Rewind a year and English cricket wasn’t so much in the doldrums as at a near-generational low. County cricket, meanwhile, was in the firing line. England had been thrashed by Australia in the Ashes and then humbled by the West Indies. Joe Root had resigned as captain. English cricket was listing and rudderless.

As the sun shines at Hampshire’s Ageas Bowl on a bright Tuesday afternoon, less than 48 hours before the start of the 2023 season, the mood matches the weather. And although there’s still an air of uncertainty about the future of four-day cricket and concerns about a schedule which places an enormous strain on both the calendar and the players, the season begins on Thursday with an air of cautious optimism.

Standing in the shade of the pavilion, Hampshire’s hulking South African pace bowler, Kyle Abbott is a rarity in the modern game. An overseas player – albeit one on a Kolpak arrangement until last season – who has enjoyed a lengthy relationship with a county in an era dominated by short-format competitions that place a greater emphasis on pounds and pence than loyalty.

Although he can’t wait to get going, he believes that Twenty20’s dominance is casting an increasingly long shadow over the County Championship.

“I still really enjoy playing – it’s always nice coming back to what I call home now,” he says. “It’s quite difficult, with all the leagues around the world, to commit to six months, particularly six months of four-day cricket. There’s too much T20 cricket going on – you can’t get anyone here for longer than three weeks.

“Do I fear for the long-term future of the game? Look at the brand of cricket that England are playing. It’s captivating and there are a lot of people out there who still enjoy Test cricket and, by extension, county cricket as well.

“But I’m probably a little bit scared about where first-class cricket will be in 10 years’ time, not just in England but around the world.”

Peter Moores’s Nottinghamshire will be the visitors to Southampton in the opening round. After a training session at Trent Bridge, in which Stuart Broad imparted his wisdom to the younger members of the squad, it’s a timely reminder of the role England’s finest still have to play, despite spending most of their summer away from county cricket.

“The really important point to make is that nothing has changed in county cricket, what has changed is the way that England have gone about their cricket,” former England coach Moores says. “Credit to Brendon McCullum, Ben Stokes and Rob Key and the way they’ve gone about it. What it has proved is that county cricket still produces international players.

“At the moment England have got some of their best ever players – Joe Root, Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad, Ben Stokes himself, these are guys who would go into your all-time XIs. That Harry Brook and Ben Duckett have come in and done well is a great advert for county cricket and shows the role that it still has to play.”

In an ever-changing cricket world, with franchise tournaments springing up as readily as daffodils in March, the County Championship increasingly resembles something approaching a relic. And no one is pretending that everything in the garden is rosy, despite the feelgood factor surrounding the sport at the current time.

“The schedule certainly isn’t perfect,” Moores says. “With the amount of cricket we play, the challenge has always been fitting it all in. When I first started playing there were four competitions and we couldn’t fit it all in then.

“As the schedule has evolved then there will have to be a compromise on certain competitions to make it sustainable. But the Championship is part of the fabric of us, there’s no doubt about it. Growing the younger audience to go alongside the older audience has always been the challenge. Live streaming could be huge – there’s real potential there to get the message to a lot more people.

“County cricket produces players but it’s more than that. For a lot of people, it’s in their blood, it’s where they meet their friends. It’s a community all of its own.”

Back in September, Mickey Arthur, the Derbyshire coach, told i that he couldn’t believe how much the county game was derided. It was, in his eyes, the “best first class competition in the world”.

The former South Africa, Australia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka coach has returned to Derby and will doubtless be eyeing a return to Division One. The county’s CEO, Ryan Duckett, is another of the domestic cricket fraternity looking to the future with hope after the club announced they had become debt-free two years ahead of schedule.

“We’re in a positive mood,” he says before the match against Worcestershire. “Everything suddenly looks a lot more optimistic, not just here but across the county game. There are times when we’re too quick to react and bash county cricket.

“Look at the quality of players we’ve got in this country – people are always talking about the depth of talent in white-ball cricket but the past 12 months have shown that there are plenty of players capable of making the step-up to the Test-match game too.

“Yes, there are challenges but it’s a competition that still produces high quality cricketers. It’s still a great product and the performances of England are a direct reflection of that.”

Back on the south coast, former England coach Paul Farbrace is preparing to lead his Sussex side, one containing his stepson Ollie Robinson, into their first match of the season against Durham at Hove.

“Listen, if you can’t get excited about county cricket in April, when can you?” he says, smiling.

