The end of season run-in effectively starts this week, with the first of five Specsavers County Championship rounds in the next five weeks as Essex hunt for their first title in 25 years and relegation and promotion spots are decided.
Essex v Somerset
Essex, having returned to Division One for the first time since 2010, are now in sniffing distance of a first Championship title since 1992, with a 41-point lead at the top of the table after winning six of their nine matches – including the last four. They have coped impressively since losing Alastair Cook and Tom Westley to England, and received a major boost when the threat of losing Mohammad Amir back to Pakistan dissipated – he played the key role in their last win against Yorkshire at Scarborough, taking his maiden first-class 10-wicekt haul. Cook and Westley made big second-innings contributions in a win against Somerset in Taunton in April which set the title ball rolling. That also set the tone for Somerset’s season, and they remain in the relegation zone despite winning at Scarborough themselves – 20 points behind sixth-placed Middlesex, with both teams having five games remaining.
Lancashire v Warwickshire
Haseeb Hameed will again be the focus of attention, even in a Lancashire team which also includes Jos Buttler, as he aims to build on the unbeaten 77 he made at Hampshire in the last Championship round at the start of the month. Warwickshire claimed an emphatic win against Middlesex at Lord’s, their first of the season, in that round to revive their hopes of avoiding relegation, although they remain bottom of the table and 31 points short of safety. Since that game Ian Bell has resigned as captain after losing his place in the Bears’ T20 team, so Jonathan Trott will lead the team at Emirates Old Trafford, where they will also be without Chris Woakes, who's on England duty.
Surrey v Middlesex
The champions welcome back Toby Roland-Jones, released by England, to a bowling attack which could also include Steven Finn and Tom Helm. Defeat by Warwickshire at Lord’s in their last game, in which opener Nick Gubbins picked up a hamstring injury, has left the reigning champs sixth in the table and looking over their shoulders at the two teams below them in the relegation zone, and scuppered any realistic hopes of retaining their title. But Surrey are only 10 points ahead of them, having gone eight games without a win. The hosts are missing Aaron FInch, though, out with a calf injury sustained during their T20 Blast quarter-final. Youngsters Ollie Pope, Amar Virdi and Ryan Patel, all recent England Under-19s players, make the squad, along with Jason Roy and Rikki Clarke.
Durham v Derbyshire
First red-ball match for Keaton Jennings since he lost his England place at the start of the month, but no confirmation yet on whether Mark Wood will be ready to return from his heel injury. Derbyshire have signed Harry Podmore on loan from Middlesex to strengthen their seam bowling options, and retain the option of playing South Africa international Imran Tahir alongside Afghanistan-born teenager Hamidullah Qadri.
Glamorgan v Sussex
Glamorgan’s annual trip to North Wales, and the Colwyn Bay CC ground in picturesque Rhos-on-Sea – and Sussex’s first game there since 2000, when Steve James scored a Glamorgan record of 309 not out. Aneurin Donald threatened it last year with a whirlwind 234 against Derbyshire, including 15 sixes. While Glamorgan will have at least one eye on the NatWest T20 Blast Finals Day at Edgbaston next weekend, Sussex are fully focused on a late promotion push, having closed to within 17 points of second-placed Worcestershire with four wins in their last five matches. Luke Wright returns to a red-ball squad which also includes Angus Robson, Ollie Robinson, Chris Jordan and two specialist spinners in Danny Briggs and Will Beer.
Kent v Leicestershire
Former England opener Michael Carberry will make his Leicestershire debut at the second of his three previous counties, having joined them on a loan deal from Hampshire this week. Kent, still very much in the promotion race, are boosted by the availability of Sam Billings.
Nottinghamshire v Northamptonshire
Cheteshwar Pujara, who made four Championship appearances for Notts in May and June, returns after a prolific series for India in Sri Lanka, another boost for Peter Moores’s team who have a 35-point lead at the top of the table. Stuart Broad and James Pattinson are no longer available, but they still have Jake Ball among a host of seam options including Harry Gurney, Mark Footitt, Brett Hutton and Luke Wood. Former England spinner Simon Kerrigan is set to make his second appearance for third-placed Northants after joining them on loan from Lancashire, and former England Under-19s captain Max Holden has returned for a second loan spell from Middlesex.
Worcestershire v Gloucestershire
Ravi Ashwin is set to make his first Championship appearance, having joined Worcestershire on a four-match deal as Steve Rhodes aims to rejuvenate their promotion push. Gloucestershire will be without their South African all-rounder Graeme van Burren, who has a wrist injury, while youngster George Drissell has a broken foot.