YORKSHIRE’s target going into the season is simple – to go down in history as one of the club’s greatest teams.
There are those who would say they are already that, following back-to-back County Championship titles.
But another one now would confirm it to be true.
There could be no reasonable argument after three-in-a-row.
On the face of it, a hat-trick of Championships is all-but guaranteed.
Yorkshire, it could be argued, are even stronger than they were last summer, when they won with record points and record wins since the move to two divisions in 2000.
They have re-signed Kane Williamson, one of the world’s finest batsmen, and they have recruited another overseas batsman with a point to prove in the young Australian Travis Head.
Throw in the fact that they pulled off a major coup by signing England’s David Willey from Northamptonshire, and they could not be accused of resting on their laurels.
Indeed, they have followed the principle that it is better to build from a position of strength as the dominant side in four-day cricket.
On paper, Yorkshire should certainly win it again.
Not only should their own strength be factored into the calculation, but also the strength of the opposition.
Although the likes of Warwickshire, Middlesex and Notts, to name but three of their rivals, will have their backers, there is no standout challenger to Yorkshire’s crown, just as there was no standout challenger last year.
Indeed, at the time of writing, bookmaker William Hill had Yorkshire 6-4 favourites followed by Notts at 6-1, emphasising the perceived – and almost certainly palpable – gulf in class.
However, if betting was an exact science, let alone professional sport, this correspondent would currently be reclining on a yacht in the Caribbean while a bevy of beauties attended to his every whim.
It is, sadly, never that simple, with variables such as fitness and weather coming into play, along with the one factor that affects Yorkshire more than any other county – England call-ups.
Last year, Yorkshire’s player-of-the-season was undoubtedly Jonny Bairstow, who scored 1,108 Championship runs at 92.33, the majority of them fashioned at crucial times when the games could have gone either way.
After a superb winter with England, when he seized his chance in the South Africa series, Bairstow is now guaranteed to start the Test match summer barring injury, after which Yorkshire should expect to see little of him going forward, which is the sort of factor that could make a difference.
At the same time, one of Yorkshire’s many attributes is the strength and depth of their squad, and they have a ready-made replacement for Bairstow behind the stumps in the form of Andrew Hodd, who would walk into several other county sides.
Hodd is no mean batsman either, although clearly no county could easily replace Bairstow’s volume of runs.
Yorkshire have not suffered too many injuries in recent times – testament to the work of their support staff, it should be noted, as much as Lady Luck – and they have managed to keep key players on the park more often than not.
They would clearly not want to see that situation tested this year, but even if the likes of a Ryan Sidebottom fell injured, there is always a young Matthew Fisher waiting in the wings – not to mention a David Willey chomping at the bit to make an impact in Championship cricket as well as in the one-day stuff.
Notwithstanding England call-ups and the unpredictability of injuries, Yorkshire most definitely have options.
They also have unquestionably the best pace bowling attack in the country, one spearheaded by the extraordinary Sidebottom and Jack Brooks, and complemented by the expert foils of Steve Patterson and Tim Bresnan, as well as Liam Plunkett when available.
At 38, Sidebottom is clearly coming towards the end of his career, but we seem to have been saying that ever since he returned to Yorkshire for the 2011 season, since when he appears to have got better and better, exemplified by that remarkable performance at Lord’s last September when he captured three wickets in the opening over of the match against Middlesex on the day that Yorkshire clinched the title.
Brooks is one of the finest players never to have played for England, while Patterson is not far behind him, a man who glues the operation together along with Bresnan and allows the likes of Brooks and Sidebottom to attack.
By rights, Yorkshire should not be seeing too much of leg-spinner Adil Rashid either, but his Test place is not as secure as Bairstow’s, and he has found himself playing second fiddle to Moeen Ali.
That could change, however, and for all that young left-arm spinner Karl Carver is making splendid progress in the Yorkshire ranks, Rashid would be a considerable miss if he ever did become England’s first-choice Test spinner.
Batting, it is fair to say, has been something of a weaker suit for Yorkshire in recent times, although not so weak as to prevent them from winning consecutive Championship titles.
Last year, it grew faintly amusing, in fact, to hear first-team coach Jason Gillespie routinely reflect that his top-six could have been more ruthless collectively as he looked back over yet another thumping win for his side.
It highlighted Gillespie’s honesty and his hunger for those batsmen to fire more consistently as a unit, rather than just rely on one or two individuals, and that is certainly an area that Yorkshire can improve.
The good news, however, is that their top-six is currently boosted by the not inconsiderable talents of Adam Lyth and Gary Ballance, after both men lost their Test places.
Of course, it would surprise no-one if both won back those places sooner rather than later, with Alex Hales having yet to cement his place as Alastair Cook’s opening partner and James Taylor’s enforced retirement having opened the door for Ballance’s return.
It promises to be an important summer for the likes of young batsman Jack Leaning, who has taken great strides forward since breaking into the first team, while Alex Lees is determined to prove that an underwhelming 2015 was something of a blip on a personal level.
Lees, the club’s new one-day captain, looks primed to flourish again after a winter away from the game, while Andrew Gale, the Championship captain, needs no motivation to build on his 1,000-run campaign last time as he pursues a hat-trick of titles in his benefit year, which would cement his own status as one of the most successful captains in county cricket history.
In short, Yorkshire – despite the inevitable drains on their resources – have pretty much all bases covered.
They are already an outstanding team, one that is threatening a period of dominance not seen since the great Yorkshire side of the 1960s.
If they can win the Championship again this summer, they will match the hat-trick of titles achieved by that side between 1966 and 1968, a side that included such legendary figures as Fred Trueman, Brian Close, Raymond Illingworth and Geoffrey Boycott.
That really would be a fantastic achievement, and it is well within the compass of Gale and his talented group of players.