T20 competition but if Stuart Meaker and Jade Dernbach are available then they have a good chance of qualifying for the knockout stages.

Sussex:

County Championship (Division 1): 4th

CB40: Semi-finals

FL T20: Semi-finals

Captain: Ed Joyce

Overseas player: Steve Magoffin (Australia); Scott Styris (New Zealand, T20)

In: Rory Hamilton-Brown (Surrey), Chris Jordan (Surrey), Andrew Miller (Warwickshire), Harry Finch, Callum Jackson (both academy)

Out: Murray Goodwin (Glamorgan), Andrew Hodd (Yorkshire), Naved Arif, Will Adkin, Kirk Wernars (all released)

Sussex have made some shrewd signings in Rory Hamilton-Brown and Chris Jordan, tying them down to the club for their best years.  Expect the duo to have a big impact in the one-day competitions.  Murray Goodwin will be a big loss but Luke Wells has oodles of talent and can fill the Zimbabwean’s rather sizeable shoes.  A lot will depend on how much England need Monty Panesar; if the Luton-born spinner is available, he can win matches single-handedly (literally).

Warwickshire:

County Championship (Division 1): Champions

CB40: Runner-up

FL T20: Group Stage

Captain: Jim Troughton

Overseas player: Jeetan Patel (New Zealand)

In: Oliver Hannon-Dalby (Yorkshire), Freddie Coleman (academy, Scotland)

Out: Richard Johnson (Derbyshire), Neil Carter (released), Andrew Miller (Sussex)

Not in their wildest dreams could Warwickshire fans have predicted such a successful 2012.  They may struggle to reach such heights this season with international call-ups a significant issue.  If Varun Chopra and Chris Wright manage to repeat their feats of 2012 they may be in with a shout, but if Chris Woakes is on England duty, the bowling responsibility falls upon Jeetan Patel and I doubt the New Zealander has the ability to bowl sides out regularly.  Mid-table obscurity is my prediction.

Worcestershire:

County Championship (Division 1): 9th (relegated)

CB40: Group Stage

FL T20: Quarter-finals

Captain: Daryl Mitchell

Overseas player: Thilan Samaraweera (Sri Lanka), Jacob Oram (New Zealand, T20)

In: Graeme Cessford (Royal Air Force) Michael Johnson
Out: Vikram Solanki (Surrey), James Cameron (retired), Ben Scott, Jack Manuel (both released)

Worcestershire were always fighting a losing battle against relegation last season because they simply don’t have the resources of other more established clubs in Division 1.  The loss of Vikram Solanki will be softened by the arrival of Sri Lankan Thilan Samaraweera as the overseas player.  He will have a big say in whether Worcestershire enjoy a quick return to the top flight.  The experienced seam duo of David Lucas and Alan Richardson could wreak havoc, especially in seam-friendly, early-season conditions.

Yorkshire:

County Championship (Division 2): 2nd (promoted)

CB40: Group Stage

FL T20: Runners-up

Captain: Andrew Gale

Overseas player: TBC

In: Andy Hodd (Sussex), Jack Brooks (Northamptonshire), Liam Plunkett (Durham)
Out: Anthony McGrath (retired), Ajmal Shahzad (Nottinghamshire), Oliver Hannon-Dalby (Warwickshire), Gerard Brophy (released)

The white rose did fantastically well to secure promotion from the 2nd Division.  They have recruited Liam Plunkett who will add some pace to their bowling attack.  They may struggle on the batting front though as Joe Root and Johnny Bairstow look like they’ll be spending more time with England and Yorkshire stalwart Anthony McGrath has hung up his bat.  They’re at a severe disadvantage without an overseas player.  I think they will do extremely well to stay up this season – and I don’t expect them to do much damage in the one-day competitions either, particularly without a big signing for the T20s.