There’s an unmissable irony in the ECB’s decision to name their emergency first-class competition after the late, great Bob Willis. For Willis was not exactly the most enthusiastic defender of the ancient county system. As a player in his international heyday, he was renowned for phoning in the occasional Warwickshire performance to save his best for England, while in 2003, he was at the forefront of the Cricket Reform Group, a body which argued for the abolition of under-performing counties, and a subsequent reallocation of the game’s limited resources.
And yet, when the trophy bearing his name, and adapted from a cubist painting by his widow Lauren, is presented – at a suitably social distance – to the winning captain at Lord’s later this week, you can be pretty certain that Willis would be looking down on the occasion with approval.
For this has been a competition to savour in spite of the invidious circumstances. A short, sharp shock of first-class intensity that has satisfied the cravings of county cricket’s die-hards, while giving a platform for the sort of conference system that Willis himself might have advocated. Certainly the notion of less-is-more is one that has traditionally been associated with Australia’s Sheffield Shield (six teams, ten matches, one final) – not least during Australia’s years of Ashes dominance in the 1990s and early 2000s – and while it would knee-jerk to suggest that the Bob Willis Trophy has provided a clear vision for the future of county first-class cricket, it would be remiss to ignore the buzz of interest that the format has created among those who find the marathon nature of the traditional league structure a touch too archaic for the 2020s.
Yes, it’s been an imperfect competition, devised to fit a limited timeframe and featuring a messy qualification process in which three into two didn’t go very easily, especially once the Covid-influenced cancellation of Northamptonshire’s match with Gloucestershire had complicated the permutations. And yet, there was a pleasingly meritocratic thread to the available results – with a defiant upending of preconceptions in the first instance, as just one Test-hosting county, Yorkshire, finished in the top two of any of the three groups, followed by a worthy progression of the era’s two outstanding teams to the showpiece final at Lord’s.
Essex and Somerset, the cream of the crop, were involved in last summer’s de facto showpiece too – a Championship final-round arm-wrestle on a Ciderabad special in Taunton, in which Essex did just enough to prevent their hosts from leapfrogging them to the title, with Alastair Cook reprising the dour survival methods honed at Ahmedabad and Mumbai to close out the contest with 83 preciously hewn runs in two innings.
Somerset’s subsequent penalisation for a substandard pitch may have rendered that performance moot, but even that slap on the wrist – and their 12-point penalty, deferred to 2021 – comes with a curious footnote. Despite attracting opprobrium for tailoring their tracks to turn square (and in the process producing England’s two frontline Test spinners – yes, you are welcome), their path to this year’s glory-shot has been carved by their outstanding battery of fast bowlers – which suggests they may just be a quality outfit, irrespective of conditions.
More’s the pity, therefore, that in a summer which was meant to offer a reconnection of cricket to its ostracised fans, it has not been possible to find a place for this contest in the TV schedules. The fact that Lord’s is a building site, amid the reconstruction of the Compton and Edrich Stands is a further factor. Sky Sports’ YouTube channel will have to suffice.
For Essex in particular, this week offers their squad a shot at county immortality, a chance to confirm a dynasty to rival the heyday of their Gooch-Fletcher era in the 1980s, and to take its place in the recent county pantheon, alongside Jason Gillespie’s Yorkshire squad of the mid 2010s, and the Durham and Sussex outfits that won three Championships in quick succession since the turn of the Millennium.
And at a time when the ECB is casting an understandably beady eye on its counties’ connections with their grass-roots, there can be no quibbling with the quality of Essex’s homegrown credentials. Seven members of the first-team squad were born in the same Whipps Cross hospital as the club grandee, Gooch, while 70 percent were educated at state school too. Their two key imports, Ryan Ten Doeschate and Simon Harmer, have rapidly assumed legend status in and around Chelmsford. They are advocates for a system that works, no matter what the naysayers may believe.
As for Somerset, there would be few feats more typical of the county than finally claiming that elusive first-class crown in the one season that is destined to carry an asterisk.
Every year that goes by, it seems less and less likely that Somerset will be able to land the prize that torments them the most – especially given the quality of the players they have lost since they first rose to become true contenders ten years ago. Marcus Trescothick and Peter Trego, local legends both, have moved on, to retirement and to Nottinghamshire respectively, while next season their bowling stocks will be shorn of both Jamie Overton and Dom Bess.
And yet, Somerset too draw a strong local thread through their playing XI – the captain, Tom Abell and senior spinner, Jack Leach, are Taunton born-and-bred, while one of the brightest stars of the current campaign, the young opener Tom Lammonby, has been rustled over the border from Devon. They’ve got a West Country catchment area that promises recruitment and renewal for as long as their standards remain as high as they have been. But there’s little doubt that some silverware wouldn’t go amiss.
