The lowest temperature recorded in the UK on Monday was -7.8C, at the village of Braemar in the Cairngorms. Much of Britain has had a sun-kissed few days, however, and in the Cornish town of Bude the temperature at one stage hit 17.7C – nevertheless at Taunton and the Ageas Bowl cricketers still pulled on their long-sleeve cable knits as they headed out for the first domestic friendlies of 2022. A new season is upon us, the start of the County Championship just a fortnight away.
They may be defending champions but Warwickshire approach the new campaign third in the bookies’ estimations, behind Essex and the narrow favourites, Lancashire. As those frosty friendlies began last year’s runners-up might not have been in action but they would have been feeling the chill particularly sharply, having returned only on Sunday from a pre-season warm-weather training camp in Dubai – undertaken, for the first time, together with Lancashire’s women’s team. Having narrowly missed out on the title last year in a dramatic final week they seem ready to push on, with ambitions also for the Royal London One-Day Cup:
“We’re looking at both competitions and thinking there’s no reason why we can’t win both,” says Mark Chilton, the former player and longtime coach who was promoted last September to director of cricket performance at Old Trafford.
“Last year will have got some useful experience into lots of people, getting close [in the County Championship], but also a lot of people felt we were capable of winning and there was more than a tinge of disappointment that we didn’t,” says Chilton, who will combine his new role with his duties as assistant coach.
“I think we knew we were capable of being champions last year, and therefore you feel the group is significantly motivated to go one step better. The depth in our squad as well is something I feel pretty confident about – with the uncertainty that exists with the best players, you never quite know who’s going to get taken off you and I feel like we’ve got quite a lot of bases covered if we lose different types of player. At this stage I wouldn’t put us favourites but I’d certainly say we’re confident about what we’re capable of achieving.”
Since last summer Lancashire have snaffled Phil Salt from Sussex – Salt didn’t play a first-class game in 2021 as he established himself as a white-ball batter of international renown but according to Chilton “has communicated his real desire to impact four-day cricket” – and this week announced the Pakistan bowler Hasan Ali had signed up to play the first six matches of the County Championship. There are also high hopes for George Bell, a wicketkeeper-batsman who was part of the England team that reached the Under-19 World Cup final in Antigua last month and is going into his first season as a professional. “He hugely impressed out in Dubai,” Chilton says. “He’s a very focused and ambitious individual and looks a fine player.”
But while both Salt and Bell have represented England in the West Indies this year it is a player who has not made that trip who will inevitably be the focus of greatest attention. When they last won the County Championship in 2011 Jimmy Anderson managed only two appearances, but with his international future currently uncertain he may be seen more frequently at Old Trafford this summer.
“Obviously it’s a highly sensitive area at the minute and he’s in a slight predicament about where he sits,” Chilton says. “We obviously go a long way back and we’re able to air that situation quite openly and at the minute I see as motivated a Jimmy Anderson as I’ve ever seen. I think the primary goal for him is he wants his name on the team sheet for the first Test of the summer, but he’s openly talked about playing for Lancashire and helping us win a championship and knowing him as I do I wouldn’t expect anything else.
“We play six games in six weeks at the start of the season so we’ve got to manage your bowlers through that period, but I’d be hopeful that he certainly plays three of those first six, and then we see how things play out. We know the quality he’s going to bring when he plays for us. That’s never been in doubt whenever he’s put a red rose on his chest.”
Wherever they finish this season Lancashire have already claimed one first, their trip to Dubai being the first joint men’s and women’s tour undertaken by a first-class county, with the club sponsors Emirates and Hilton both helping to make it happen. “Whether we can manage it financially every year might be a challenge but I think it would certainly be something we’d consider again, because it felt like a real success,” Chilton says.
“Sometimes [those involved in the two teams] sort of cross like ships in the night a little bit, you’re busy in your own jobs and you don’t get time just to sit and talk to people. I think the way the men and the women integrated was just a really healthy thing for the club. As assistant coach of the men’s team for a number of years I’ve tended to be absorbed in that, so I actually hadn’t watched a huge amount of women’s cricket until we went on this tour. Now I think we’re all more invested in it, because we’re aware of who the people are. I think from that respect it was a huge positive.”
Lancashire move into the next stage of their preparations with a two-day friendly at Derbyshire starting on Thursday. “It does feel early, with frost on my car this morning, but everyone’s just pretty keen to wrap themselves up and get going,” Chilton says. “You sense that the squad knows that they’re a good squad, and they’re a strong squad, and I think they’re a competitive squad as well. They want to win, and you can really sense that.”