Lancashire were the bridesmaids of the County Championship in 2017, the plucky underdogs beaten only by the even pluckier underdogs.
Few would have pinpointed Essex and Lancashire to have finished as the top two in the final standings at the start of last season, but the two teams favourites for relegation went on to surprise everyone.
Having narrowly avoided the drop on their Division One return in 2016, a second-placed finish – behind a side who managed 10 wins from 14 matches – represented a successful red-ball campaign for Lancashire.
It was again less of a success in the white-ball formats. Elimination from the group stages of both the Royal London One-Day Cup and the T20 Blast fell well short of expectations.
Their Championship form was built upon a fierce grit and resolve, battling back from tough positions to claim positive results time and time again.
Their star batsman, Haseeb Hameed, failed to fire all season long but into his place stepped the likes of the evergreen Shivnarine Chanderpaul and the rapidly-improving homegrown youngsters Liam Livingstone and Alex Davies.
Lancashire’s four-day success was also constructed on home form, all of their victories coming at fortress Old Trafford or their outground at Southport.
In 2018, the aim must be to step up their performances on the road if they are to go one better than last season.
There have been additions and losses from that squad. Durham pair Keaton Jennings and Graham Onions were announced at the back end of last season, while Australian seamer Joe Mennie has come in as their overseas signing for the Championship.
The addition of Jennings, who endured a difficult 2017 having lost his England place, bolsters Lancashire’s impressive batting lineup. He could lead a top six that features Hameed, Davies, Livingstone, Chanderpaul and Dane Vilas – few will boast a stronger top order than that.
If there is to be a weakness in Lancashire Championship side it will be in the bowling. Glen Chapple’s side have lost 88 wickets from last season, with Ryan McLaren returning to South Africa and Kyle Jarvis re-joining the international scene with Zimbabwe.
Much of the responsibility for filling that void will fall to Onions. When fit, he guarantees wickets but at 35 and with a history of injuries, his fitness will be a concern. He did though manage 32 wickets in his eight outings for Durham in Division Two last season.
He will be backed up and supported by Mennie, who is a prolific wicket-taker on the Australian domestic scene. There is much hope for young paceman Saqib Mahmood as well, who has starred for the England Lions this winter and could play a key role in Lancashire’s season.
In terms of the white-ball formats, it’s tough to pinpoint where Lancashire go wrong. They are struggling to find the right balance in either side since clinching the T20 Blast title in 2015.
Australian all-rounder James Faulkner, who was in that team, is returning for this year’s Blast and will help the balance. They should also have arguably the strongest spin attack in the country, with the ever-improving Matt Parkinson joining Stephen Parry and Arron Lilley.
Perhaps the biggest change at Lancashire is the decision to replace Steven Croft as captain with Livingstone leading the side, when available, across all formats.
Ins: Keaton Jennings and Graham Onions (both Durham)
Outs: Luke Procter (Northamptonshire), Kyle Jarvis (released)
He may, once again, not be the headline act in Lancashire’s batting lineup but Alex Davies is beginning to catch the eye. His 2017 season was exceptional. The 23-year-old notched three centuries on his way to becoming the first Lancashire wicket-keeper to hit 1000 first-class runs in a season. His omission from the one-day sides was baffling.
Davies’ promotion to opening the batting was something of a gamble but he responded superbly, demonstrating an ability to attack against the new ball and consistently outscoring his more-fancied partner Hameed. He has continued to impress with the Lions this winter and in the North v South series.
Where Davies bats could be interesting. With Jennings, Hameed and Davies, Lancashire have three openers. The flexibility of Davies to potentially bat at three makes him crucial to the Red Rose.
One to watch
Lancashire need to replace the wickets lost with McLaren and Jarvis’ departure and the absence of James Anderson, who played five games at the start of last season. Saqib Mahmood has been talked about for a number of years but injuries have held him back.
At 21, having also impressed with the Lions, he looks set to make an impact in 2018. Mahmood has raw pace, bowls attacking lines and lengths and can swing the ball. If Lancashire are to begin improving their form away from home, having such an attacking seamer in their ranks could make a big difference.
Overseas Signings: Joe Mennie (all competitions), James Faulkner (T20 Blast)
How they’ll fare
One thing you can guarantee with Lancashire is a fighting spirit. There are counties with bigger names and perhaps better players but few match the resolve Chapple instils in his side. That will always make them competitive, particularly in the Championship where they are a hard side to beat.
Their batting options look strong and so much depends on the bowling unit. If Onions, Mennie and Mahmood can replace the wickets lost from last season and Parkinson and Stephen Parry can lead the spin attack, Lancashire have a real chance of thriving in the Championship.
Lancashire need to develop a gameplan against the white ball. When Jos Buttler features for them in the Blast, they are a different side but without him Chapple needs to find a way to consistently post dominant totals. They will be there or thereabouts in the T20 competition.
The One Day Cup continues to be a struggle, with no Lord’s final since 2006. It’s hard to see that changing.
SSCC v Nottinghamshire, Friday 13th April at Emirates Old Trafford
SSCC Division One: 7/2
Royal London One-Day Cup: 14/1
Vitality T20 Blast: 14/1