ESSEX begin their defence of the Specsavers County Championship title with a trip to new head coach Anthony McGrath's former side Yorkshire.

Chris Silverwood led promoted Essex to an unexpected triumph this summer but has since agreed to become England's bowling coach, passing the job of retaining the title to McGrath.

He will start work on familiar territory at Emerald Headingley, where he spent his entire 17-year first-class career, when the new campaign begins on Friday, April 13.

McGrath admitted: "I was sort of expecting it. It feels like a long time since I left Yorkshire already and the first time I went back with Essex last year to Scarborough, we had a good win.

"It's a good fixture to get first because Yorkshire will give us a nice marker of where we're at. We've got a tough start with Lancashire at home, Hampshire away and then the return match against Yorkshire (on May 4), so we'll have plenty of focus in our preparations."

Essex did the double over Yorkshire last season as they claimed their first title in 25 years, with Andrew Gale's men finishing fourth following three summers of title challenges – successful or not.

Former Yorkshire captain McGrath said: "Scarborough last season, then the last game and now Headingley first up, it's really exciting.

"Yorkshire were disappointed with how they performed but they've been the benchmark for the last few years, especially in red ball. They'll be wanting to bounce back and it will be a tough start for us.

"It will be interesting to see how we cope with a quality side first up and that expectation on us. You always expect a hard game against Yorkshire.

"It was nip and tuck in the rest of the division aside from us and (runners-up) Lancashire. The first division can be brutal. If you get a run either way, for good or bad, it can be hard to stop.

"Yorkshire are a quality side but they just had one of those seasons where they couldn't get performances together. They will be licking their wounds.

"Notts and Worcester have come up on the back of really good seasons and, coupled with everyone else, I think it will be a much stronger division."

The first Roses match of the year takes place at Old Trafford on Sunday, July 22, just two days after Lancashire and Yorkshire meet at the same ground in the NatWest T20 Blast. The reverse fixture takes place at Headingley from Monday, September 10.

Yorkshire coach Gale said: "It makes it all the more real. It drives you on in training when the fixtures come out.

"They look pretty good and with two home games in the championship to start with (against Essex and Nottinghamshire), we can make a good, solid start.

"We've made Headingley a bit of a fortress in previous years, so it's important we can get out of the blocks well.

"It will be a good test playing against champions Essex first up. You want to test yourself and if there's ever a time to play Essex – before they get on some sort of run like they did last year – this could be it.

"You always look for the Roses matches too and they come a little later in 2018. These are all fixtures the players get excited about."

Following the two home openers, Gale's side face a tricky 17-day period on the road, visiting Taunton, Chelmsford and The Oval.

Supporters can start to book themselves in to the hotels and guest houses of Scarborough, with fixtures against Surrey and Worcestershire set for Monday, June 25 and Sunday, August 19 respectively.

The first-class season, which officially begins when Essex meet MCC in Barbados in an exotic March 27 curtain-raiser, is scheduled to run until September 27.

There will be no championship cricket between May 14 and June 9, with the Royal London One-Day Cup taking centre stage, while one round of fixtures interrupts a mid-summer block otherwise reserved for the NatWest T20 Blast.

There will be no repeat of last year's dedicated week of day-night matches as the pink ball and lightbulbs will be seen throughout the season, with every club taking part in one of nine floodlit fixtures across the calendar.

ECB head of cricket operations Alan Fordham said: "With England preparing to play their second day-night Test in Adelaide this weekend, and a third already arranged for Auckland next spring, the ECB's cricket committee has decided that it is important for us to continue providing experience of playing with pink balls in day-night conditions in the Specsavers County Championship.

"We have again ensured that each of the 18 counties plays one day-night fixture. The fact that the matches are spread from June to August should allow us to assess some different conditions."

Lancashire, who finished runners-up in 2017, begin by hosting a Nottinghamshire side fresh from a domestic cup double and promotion from Division Two at the first attempt.

Worcestershire, who went up as champions, return to top-flight cricket with a trip to Hampshire.

Surrey and Somerset must wait until week two to start, with both sides awarded home games on April 20 against Hampshire and Worcestershire respectively.

In Division Two, Middlesex and Warwickshire both begin at home after being relegated last season, with Sussex travelling to Edgbaston and Northamptonshire visiting Lord's.

Durham began last season hamstrung by the 48-point penalty which came attached to an England and Wales Cricket Board financial bail-out but return to a level playing field this time.

They welcome Kent to Chester-le-Street on April 20 with a squad further weakened by the departures of Keaton Jennings, Paul Coughlin and Graham Onions but with hope of bettering their ninth-placed finish.