Can Durham complete a County Championship hat-trick?
April sees the start of the English domestic cricket season, William Hill's cricket compiler Rob Dixon guides you through this year's Division One teams and hopefully spots some value for the coming season.
2009 saw the Ashes regained and the buzz of Twenty20 cricket and untold riches take hold on a global scale, the scale of Durham's second consecutive County Championship win took a backseat. Nobody however can understate what they achieved. Remaining unbeaten all year under new captain Will Smith, they wrapped up the title with two games to spare.
Their 47 point winning margin was as emphatic as it was clinical and they deservedly start 2010 as hot favourites (7/4) to attempt a hat-trick of titles not seen since Yorkshire achieved this feat in 1968. The side remains the same as 2009, as it is once again reliant on evergreen performers such as Michael Di Venuto, Dale Benkenstein and Steve Harmison.
One of Durham's closest rivals could be Hampshire (9/2). Following a clear out at the end of last season, the club have recruited strongly with England's 2005 Ashes hero Simon Jones hoping to overcome his injury nightmare to lead the attack with Kabir Ali, another close season capture from Worcestershire. A link up with Shane Warne's Rajasthan Royals could also lead to more player signings during the season. I believe they will push Durham very close at the business end of the season.
Last year's runners-up Nottinghamshire (11/2) will hope to see England bowlers Graeme Swann, Stuart Broad and Ryan Sidebottom during the season, but with England's schedule this looks unlikely and they will have to rely on a makeshift attack. As Durham showed over the last two years, to win championships you need to take 20 wickets regularly and this is where I feel Notts will struggle this year. Batting wise the signing of South African Hashim Amla should ensure that they are not fighting a relegation battle.
Somerset (9/1) were well fancied by punters last year, and with a strong batting line-up I could see why. Unfortunately for them, the wickets at Taunton were so batsman friendly, they struggled to bowl sides out. Marcus Trescothick will take the reins this year and a younger team will take the field. Murali Kartik could provide the missing bowling spark that they need to launch a championship challenge but will these Taunton wickets help him?
Yorkshire (20/1) and Lancashire (8/1) have both suffered overseas player disappointments this winter, both on and off the field. Yorkshire's signing of Ryan Harris looked shrewd at the turn of the year, for them unfortunately it was because after performing well in the Big Bash, Australia came calling for Harris and good performances have left him on the verge of a Australian central contract and will force Yorkshire to look elsewhere.
Andrew Gale takes over from Anthony McGrath this season and a young batting line-up will need to give it their all to keep the side in the top flight. Harris' arrival can't come quick enough with an attack missing Matthew Hoggard.
Yorkshire's on field problems have been matched by their rivals from over the Pennines as Lancashire have been unable to secure a work permit for South African Francois du Plessis. They have recruited well with the signing of Sri Lankan Kumar Sangakkara and Worcestershire opener Stephen Moore.
Lancashire's 75-year wait for that elusive title will rely on coach Peter Moores' ability to engineer a winning team as well as Andrew Flintoff's expected return later on in the season.
Of the two new clubs to the top flight, Kent (8/1) are probably better equipped to survive, Rob Key has emerged as one of the best captains on the county circuit and has future stars in his hands in the shape of Joe Denly and Sam Northeast. Their best chance of success however may lie in the shorter forms of the game.
Essex (16/1) and Warwickshire (9/1) look set for a season of struggle. The Warwickshire side does look competitive without any real stars, they will miss Ian Bell for most of the season as he's on England duty and will rely heavily on new signing Imran Tahir to show the form which nearly got him a South Africa call up against England recently.
The same can be said of Essex, Mark Pettini is a good young captain and Ravi Bopara is a class act at county level but they too will rely on spin for success, this time coming from the Pakistani Danish Kaneria. Kaneria though will have one eye on a Pakistan call up for their tour of England and his loss would be a massive blow for their hopes of staying up.