Yorkshire have had a shabby couple of years since their back-to-back Championship titles in 2014 and 2015. They did come within a day of retaining their title in 2016, but their fans will be the first to admit that Middlesex were by far the best team in the country that year and richly deserved their title after the White Rose stars had mostly underperformed.
Alright, that might be taking it a bit far. Yorkshire fans just aren’t like that. But they will admit that coming within three points of relegation in 2017 was far from good enough. The story does not get a lot better when you consider that Ryan Sidebottom, who took 25 wickets at 20.72, has retired and is now Surrey’s bowling coach. Adil Rashid will only be playing white-ball cricket this summer and while he did not set Division One on fire in 2017, he bowled better than Azeem Rafiq, who will presumably step into Rashid’s shoes in the Championship.
On the other hand, Yorkshire’s batting ranks in particular are stuffed with talented players who will certainly feel like they have something to prove after a couple of quiet seasons. Adam Lyth and Alex Lees, the heroes of the 2014 victory, have been subdued more recently and may well feel lucky that no youngster has emerged from the Seconds to steal their spot. Lyth and Lees, along with Jack Leaning, are proud and talented cricketers who now have a wealth of experience on their side. If they can reprise their former roles at the top of the order, Yorkshire will be real contenders.
Finally, the Yorkshire conveyor belt is still cranking out the talent, albeit without the feverish brilliance of the Root – Bairstow – Ballance era. Ben Coad and Matthew Fisher are both terrific young bowlers and Keighley teenager Harry Brook has had an outstanding winter with England under-19s. Despite his modest first-class record thus far, Brook should have a few more chances to start his Yorkshire career in earnest this season.
Mixed signs early on, then, just like a regular April morning at Headingley. There are proud traditions and standards to be upheld though and this crop of hardy professionals and eager youngsters should be able to polish themselves up and give a decent account of themselves in 2018.
Outs: Ryan Sidebottom (Retired), Will Rhodes (Warwickshire)
Second on the 2017 county averages only to Kumar Sangakkara, club captain Gary Ballance will be crucial to Yorkshire’s success this season. Nobody else in Yorkshire’s ranks passed 600 runs in the Championship last year and both openers had measly averages in the 20s. The need to ‘step up’ has been noted before, but there is every chance that Yorkshire will find themselves a few down against the new ball, only for Ballance to rush to the rescue to restore the innings. As long as England don’t find themselves in need of similar salvation, this could be another bumper year for Ballance on the county circuit.
Player to Watch
You’ll already have an eye on him unless you slept through last season, but it will be fascinating to see how Ben Coad copes now county batsmen know what he can do. Last year, he probably benefitted from being underrated in a line-up that included three former and current England stars in Ryan Sidebottom, Tim Bresnan and Adil Rashid. Sidebottom and Rashid will not feature in Yorkshire’s red-ball campaign in 2018, so there will be more pressure on Coad to deliver, and it will be harder now that batsmen have had a winter to mull over how to counter his accurate, sharp, effective bowling.
Two fondly familiar figures from over the seas will be featuring at Headingley this year. New Zealand star Kane Williamson is available from late July to early September, while India’s Cheteshwar Pujara will fill in the gaps in April and June. Australian Billy Stanlake has been signed for the Twenty20 Blast, but it is Williamson and ‘Steve’, as he is affectionately known in Yorkshire, who will have them flocking through the gates.
How they’ll fare
The post-Sidebottom era will be tough but after the relegation scare last season, Yorkshire need to find a way to replace him quickly. They are not short of talent. Coad and Matthew Fisher are both supremely exciting talents, but whether they can replicate Sidebottom’s devastating impact throughout the season remains to be seen. They need Jack Brooks to find some form as well, but if Yorkshire can pull themselves together, they should find themselves in the top four looking up, rather than in the bottom half looking down.
SSCC Div One v Essex, Friday 13th April, at Headingley
SS County Championship Division 1: 6-1
Royal London One-Day Cup: 7-1
Vitality Twenty20 Blast: 10-1