Chris Waters: Yorkshire CCC ready to be ranked alongside Sixties heroes
TECHNICALLY and alphabetically, Yorkshire go into their opening County Championship match of the season bottom of Division One.
It is a quirk that their rivals should enjoy while they can.
Having been one of the sides to sit out the opening round of fixtures last week, Yorkshire have nil points and are bottom by virtue of the fact that their name begins with the 25th letter of the alphabet.
No doubt they will appreciate the funny side, for it would be a major surprise if they are not proudly perched at the right end of the table before too long.
Yorkshire, as every cricket lover knows, are the best four-day team in the country right now.
They have proved it not only by winning successive County Championships, but also by virtue of a remarkable record under first-team coach Jason Gillespie that reads just four defeats in 64 Championship games – or, to put it another way, just four defeats in four seasons.
In the build-up to this summer, Gillespie and co have been stating that this is the strongest First Division they have known, with eight of the nine counties boasting Test match grounds.
That may be so, and it is perhaps understandable that the champions have voiced the view as expectations soar, but it should also be stated that this is the strongest Yorkshire side since the 1960s, when Brian Close’s team were the last to achieve a hat-trick of titles.
Gillespie also said that he believes his players are hungrier than ever for silverware, with the players themselves considering that a third straight title would confirm this to be one of the all-time great Yorkshire sides.
Indeed, there was no nicer touch in pre-season than the fact that new club president John Hampshire declared that the modern team are already up there with the great 1960s side of which he was a member.
A hat-trick of titles would certainly put to bed any argument as to whether the modern side deserves to be ranked with Yorkshire’s creme-de-la-creme, and Yorkshire are rightly clear favourites with the bookmakers to achieve what would be a magnificent feat.
If anything, they look even stronger on paper than they did last year, with their England players available at the start of the season and a quality new signing in England’s David Willey.
Last year, Yorkshire started the season with six players absent on England’s tour of the West Indies and with captain Andrew Gale suspended.
Such is their strength this time that Willey faces a fight to force his way into the Championship line-up, whereas he would probably be a shoo-in everywhere else.
Of course, there are few things quite so vulnerable, perhaps, as an overwhelming favourite, and the First Division does have some quality sides.
Notts have started off with a victory, showing great character to overcome the sad news that batsman James Taylor has been forced to retire with a serious heart condition by defeating Surrey at Trent Bridge.
Warwickshire almost squeezed past Hampshire in their rain-affected opener at the Ageas Bowl, while Surrey could be dark horses despite their defeat in Nottingham.
Hampshire and Lancashire could struggle, but there is scope for surprises along the way.
However, let us put it like this. If you were to ask any coach in the country which side he thinks are favourites to win the Championship, and which group of players he would most like to have at his disposal, he would surely point towards Yorkshire.
That is not to say that Yorkshire have no room for improvement.
Last year, their top-order batting was a tad inconsistent – and it will be tested again in the absence of Jonny Bairstow to England and quite possibly Gary Ballance and Adam Lyth, too.
But Kane Williamson is a terrific re-signing as an overseas player, Travis Head is a young international batsman with something to prove, and Yorkshire have an outstanding seam bowling line-up unaffected by England call-ups.
Significantly, leg-spinner Adil Rashid could be available for more than two-thirds of the Championship if England continue to ignore his claims at Test level, and there is tremendous depth throughout.
On top of that, Yorkshire know how to win Championship games and titles – a factor that should not be under-estimated, particularly if the going gets tough and the league table becomes uncomfortably tight.
They know what it is like to be challenged and how to overcome those challenges; a number of their victories last year stemmed from positions of adversity.
They are well-led by Gale, well-coached by Gillespie and Martyn Moxon, and Yorkshire have created an ethos in which the players very much drive their own success and are encouraged to take responsibility.
Nothing is ever certain in professional sport, but Yorkshire look primed to pull-off the hat-trick.