With holders Surrey playing a friendly against Durham MCCU, the first round of the Specsavers County Championship gave an opportunity to six of their rivals to launch an early bid to establish their title credentials. Hampshire gave the most dominant performance, as they took on 2017 champions Essex at Southampton, where the visitors chose to field first – a decision they soon came to rue. The south coast outfit have added South Africa’s opening bat Aiden Markram and all-rounder Keith Barker to their line-up this year, but it was Sam Northeast who really shone, making 169 – his highest score for the county – as they piled up an impressive total of 525 for eight declared. Markram made 63.
Essex, by contrast, fielded a more established line-up, but they could do little to counter the pace of Fidel Edwards, who finished with five for 51 to help dismiss them for just 164. Only Sir Alastair Cook, with 50, and Ravi Bopara (37 not out) were able to bat for more than two hours. Unsurprisingly, they were asked to follow on and the early loss of both openers left them battling to save the match. By close of play on the third day, they were in deep trouble at 132 for four. Despite a battling 107 from Ravi Bopara, they were dismissed for 274 and lost by an innings and 87 runs. Kyle Abbott took five for 77.
At Trent Bridge, England team-mates Stuart Broad and Joe Root lined up against each other, with Yorkshire choosing to field first. Nottinghamshire’s new recruit Joe Clarke made an early positive impression on the home fans, scoring 112 on debut to help them up to 408 all out. It was Yorkshire’s new Kolpak signing, Duanne Olivier, who ensured the total wasn’t even higher, taking five for 96 in his first game. Yorkshire reached 291 in reply, Adam Lyth making the top score of 81.
By close of play on the third day, Nottinghamshire had taken complete control, leading by 446 runs, with Clarke on 97 not out, three short of completing a century in both innings of the match – he would have been only the fourth to achieve the feat for the county this century, but Steve Mullaney decided to declare. Jake Ball then picked up two early wickets, before Gary Ballance (101 not out) and Joe Root (130 not out – his highest score for the county since May 2016) batted out the rest of the day, putting on an unbeaten partnership of 253 for the third wicket. The match ended as a draw, with Yorkshire on 277 for two, and perhaps with Joe Clarke wondering if he might have been allowed to complete that century.
In the other game in the First Division, newly promoted Kent visited Taunton and also chose to field first after the whole of the first day was lost to the weather. For them, however, the decision seemed to have paid off as Somerset were dismissed for just 171. Their one newcomer, Jack Brooks, wasn’t really brought in to boost the batting. Mitch Claydon took five for 46, narrowly missing out on a personal best for the county. Matt Milnes, one of two newcomers for the visitors, took three for 40. Matt Renshaw is Kent’s overseas new signing, but he made only 5 in their reply of 209.
After stumbling to 32 for four, Somerset staged something of a recovery, with George Bartlett making the game’s only half-century (63). He added 62 vital runs for the last wicket with Brooks (35 not out) to take them up to 243 and so set Kent a target of 206 for victory. Claydon, with four for 66, narrowly missed out on picking up ten wickets in the match. Somerset then got off to the best possible start when Lewis Gregory had Sean Dickson caught out first ball of the second innings. The rest of the top order crumbled away to 45 for six, before Darren Stevens established some calm. But the damage had been done, and his unbeaten 43 was not enough. Gregory finished as the key man, taking five for 18 and Somerset eased home to win by 74 runs.
In the Second Division, neither of the relegated sides was in action. At Derby, the home side chose to bat first but fell prey to Durham’s attack, and were bowled out for 197, boosted by 78 from Harvey Hosein. Derbyshire’s only newcomer was the cosmopolitan Logan van Beek (his grandfather Sam Guillen played for both West Indies and New Zealand; van Beek was born in the latter country, but has played for Netherlands), who made 8. Durham’s reply fell short, as they were dismissed for 171 in reply, Luis Reece taking five for 47, while van Beek’s maiden championship victim was Michael Richardson.
In the second innings, there were contributions all the way down the order for Derbyshire, with Ravi Rampaul recording his highest score for the county – 24. Tom Lace hit a career-best 61. A total of 334 all out meant Durham faced a daunting target of 361 for victory, and they ensured they got to the start of the final day with all their wickets intact, facing 86 deliveries for just 10 runs. Despite an 83-run opening partnership, the rest of Durham’s line-up could muster little to hold up the hosts, though Liam Trevaskis battled to 27 not out in almost an hour and a half. All out for 235, they lost by 125 runs.
Many thought that Middlesex would be favourites for promotion last season, but they started this season off the pace. Having chosen to field first at Northampton, they allowed the home side to score 445. The hosts’ star recruit is West Indies captain Jason Holder, and he made a steady 40, while on-loan Luke Wood was another new face, joining from Nottinghamshire, and he scored 29. For Middlesex, there was a familiar figure among the wickets: Tim Murtagh, fresh from his Test in Afghanistan, who took six for 80. Batting frailties were highlighted as they made only 271 in reply and were forced to follow on. Nathan Buck took five for 54, while Holder and Wood each picked up two wickets. Skipper Dawid Malan ensured there would be no repeat collapse, making an unbeaten 160 in just over six hours to see his side up to 317 for four declared. There was just enough time for the home side to reach 10 without loss before the game ended in a draw.
At Brighton, Leicestershire fielded first and Thomas Taylor fully justified the decision by taking a career-best six for 47 to help dismiss the home outfit for just 173. He was helped by new signings Chris Wright (three for 53) and Will Davis. Sussex’s new recruit Mir Hamza has been brought in to bolster the bowling, and he took three for 71 in Leicestershire’s reply, while last summer’s leading wicket-taker Ollie Robinson picked up four for 46. The visitors made 252 all out, to take a healthy lead, with newcomer Hasan Azad scoring just 6.
In their second innings, Sussex seemed to be fighting back as they reached 234 for three, but the last seven wickets fell for just 74 runs to leave the away side with a target of 230 for victory. Taylor took four for 75 to complete ten wickets in the match, while the surprise destroyer was Colin Ackermann, who nipped in with five for 69 – his maiden five-wicket haul. By close of play on the third day, Leicestershire had reached 99 for one, and looked to be closing in on victory. Hasan Azad’s patient 59 in a little over three-and-a-half hours provided the bedrock of their comfortable seven-wicket victory.