The holders of three of the past four County Championship titles will open their accounts in the April drizzle at Headingley. Last season, Yorkshire were stunned at home in their first match by an outstanding comeback performance from Hampshire, which set them up for a tough season.
This year, with injury and the IPL affecting their preparations for the new season, the clouds above Leeds will bear metaphorical significance for many faithful umbrella-toting Yorkshire supporters.
The visitors will also start their bid to reclaim their Championship title with a degree of apprehension. They will look at the top table in vain for their predecessors on the red-ball podium: Middlesex went straight from glory in 2016 to Division Two in 2018. For a county that was widely tipped for the drop in the woefully inaccurate string of pre-season predictions this time last year, the prospect of a relegation scrap must seem nearer than it might considering the recent gleaming addition to their trophy cabinet.
Both sides boast immense quality in their theoretical squads, but Yorkshire have to delve into their reserves for their bowling attack in particular. The White Rose’s strength in depth has been sorely tested before, but those petals can never have been battered as ferociously as they have lately.
Despite Yorkshire’s home advantage, then, Essex will go into the first match as the more settled of the two sides. As we know from last season when Yorkshire finished fourth, but only three points clear of the drop zone, every bonus point will matter in this eight-team division. So even if Yorkshire are at a disadvantage, they have every reason to fight it out from the very first ball.
They are an ambitious club with many talented players even in their playing squad. For Essex, though, this represents an outstanding opportunity to claim an early win against a side that will only grow in strength as players return from IPL action and injuries heal.
It is perfectly possible that the clouds will open for Yorkshire to protect them from their first defeat to Essex at Headingley since 1984, but neutrals and Eagles fans will be hoping that as little play as possible will be lost.
You need to be wary about naming a key man for Yorkshire, lest some IPL owner in need of a replacement should swoop in and sign them, but Adam Lyth’s early-season form should be a good litmus test for how well Yorkshire’s season will go. We know he has a great deal of talent and if he can recover some of the self-belief that was dented from his seven-Test stint with England, he should be a big factor in their fortunes in 2018.
A year ago, it was Dan Lawrence’s doughty century that denied Lancashire victory over the eventual champions, causing more than a few pundits to revisit their pre-season pontifications. He will play Test matches for England one day, and there have to be spots available given the winter England have had.
Adil Rashid is on a white-ball only contract, Liam Plunkett and David Willey are both in India, Matthew Fisher has a nasty side injury, Steve Patterson has a broken finger, Ben Coad is touch and go with a hip injury. Oh and James Wainman is injured too. Bairstow and Root are rested by England. It is incredible given this number of absentees that Yorkshire are fielding a side at all.
Yorkshire Squad: Ballance (c), Tim Bresnan, Harry Brook, Jack Brooks, Ben Coad, Andrew Hodd (wk), Jack Leaning, Alex Lees, Adam Lyth, Cheteshwar Pujara, Josh Shaw, Matthew Waite
Overseas signing Peter Siddle is included, with the Australian joining last season’s Division One top wicket-taker Jamie Porter in the seam ranks. The experienced James Foster takes the gloves.
Essex Squad: Ryan Ten Doeschate (c), Ravi Bopara, Nick Browne, Varun Chopra, Sam Cook, James Foster (wk), Simon Harmer, Dan Lawrence, Jamie Porter, Peter Siddle, Paul Walter, Tom Westley, Adam Wheater
Weather and Conditions
Rain is scheduled before play on day one and during day three. There should be enough game time for a result.
Date: 13th-16th April 2018
Ground: Emerald Headingley
Odds (SkyBet): Yorkshire 10/11, Essex 10/11