England captain Alastair Cook is set to feature in the Specsavers County Championship opener when Essex host Gloucestershire at Chelmsford on Sunday.
Cook, with 126 Tests to his name to date, is available for Essex’s first four Division Two matches as the East Anglian side seek a strong start to their four-day campaign.
With the news that just one team will earn promotion this term, a positive beginning seems more necessary for Cook and co, particularly ahead of a trip to recently-relegated Sussex next week.
Essex will therefore need a change in fortunes from the 2015 season. Defeats in three out of their first five Championship matches all but ended their promotion bid before it had even begun, but the arrival of Chris Silverwood gave the Eagles a late resurgence, eventually finishing third in the division for a third successive season.
However, much of their campaign will revolve around their ability to cope without Reece Topley. The fast bowler moved to pastures new in Hampshire, but signs are there for a solid season.
It’s a similar situation for Gloucestershire too, having watched James Fuller depart to Division One Middlesex, a sizeable absence from their bowling ranks.
But optimism remains high at Nevil Road, although consistency at home will be needed if they are to reach England’s upper echelon.
Gloucestershire had a surprising start to their four-day game last term, losing early home games to Derbyshire and Kent, yet causing stirs to other promotion opportunities with successes at Lancashire and Essex.
Despite the international experience Ravi Bopara, Jesse Ryder, Ryan ten Doeschate and Alastair Cook possess, arguably Essex’s most exciting batting prospect comes from the youth of Daniel Lawrence.
The now 18-year-old became the third youngest to make a Championship century against Surrey 12 months ago, playing just his second first-class game. The youngster has gone from strength to strength to average more than 40 in the longer format, while showing his class with 174 against Fiji in the Under-19 World Cup this spring.
Lawrence has also began his pre-season on the front-foot, making an unbeaten 35 before retiring out on 76 in Essex’s season opener against Cambridge MCCU.
It was an impressive win for Gloucestershire at Chelmsford last year, with their nine wicket win forthcoming in no small part from Liam Norwell. The fast bowler took a career-best 6-33 in one innings, amassing outstanding figures of 10-65 in the match.
Already averaging less than 30 in first-class cricket, Norwell has become a mainstay at Bristol, reaching 150 first-class wickets despite being just 24 years of age.
Chris Silverwood has announced a 12-man squad including Alastair Cook, who is available for four County Championship matches – a rarity for England internationals these days.
The England captain’s presence could mean a scrap for places at the top of the order, with one of Dan Lawrence, Nick Browne and Tom Westley potentially missing out.
New Zealander Matt Quinn has not been selected, with Silverwood citing that there is no need to rush Quinn, who only arrived on Wednesday, with the strength they have in their squad.
Essex squad: Ryan ten Doeschate (captain), Ravi Bopara, Nick Browne, Alastair Cook, Matt Dixon, James Foster (wicket-keeper), Dan Lawrence, David Masters, Graham Napier, Jamie Porter, Jesse Ryder, Tom Westley.
Silverwood’s fellow ex-Yorkshireman Richard Dawson is taking 13 players to Chelmsford, which includes Western Australia opening batsman Cameron Bancroft, who only arrived in England on Tuesday.
Among the bowlers there could be Championship debuts for Gloucestershire for Chris Liddle, recruited from Sussex during the close season, and summer long Yorkshire loanee Josh Shaw.
Academy seamer Ollie Currell is included with David Payne and Craig Miles not available because of injuries.
Gloucestershire squad: Gareth Roderick (captain, wicket-keeper), Cameron Bancroft, Iain Cockbain, Ollie Currell, Chris Dent, Tom Hampton, Benny Howell, Hamish Marshall, Chris Liddle, Liam Norwell, Kieran Noema-Barnett, Josh Shaw, Jack Taylor.
Weather and Conditions
It seems the Gods just may well be cricket fans. Showers gracing Chelmsford on Saturday seem to disappear in time for Day One, which is forecast to be dry for the day if a little chilly. Brief showers may appear for the latter two days, although it’s not expected to be until after tea both days.
Date: 10th – 13th April 2016
Ground: Essex County Ground, Chelmsford
Umpires: Jeff Evans & Michael Gough
Odds (via SkyBet): Essex 1/2, Gloucestershire 6/4