Cricket lovers up and down the country will wholeheartedly agree.

i‘s guide to the County Championship

Division One:


  • Captain: Tom Westley
  • Key signing: Doug Bracewell – experienced New Zealand fast bowler fills gap after Australian Will Sutherland’s injury.
  • Key player: Sam Cook – best young English seamer took wickets at 16 last summer
    2022 finish 4th
  • i prediction: 3rd


  • Captain: James Vince
  • Key signing: None.
  • Key player: Kyle Abbott – South African was leading seamer in ­Division One last season with 58 wickets.
  • 2022: 3rd
  • i prediction: 2nd


  • Captain Sam Billings
  • Key signing Arshdeep Singh – India left-arm seamer will play five matches in June and July
  • Key player Billings – can lead from the front with bat as he readies for full first-class season
  • 2022 5th
  • i prediction 7th


  • Captain: Keaton Jennings
  • Key signing: Daryl Mitchell – prolific New Zealand batter joins in May
  • Key player: Saqib Mahmood – recovered from back injury and ready to show form that got him England selection
  • 2022: 2nd
  • i prediction: 4th


  • Captain: Toby Roland-Jones
  • Key signing: Ryan Higgins – the dependable all-rounder comes in from Gloucestershire
  • Key player: John Simpson – was club’s outstanding batter during promotion campaign
  • 2022: 2nd Division Two (promoted)
  • i prediction: 10th (relegated)


  • Captain: Luke Proctor
  • Key signing: Sam Whiteman – Aussie batter not a headline name but has impressive first-class track record
  • Key player: Ben Sanderson – last year’s leading wicket-taker will be focal point of attack
  • 2022: 6th
  • i prediction: 8th


  • Captain: Steven Mullaney
  • Key signing: Olly Stone – England quick has moved from Warwickshire and needs a big summer to press Ashes claims
  • Key player: Haseeb Hameed – can former England opener follow-up prolific 2022 summer back in Division One?
  • 2022: 1st Division Two (promoted)
  • i prediction: 5th


  • Captain: Tom Abell
  • Key signing: Matt Henry – will only play half of season but New Zealand fast bowler is an exciting acquisition
  • Key player: Craig Overton – in a summer where he will struggle to get into England’s team he will be huge presence for his county
  • 2022: 7th
  • i prediction: 6th


  • Captain: Rory Burns
  • Key signing: Dom Sibley – opener back at Oval from Warwickshire and gunning for England Test recall
  • Key player: Will Jacks – spinning all-rounder will play a big part when he returns from injury
  • 2022: 1st (champions)
  • i prediction: 1st


  • Captain: Will Rhodes
  • Key signing: Chris Ruthworth – the former Durham seam bowler ­promises to be a reliable source of wickets
  • Key player: Sam Hain – leading 2022 runscorer needs to score big to keep club away from danger
  • 2022: 8th
  • i prediction: 9th (relegated)

Division Two:


  • Captain: Leus Du Plooy
  • Key signing: Haider Ali – young Pakistan batter a shrewd addition by coach Mickey Arthur
  • Key player: Suranga Lakmal – former Sri Lanka bowler brings a touch of class to attack
  • 2022: 5th
  • i prediction: 4th


  • Captain: Scott Borthwick
  • Key signing: Matt Kuhnemann – Australia spinner who impressed on recent tour of India
  • Key player: Matt Potts – England bowler took 58 wickets last season and should be available for most of this summer
  • 2022: 6th
  • i prediction: 5th


  • Captain: David Lloyd
  • Key signing: Harry Podmore – seamer brought in from Kent has a first-class average of 26.7
  • Key player: Marnus Labuschagne – the No 1-ranked Test batter’s availability limited by Ashes but early-season runs could fire Welsh
  • 2022: 3rd
  • i prediction: 1st (promoted)


  • Captain: Graeme Van Buuren
  • Key signing: Marchant De Lange – 6ft 7in former South Africa seamer has a big role to play
  • Key player: James Bracey – can the one-time England wicketkeeper recover from poor 2022 season?
  • 2022: 10th Division One (relegated)
  • i prediction: 6th


  • Captain: Lewis Hill
  • Key signing: Peter Handscomb – Australia opener available for first two months before Ashes
  • Key player: Rehan Ahmed – big red-ball season for teenage spinner who made England Test debut in the winter
  • 2022: 8th
  • i prediction: 8th


  • Captain: Cheteshwar Pujara
  • Key signing: Steve Smith – it’s only for three early-season games but former Australia captain’s stint is talk of county cricket
  • Key player: Tom Haines –24-year-old batter has given up captaincy to concentrate on scoring runs
  • 2022: 7th
  • i prediction: 3rd


  • Captain: Brett D’Oliveira
  • Key signing: Matthew Waite – all-rounder brought in from Yorkshire
  • Key player: Azhar Ali – experienced Pakistan batter has signed on again for another year
  • 2022: 4th
  • i prediction: 7th


  • Captain: Shan Masood (missing first five weeks of season)
  • Key signing: Neil Wagner – New Zealand quick available for the first 10 games
  • Key player: Dawid Malan – free from England white-ball commitments until late August
  • 2022: 9th Division One (relegated)
  • i prediction: 2nd (promoted)

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