(last five completed matches)
In the spotlight
Simon Harmer‘s impact at Essex has been nothing short of talismanic in the four years since he arrived at Chelmsford. He’s amassed 251 first-class wickets at 19.32 in that time, with 20 five-wicket hauls and five ten-fors, to provide the final stamp of class in the county’s two Championship-winning seasons in three years. And that’s excluding his starring role as captain of last season’s T20 Blast-winning outfit. In this truncated BWT campaign, however, he’s been more incisive than ever, his 34 wickets including a best of 8 for 64 against Surrey that was completed in spite of an abductor strain. In another era he would surely be a fixture in South Africa’s Test team – and at the age of 31, he claims not to have given up hope of adding to his five Test caps, in spite of several smouldering bridges in his wake – but this opportunity to play a high-stakes five-day match at Lord’s will stoke his competitive fires like few other challenges.
His brother Jamie is reputed to be the fastest bowler in the family, but there’s something about Craig Overton’s spirit for a scrap that has nudged him ahead in the pecking order – both at county level, where Jamie has been forced to seek pastures new at Surrey, and for England, who value the tenacity he has shown in four under-rewarded Test appearances to date, and clearly have him earmarked for a spear-carrier’s role in next year’s Ashes. But in Somerset’s romp to the BWT final, Overton has shown himself to be more than just a willing toiler. His 28 wickets at 10.71 have provided the pointy tip of a spear that has conceded more than 200 just once in five games.
Essex’s squad is broadly settled, with ten of the first-choice XI having played four or more of the five group-stage games. This includes the bolter in this season’s campaign, Paul Walter at the top of the order, who took his initial chance when ten Doeschate succumbed to injury, and has latterly cemented his role as Alastair Cook’s partner in the absence of Nick Browne. Browne’s experience may count for something come Lord’s, but so do Walter’s numbers – an average of 49.00 and a top-score of 46 point to admirable consistency, especially against a seam attack of Somerset’s quality.
Essex (possible) 1 Alastair Cook, 2 Paul Walter, 3 Tom Westley (capt), 4 Dan Lawrence, 5 Feroze Khushi, 6 Ryan ten Doeschate, 7 Adam Wheater (wk), 8 Simon Harmer, 9 Aaron Beard, 10 Sam Cook, 11 Jamie Porter.
James Hildreth’s absence with a hamstring injury is a grievous loss to his county, not to mention a cruel turn of events for one of English cricket’s great forgotten batsmen. At the age of 36, this might have been the closest to a Lord’s Test that he was ever going to come. Jack Leach’s availability post-England bubble means that, of the 13 players named in their squad, Roelof van der Merwe is liable to be squeezed out despite featuring in four of Somerset’s group-stage games. Dom Bess, England’s No.1 spinner but Somerset’s No.2, may also miss the chance to say an on-field farewell to his club, ahead of his permanent move to Yorkshire next season.
Somerset (possible) 1 Ben Green, 2 Tom Lammonby, 3 Tom Abell (capt), 4 George Bartlett, 5 Eddie Byrom, 6 Steven Davies (wk), Lewis Gregory, 8 Craig Overton, 9 Josh Davey, 10 Jack Brooks, 11 Jack Leach
Pitch and conditions
As the ground’s first and only first-class fixture for 2020, there will be an inevitable sense of the unknown to this surface, even if Lord’s wickets have tended to be predictably flat in recent seasons, influenced no doubt by the extraordinary moisture mainlining of the under-soil drainage system. The central strip, allocated for last summer’s Ashes Test, has been allocated, and Somerset’s captain, Tom Abell, was excited about what it would offer. Either way, it is a venue where teams have traditionally looked up, rather than down, when assessing their prospects. On that score, the first two days of the match promise typically autumnal mixtures of sun and showers, although the weekend outlook is more settled.
Stats and Trivia
Essex are aiming for their fourth first-class trophy in five seasons, after winning the second division title in 2016, followed by County Championships in 2017 and 2019.
Somerset are one of three counties, along with Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire, never to have won the County Championship. They have finished as runners-up five times since 2010, including in three of the last four seasons.
Somerset were the victors on the previous occasion that a trophy was at stake at Lord’s – the 2019 Royal London Cup, in which they beat Hampshire by six wickets in the tournament’s final staging.
Sam Cook is one wicket short of 100 first-class scalps.
The final will be staged in association with Prostate Cancer UK. Willis died of the disease, aged 70, in December last year.
“”The best two teams in the country have reached the final. As things stand, Essex are the number one red-ball team and we are number two. It would be great to reverse those standings and that is the aim.”
Jason Kerr, Somerset’s coach, is eager to upset the prevailing order of county cricket.
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