By Neil Goulding (Cheshire CCC press officer 07813 859986)

CHESHIRE captain Andy Hall is confident his county side are better equipped to challenge for honours this season.

Last season Cheshire failed to reach the impressive heights they scaled two seasons ago when they won the Western Division title and then shared the Minor Counties Championship crown with Suffolk.

But having blooded a string of youngsters last season, and made some notable signings during the winter, Hall has every faith Cheshire will come good this term.

"On paper we're a much stronger side than least season," said Hall.

"The young players who did so well last season have valuable experience now and we've signed players who have first-class experience, so it looks like a good blend.

"We look a very strong batting side with the players we've got, but we need to improve in the bowling tournament.

"When we won the Western Division and the Championship, we had a few bowlers who were taking 20 wickets each.

"To win titles you need strike bowlers who are going to take that many wickets. This year we've got Nathan Dumelow, who has done so well for us in the last couple of seasons, and we've signed Adam Sydall, a very-good left-arm bowler who had a great season for Cambridgeshire last year.

"If we can get one or two of the other bowlers taking 20 wickets, then we can be very successful."

Former Nottinghamshire paceman Dave Pennett, one of the county's most consistent bowlers in recent years, has not been ruled out to play, but Hall admits the county are monitoring his progress after missing most of last season with a knee injury.

"Dave's still in the frame, but we're going to look at his fitness and what other bowlers are available," added Hall.

"Jason Whittaker should be available this season, which is good news for us, and there's bowlers like Jon Farrow, Dan Woods and Guy Emmett who could also feature."

And Hall believes strength in depth can only lead to healthy competition for places.

"The players know they have to perform, otherwise their places could be up for grabs.

"We've recruited well over the winter and I'm sure the young players who did so well last season will be pushing hard for regular places.

"I think everyone is looking forward to the season. It would be nice if we could be successful in the Knockout Cup and take that form into the Championship format.

"We've got Devon in our first three-day game. They've consistently been the best side in our division during the last few years, so how we perform against them could be the barometer for the season.

"It would be nice to get a win or a draw and start the season well. Devon are one of the sides who can win the title this year, they have a lot of good players."

Cheshire finish their practice nets on Thursday, with a Knockout Cup squad set to be announced in the next fortnight.

Cheshire's 2007 fixtures:

MCCA Knockout Cup (Round-robin matches) - May 6 v Northumberland @ Grappenhall; May 13 v Hereforshire @ Colwall; May 20 v Shropshire @ Christleton; June 3 v Cumberland @ Barrow.

MCCA Three-day Championship - June 10-12 v Devon @ Chester Boughton Hall; June 24-26 v Berkshire @ Finchampstead; July 8-10 v Dorset @ Dean Park; July 22-24 v Wiltshire @ Alderley Edge; August 5-7 v Oxfordshire @ Banbury; August 19-21 v Shropshire @ Nantwich.

Resource Bank Inter-County 20/20 Knockout - July 12 v Lashings, Shropshire and Staffordshire @ Wellington, Shropshire.