Essex 337 for 8 (Cook 172, Westley 51, Gregory 6-72) and 179 for 6 (ten Doeschate 46, Leach 3-38) drew with Somerset 301 (Byrom 117, Overton 66, Cook 5-76) and 272 for 7 (Lammonby 116, Porter 4-73) – Essex won the title on first-innings lead
Essex survived a nervous final afternoon at Lord’s to secure the inaugural and perhaps only Bob Willis Trophy. While the match ended as a draw, the playing regulations stated that, in such circumstances, the winner would be the side with the higher first innings total.
The result mean Essex have won the domestic first-class competition three times in the last four years. Their status as the best red-ball county side in the land is undisputed.
But they had to cling on against a determined Somerset on the final day. On a deteriorating pitch which offered assistance to seamers and spinners alike, Essex slipped to 131 for 5 with a minimum of 27.1 overs remaining before Ryan ten Doeschate and Adam Wheater came together to deny Somerset.
It means Somerset have finished second in the domestic first-class competition in each of the last three years and four times in the last five. In all, they have been runners-up seven times this century and remain one of only three first-class counties not to have won in the modern era. It may console them a little to know that this competition is not considered on a par with winning the Championship and that, even had they won here, it would not have broken their duck. But it will only be a little. The novelty of finishing second has worn pretty thin for Somerset.
It remains to be seen whether the Bob Willis Trophy will ever be contested again. While there are those keen to see it installed as a showpiece event at the end of each season, others are worried whether that will serve to dilute the sense of achievement in winning the County Championship. Is it fair, they ask, to ask a side which has proved itself the best over the course of a season to risk it all on an autumnal encounter where the toss or the conditions might disproportionately define the result?
One solution would be to award the Championship title to the side which finishes top at the end of the league stages and then contest this match as a standalone event between the top two sides. But even that would threaten to dilute the value of the Championship victory.
Whether this match worked as a showpiece event is debatable. There were moments, not least when Alastair Cook or Tom Lammonby were batting, when it really did feel like a celebration of county cricket. In the face of the unique challenges posed by this season, it has been an excellent solution.
It was probably fitting these two sides qualified, too. Both are stuffed with the products of their own academies – nine players in each team could be considered homegrown – with numerous others having moved on (the likes of Ben Foakes, Ravi Bopara, Jos Buttler and Jamie Overton) to ply their trade elsewhere. They have consistently pushed for silverware in recent years, supplying players for England in the process. They are, in short, two clubs doing a huge amount right and providing an example to others of what can be achieved on modest budgets.
But the challenges posed by the horribly cold weather, the empty stands – something which may prove an issue at any time in a neutral venue – and the need to separate the sides in a drawn match were substantial. And while it just about worked as a one-off event, it didn’t really leave you wanting more, either. As Tom Abell, the Somerset captain put it: “The County Championship is the best first-class competition in the world.” It probably requires nurturing more than tinkering.
Earlier Craig Overton had helped Somerset thrash another 45 runs in 8.1 overs before the declaration came. The target – 237 in a minimum of 80 overs – probably looked generous. And, for a while on the final day, with Cook batting serenely, it appeared Essex may coast there. But his dismissal saw them abandon plans of completing an outright win and settle instead for survival over the last 40 overs of the match.
Cook looked most underwhelmed by the decision from Russell Warren, the umpire, to adjudge him out caught behind. Replays were inconclusive – it is possible the sound as ball passed bat was caused by the bat clipping the pad – but it is hard to recall another dismissal in Cook’s career when he has stood so long and made his displeasure more obvious.
Either way, the wicket appeared to jolt Essex. By then, they had already lost Nick Browne, edging a delivery from Lewis Gregory, who finished with eight in the match, that demanded a stroke and bounced a little, and Tom Westley, who had been trapped in front by the persevering Overton. Jack Leach, without a first-class wicket since last November, when he dismissed Tim Southee in Mount Maunganui, gained lavish turn and bounce from his first delivery and broke his drought with the wicket of Dan Lawrence, who was defeated by what appeared to be an arm ball.
But Paul Walter was stubborn and ten Doeschate was solid. And while the former was eventually removed by Leach, courtesy of one that turned from round the wicket, Wheater joined ten Doeschate in a sixth-wicket stand that contributed only 48 runs but denied Somerset for 27 overs. By the time ten Doeschate fell, top-edging a sweep, there were only moments remaining. The draw and the trophy were secured. “I couldn’t have asked for anyone better to be out there in that situation,” Westley, the Essex captain in his first year in the role, said afterwards.
“I’m incredibly proud of all the boys and management,” Westley added. “This [tournament] may never happen again, so to win it is amazing. We may be the only club to ever win the Bob Willis Trophy. It’s a continuation of success we’ve had in red-ball cricket over the last few years. It’s right up there with winning the County Championship last year.”
Abell said: “Disappointment is the overwhelming emotion. We were second to Essex last year and we were desperate not to be again. Coming so close a number of times, we feel it is within touching distance. This adds fuel to the fire. But the fire is already burning pretty deep within everyone.”
Westley was quick to praise the club’s culture, academy and willingness to “give our own a go”, but it was noticeable that he also picked out the imports for their influence. Simon Harmer was described as a “match-winner”, coach Anthony McGrath was praised for him ability to “galvanise this side like I’ve never seen at Essex in previous years”. He credited ten Doeschate, the previous captain, for instilling belief and transforming the club from “a fairly mediocre Division Two team” to one which believed it could be the best in the country. The message? Providing opportunities for homegrown players is crucial, but let’s not forget the positive influence of Kolpaks, overseas and the like.
There’s a bigger picture here. To have completed this competition in these circumstances, to have provided opportunities for young players, to have kept the game relevant and to have provided some online entertainment for spectators at a time when it was sorely needed, has been something of a triumph. And a triumph that not all other sports have managed to achieve. The game still faces some substantial challenges – many of the players on show here may well be on furlough again by the end of the week – but this competition has provided a reminder of the better times that lie ahead. Maybe we’ll come to look back on it as county cricket’s Dunkirk moment.
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