It may not be a test of endurance to rival the traditional County Championship, but Tom Westley, Essex’s captain, was adamant that his side’s claiming of the inaugural Bob Willis Trophy at Lord’s represented a “massive” achievement for the club, and one which underpinned an era in which they have risen from a period of “mediocrity” in the early 2000s to become the very best red-ball team in the country.
By closing out for a draw on the final day against Somerset, Essex secured their fourth first-class trophy in five seasons, following their promotion from Division Two as champions in 2016, and two County Championship titles in 2017 and 2019.
And though the necessarily low-key celebrations at the end of the contest belied the scale of their latest achievement, Westley insisted that they would treasure the trophy every bit as much as their previous successes, and find a way to do social justice to the achievement as well, in spite of the Covid-19 restrictions currently in place in the UK which limit gatherings to groups of six.
“It’s massive,” Westley said after the trophy presentation at Lord’s. “It may be a one-off trophy, but we were just thinking how special it would be to be the only club in history, potentially, to win the Bob Willis Trophy and play a five-day final at Lord’s.
“Any game of cricket that we play means an awful lot to the club, means an awful lot to the group of lads up in that changing room,” he added. “It’s right up there for me, with the Division One title and the T20 [Blast] last year, definitely.”
For Westley, personally, the achievement had extra significance given that he not only took over the captaincy from Ryan ten Doeschate at the end of last season’s Championship triumph, but that he spent the early part of the year wondering if he and his players would even set foot on a cricket field this summer.
The squad was furloughed in the early part of the year, in keeping with most county teams, and Westley’s major role as skipper in those months proved to be a pastoral one, checking in on his players and making sure they were coping with the invidious circumstances.
“It’s polar opposites,” he said. “From a captaincy side of things, especially during lockdown, it just about getting around the guys as frequently as you can, looking out for their wellbeing and making sure they were in a good space, to now actually having played a tournament and winning is the other end of the spectrum.”
With 172 runs at 19.11 in the six matches, Westley’s contributions have fallen short of his more recent Championship standards. But having chipped in with a crucial 51 in partnership with Alastair Cook in the first innings – a performance that went a long way to securing a decisive first-innings lead – he came good when it mattered, even if his second-innings duck on the final day caused him a tense afternoon in the dressing-room.
“For my first year as captain, it’s been immensely nerve-wracking,” he said. “And a bit frustrating at times because I haven’t played as well as I’d have liked. But it’s just a wonderful feeling now to sit here, having won the Bob Willis Trophy. To be 2019 champions and then to win the Bob Willis Trophy speaks for itself, so I’m immensely proud of the boys, and immensely proud of Essex.
“Internally, it’s been a bit of a train-wreck all day,” he added. “But to be fair, the boys were incredibly calm. They’ve got an unbelievable amount of confidence, based on the success we’ve had in the last few years, and they were pretty chilled. But having become captain, I can sympathise with Tendo now, knowing how nerve-wracking it is when it’s out of your control but all you want is the best for the guys.”
The Bob Willis Trophy itself may be a one-off, but the three-tier format could be here to say, given the changes to the Championship that the ECB is considering for 2021 onwards. Westley insisted he was not against the changes per se, especially given that the two most consistent red-ball teams in the country had made it to the final, but hoped for a bit of meritocracy going forward, to do justice to the very journey that his own county has been on in recent years.
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“It is fitting that the best two red-ball teams over the last few years have played in this final,” he said. “I’m not against the three-tier system, I think it’s proved it’s worked well … but the top sides should be in the top division, because that’s why we play the game.
“I can remember the start of my career at Essex. We played a lot of cricket in Division Two and we had aspirations to get to Division One, and we’ve had that success in the last few years.”
Westley said that Essex’s triumph was a tribute to a number of senior players, not least Cook and Simon Harmer, whom he acknowledged as “world class” after another stellar haul of 38 wickets at 15.28 in the campaign.
But he paid particular tribute to the head coach, Anthony McGrath, and his predecessor as captain, ten Doeschate, for their roles in transforming the club’s self-image after years of being seen as one of the smaller counties on the circuit.
“We’ve got a very settled side and a formula of winning at Chelmsford, so it was extra pleasing to go to a neutral venue and still come out on top,” he said. “But having been at Essex for a number of years now – and not to take away any credit from previous coaches – Mags has been able to galvanise this side like I’ve never seen Essex through previous years.
“I would attribute a lot of success to him, and the way that Tendo took over the captaincy was a culture shift for us as a club.
“We back our own, and that gives us confidence,” he said. “For a county that was fairly mediocre, if I’m being honest, in Division Two for a number of years, to then to create that belief that we could be the best team, a large portion of credit should go to those guys mentioned.”
As for Essex’s post-match plans, however, Westley was understandably coy.
“Essex being Essex, we’ll give it a good nudge and try somehow to have a few beers,” he said. “Socially distanced, I probably have to say, and see where the evening takes us in groups of six. But it’s one that we’re going to have to tiptoe around, I’m guessing is the correct answer!”
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