Today marked the start of the 2021 County Championship season, in what promises to be a fantastic return for the historic domestic red-ball competition.

We were forced to go without it last year and though the Bob Willis Trophy helped fill the gap, it really is brilliant to have the competition back – particularly once we can get supporters back inside stadiums.

Changes have been made to the format this year, which is admittedly a little complicated so bear with us on this one.

The 18 counties have been seeded and split into groups of six. They”ll play 10 matches – five home and five away – before the sides are put into three divisions based on their position in their group.

After a break for the Hundred and the One-Day Cup, the competition will return in late August with each side then playing four more games to decide the final standings. The top side in Division One will win the County Championship and battle it out with the second-placed team in the top tier for the Bob Willis Trophy in a one-off final at Lord’s.

Got it? No, we’re not quite sure either.

Many of the England stars not at the IPL will be involved in some of the early fixtures – including the skipper – but they’ll be some fantastic up-and-coming talent on show and that’s what we’re going to focus on.

Gareth Copley/Getty Images Sport

To do that, we spoke to journalist and host of the brand new County Cricket Natters podcast Sam Dalling. Each week the podcast, which is also hosted by Annie Chave and Dan Whiting, will round up the latest action from the domestic game, as well as focussing on one county in particular and speaking to a special guest related to that side.

According to Sam, the podcast should be accessible to all listeners, whether you’re knowledgeable about the domestic game or not, and should help to fill a gap in coverage.

“There’s plenty of coverage of international cricket and the T20 leagues,” explained Sam. “But while there is so much love for county cricket, what there isn’t and what we’re hoping to provide is a lighthearted show that runs through the results on a week-by-week basis with a bit of focus on each county.”

It also means that he’s the perfect person to talk to about some of the exciting up-and-coming players in this year’s competition. As England fans, we all like to keep on top of who the next Test star could be and we’ve asked Sam to highlight four players to keep an eye on…

Tom Lammonby – Somerset

Alex Davidson/Getty Images Sport

Left-handed bat, 20

6 matches / 11 ins, 459 runs @ 51.00, 3 100s, HS 118 / 12 ovs, 2 wkts for 38 runs @19.00

“Tom Lammonby is a young left-hander that only made his debut last year but there’s a lot of excitement about him.

“He played a few T20 games in 2019 and almost off a hunch from coach Jason Kerr he was bumped up to open in the Bob Willis Trophy and ended up scoring three hundreds in six games – all consecutive at the back end of the season.

“Lammonby got his first against Gloucestershire and then played this wonderful innings up at New Road against Worcestershire, in which wickets were falling around him but he paced himself perfectly. That game was effectively a semi-final and then he got a century in the final at Lord’s.

“I think had there been England Lions stuff going on over the winter he would’ve definitely gone on that tour.”

Jordan Cox – Kent

David Rogers/Getty Images Sport

Right-handed bat/wicketkeeper, 20

7 matches / 10 ins, 395 runs @ 43.88, 1 100, HS 238* 

“He’s something of an obvious pick because he had that unbroken partnership of 423 in the Bob Willis Trophy last year. I think Sam Billings was the next man in and had pad rash after about six hours waiting to go in.

“Jordan Cox got 238 of them and it was lucky that the innings in the Bob Willis Trophy were capped at 120 overs because that’s all that stopped him.

“He’s a very confident guy, he was going around on the morning of the game asking Sam Billings and Daniel Bell-Drummond what their top scores were because he wanted to go past them.

“Cox has worked very hard with Michael Yardy to reduce his trigger movement and keeps much stiller now. He’s just a very confident young man and one to keep an eye on.”

Dan Douthwaite – Glamorgan

David Rogers/Getty Images Sport

Right-handed bat/right-arm fast-medium, 24

14 matches / 25 ins, 603 runs @ 26.21, 2 50s & 1 100, HS 100* / 311.2 ovs, 35 wkts for 1375 runs @ 39.28, best of 4/48

“Dan Douthwaite is a player I really like. I don’t know if he’s been touted or not but I’ve been lucky enough to see him a couple of times.

“He plays at Glamorgan and he’s only got a handful of games under his belt but I think he’s been a bit unlucky with injuries.

“Douthwaite’s quite a quick, nippy seam bowler and hits a long ball with the bat. He could be an outside bet to have a really good season.”

Ben Mike – Leicestershire 

Alex Pantling/Getty Images Sport

Right-handed bat/right-arm fast-medium, 22

15 matches / 24 ins, 392 runs @ 18.66, 2 50s, HS 72 / 316 ovs, 40 wkts for 1313 @ 32.82, best of 5/37

“I’ve not seen a lot of him but speaking to a few guys, including Nick Friend at the Cricketer who really loves him, Ben Mike is one to keep an eye on.

“He’s at Leicestershire and they’re quite excited about him up there. He’s a bustling seam bowler and hard-hitting batsman, I think he hit 22* off nine balls against Yorkshire to win the game in the T20 Blast last year.

“He’s said recently that he’s got his eyes on being in the England Lions side over the next year or two, so he’s one to look out for.”

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Don’t forget to give the County Cricket Natters podcast a go!