County Championship Division Two preview

Sussex celebrate
Sussex celebrate a wicket on their way to last season's Division Two title success

The race for promotion could be a four-horse race this summer - and I expect underachievers Middlesex and Surrey to be in the thick of the shake-up.

Surrey have finished seventh and Middlesex eighth in each of the past two seasons, well off the pace. But there are signs that there could be joy this season on both sides of the Thames.

At Lord's, director of cricket Angus Fraser is into his third year as director of cricket and Neil Dexter will have his first full season as captain, with the pair offering the stability that has been missing at Middlesex for a while.

Dexter has the makings of a good captain. He is willing to listen, is extremely popular in the dressing room, and a strong character to boot.

The arrival of Chris Rogers, from Derbyshire, will bolster the batting line-up and Middlesex will hope that their leading run-scorer from the past two seasons, Dawid Malan, has another good year.

And despite losing Iain O'Brien and Pedro Collins, the bowling attack looks strong. Corey Collymore is an excellent signing and Anthony Ireland, from Gloucestershire, has been around and has experience despite only being 26.

Throw in Steve Finn, the highly-rated Toby Roland-Jones and Tim Murtagh and there is the makings of quite an attack, even if Finn is away with England.

Surrey can deliver as well, although one area that will concern them will be how much they see of Chris Tremlett following his success for England in the Ashes.

Zander de Bruyn, from Somerset, and Yasir Arafat are shrewd signings and, after the other investment they have made in the playing staff in the last few years, they will want to see results.

Knitting all those new players together has not been easy but if they do then they could be very strong.

The other two teams I expect to challenge are relegated duo Essex and Kent.

Sometimes where you finish can depend on a bit of luck, the toss, pitches or the weather, but there is a dividing line in the standard of Division One and Division Two cricket, and I expect their quality to shine through.

Neither have signed an overseas player yet for first-class cricket and if they do it could be crucial to how they get on.

Kent have lost Amjad Khan, which will be a blow, but they have kept together more of the team than they might have expected to given the financial problems they have had.

For me, they are the team to finish above to win promotion.

For Essex, the signing of batsman Owais Shah from Middlesex could be crucial. The move may well breathe new life into him, and if it does then he could have a very productive year.

Glamorgan came close last season, only missing out on promotion to Worcestershire on the final afternoon, but they have endured a winter of turmoil at the Swalec Stadium.

South African Alviro Petersen has come in as captain in place of the departed Jamie Dalrymple, but the loss of a highly-talented young batsman in Tom Maynard, to Surrey, and big-hitting opener Mark Cosgrove, who will only play Twenty20 cricket, are huge blows.

But they have a lot of good young players coming through and maybe a new captain might be the spur to bring them on.

Crossing the River Severn to Gloucestershire, I think the young New Zealand batsman Kane Williamson is a fantastic signing and I am looking forward to seeing him play.

The problem for Gloucestershire is that they have lost so much in terms of their bowling attack, which I considered to be arguably the strongest in Division Two.

Seeing both Steve Kirby and Gemaal Hussain leave for Somerset is a huge blow, but they have also lost James Franklin and Ireland.

Batting-wise William Porterfield has joined Warwickshire and Kadeer Ali has been released, leaving the top order looking a bit fragile too.

I think they will struggle to finish above the teams I've already mentioned.

Matthew Hoggard
The experience of Matthew Hoggard will be crucial at Grace Road

Leicestershire could surprise a few. They've gone from being a county that relied on Kolpak players to one which brings through a lot of young talent.

At a time when a lot of counties are struggling financially, bringing through your own players is paramount.

This season may come too early for them, but a lot will depend on how the experience of captain Matthew Hoggard helps bring them through.

With the bat, they will again look to James Taylor for runs. He has a very impressive record for a young man and a very distinctive style.

Northants have lost a big player in Nicky Boje, but in Chaminda Vaas they have a very good overseas signing who will take wickets and could win them matches.

Stephen Peters had a fine season with the bat last time around and will again be a big player for them.

But he could also become a 'target' wicket for other teams who might wonder how much batting Northants have if they can see him off.

It could be another difficult season for last season's bottom club Derbyshire.

After losing star batsman Rogers to Middlesex, they will be looking for big things from their overseas batsmen Usman Khawaja, who made his Australia Test debut against England at Sydney, and New Zealander Martin Guptill.

But with losing the competitiveness of Graham Wagg and the all-round abilities of Robin Peterson, new captain Luke Sutton is going to have a big job on his hands.

Kevin Hand was talking to BBC Sport's Steve Marshall

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