Winning the Specsavers County Championship is one thing – keeping it quite another, writes Richard Spiller.

In the past decade nine different teams have finished top of Division One yet only one has retained it the following season, underlining the challenge awaiting Surrey as they set off in their defence of the crown this week.

Rory Burns’s men wrapped it up with two matches to spare last year, finishing 46 points clear, after blazing through their opponents in a run of nine consecutive victories.

Their achievement was underlined this week when skipper Burns and all-rounder Sam Curran were included in Wisden Cricket Almanack’s five cricketers-of-the-year.

Burns was the country’s top run-scorer and finally forced his way into the England side, where his county colleague had already made a considerable impact in the 4-1 series victory over India.

Surrey sat out the first round of Championship matches last weekend but know that their opponents at the Kia Oval this week – 2017 winners Essex, the match starting on Thursday – were the only side to beat them last year, albeit by just one wicket in a thrilling finish to the campaign.

Although they started the new campaign with defeat by an innings against Hampshire, many expect Essex to form the toughest obstacle to Surrey’s hopes of claiming a 20th outright Championship, not least with the newly-knighted Sir Alastair Cook to head their batting.

Hampshire, a strengthened Nottinghamshire side and runners-up Somerset will all fancy their chances as well.

Director of cricket Alec Stewart admitted: “We will certainly need to be better this year, so we have to work hard and improve if we are to keep that gap between ourselves and other counties.”

Head coach Michael Di Venuto added that Surrey are now “the hunted, not the hunters” but they go into the 14-match campaign with a squad strengthened by the signings of England one-day paceman Liam Plunkett and all-rounder Jordan Clark, who has moved from Lancashire.

Both may have most to offer in one-day cricket, where Surrey disappointed last year, and international calls could easily take away several players for chunks of the summer.

Curran misses the early matches while playing in the Indian Premier League although his older brother Tom is available for the early matches, at least, as he bids for a place in England’s World Cup squad.

Rain ensured Surrey barely got on the field against Durham UCCE last weekend, after Mark Stoneman, Scott Borthwick and Ryan Patel had taken the opportunity to cash in on the students’ bowling by hitting centuries.

Number one priority for Burns will be keeping fit his spearhead, South African paceman Morne Morkel, whose 59 wickets at 14 led Surrey’s most formidable attack for a generation.

Five World Cup matches are being staged at the Kia Oval – including the opening clash between England and South Africa – plus a one-day international before the final Ashes Test in September.