The county championship gets under way on Wednesday, preposterously early as usual.
Some sympathy may be due to the players. It is no fun trying to hold on to a stinging chance at second slip in these temperatures yet the modern professional is obliged to do so. But greater sympathy should go to the spectators. The diehards will be there in their favourite seats, having looked forward to this day during an interminable winter. They will need their anoraks.
County cricket is far from dead but starting the season before the end of winter often gives us that impression. The only way cricket hits the wider news agenda at this time of year is when there are flurries of snow on the first day and the cameras pan round to a solitary fan in an otherwise empty stand. News editors like this scenario; it is quirky, delightfully English and makes the game look stupid.
Once the sun comes out there will be much to savour. Even the two‑Test series against New Zealand has unexpected spice. In February most of us concluded that it would be no problem for England to complete their second successful Test series of the winter but they almost lost in New Zealand. The Kiwis will not be greatly put out if there are still chill winds in May at our Test grounds.
England have never won the Champions Trophy, although they should have done so when it was last played in this country in 2004. They have another chance in June. In many ways this is a superior tournament to the World Cup. There are no tedious preliminary games. The top eight nations will play in Cardiff, Birmingham and at The Oval and it will all be over in 17 days.
We should rediscover the virtues of 50-over cricket. There has never been much wrong with the format; the problem has been that the ODI has been flogged to death with seven-week World Cups designed to dredge up as much money as possible and too many seven-match series between exhausted teams (for the same reason). There are five of the blighters in September after the final Test, by which time the players of both England and Australia may be past caring.
By then we shall know who has the Ashes. It does not greatly matter where England and Australia are ranked in Test cricket when this contest comes around. Already an Ashes ticket is a very sound investment. England must be nervous because they are such strong favourites – just as they were in 1958 and 1989. Between now and 10 July, when the first ball of the series will be bowled at Trent Bridge, not much can happen in the cricketing world without some sage editor inquiring: "And what effect will this have on the Ashes?"
Ricky Ponting will be watching the build-up from close by. He is one of several high-profile signings at Surrey along with Graeme Smith, Vikram Solanki, Gary Keedy and just occasionally Kevin Pietersen, who may have to play the odd county game as he recuperates from his knee injury. Therefore the assumption is that Surrey will, of course, win the Championship. But who might challenge them? Warwickshire maximised their resources brilliantly last year but must now do that without Ashley Giles at the helm. Middlesex, whose attack is bolstered by the arrival of James Harris from Glamorgan, keep improving.
There will be reconnaissances to Trent Bridge to have a look at Australia's opener, Ed Cowan, who has signed for Nottinghamshire for the early part of the season. There may even be much mumbling and grumbling that he should be given a chance to acclimatise to English conditions before the Ashes. That was the case when Middlesex signed Phillip Hughes in 2009 – though the uproar died down a little when Hughes, who averaged 143 for his adopted county, was dropped by the Australians after two Tests.
Derbyshire return to the First Division for the first time since 2000 and they have an adhesive overseas left-hander of their own in Shivnarine Chanderpaul. It is not so hard to imagine who the neutrals will be supporting when Derbyshire take on Surrey.
In the Second Division we find Hampshire and Lancashire, two big clubs feeling out of place. James Tredwell, anonymous no more, takes over the captaincy at Kent while Stephen Peters is now in charge at Northampton. Both their sides can challenge for promotion in a Championship set-up where the gulf between the First and Second Divisions seems to be widening each year. Increasingly when county players are heard to be "pining for First Division cricket", it is tempting to believe it is for more than a boost to their salaries. Currently only two of England's Test players, Alastair Cook and James Anderson, are attached to Second Division teams. Which is probably how it should be.
I'll see you shivering somewhere soon.
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