To this the first round of five of the new and one-off Bob Willis Trophy, remembering the man and all his magnificent eccentricities in a new world that was impossible to envisage as Essex lifted the County Championship trophy at Taunton that almost-pulsating afternoon last September. Here’s hoping it is as unexpected, quietly wise and capable of moments of inspired high-drama as he was.
Unfortunately, the new lockdown restrictions that came into force at midnight on Friday means that the two grounds that were supposed to be experimenting with socially-distanced crowds – The Oval and Edgbaston – have had to close their gates again. No further loosening will happen till at least August 15, when the third round of games is due to begin. But you can follow the matches on BBC radio, via county streams and here – where coffees will be served at approx 10.30am, when I’ve got through the bio-secure measures at Trent Bridge. To those of you suffering from bereavement or ill health, a huge squeeze, I hope the return of county cricket proves a keyhole of light in the blackness.
In the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
To the cricket: three regional groups of six, each play the other sides in their group once, a final between the two teams with the most points to be played in the autumn, probably at Lord’s. Today’s fixtures:
Edgbaston: Warwickshire v Northants 25 year old Will Rhodes is the new Warwickshire captain, bolstered by the experience of CCLive favourite Ian Bell who has signed a one-year contract extension. David Ripley, coach of opponents Northants, has talked of wanting to use the trophy to give opportunities to as many members of his squad as possible.
The Bristol County Ground: Gloucestershire v Worcestershire Worcestershire, who suffered a disappointing red-ball season last year after a promising 2018, are missing Pat Brown and Moeen Ali with England but signed batsman Jake Libby from Nottinghamshire. Gloucestershire won Championship promotion at the end of 2019, under the watchful eye of coach Richard Dawson. Zimbabwean Allrounder Ryan Higgins will be looking to repeat his fantastic 2019 season that put him on the shortlist for the PCA player of the year award and James Bracey, the young-wicketkeeper, has caught the eye of Jack Russell amongst others for his glovework behind the stumps.
Taunton: Somerset v Glamorgan The runners-up in the County Championship open the season at Taunton where they made a last-ditch but no-cigar attempt to thwart Essex last September. Off the field, Marcus Trescothick is now Jason Kerr’s deputy and Gordon Hollins, ex-ECB, is the new chief executive; on the field, their promising batting unit need runs. Glamorgan, the under-dogs, will be without Marnus Labuschagne, the Australian who was the bedrock of their batting last year before going on to even greater things with Australia (he has, though, signed a two-year contract taking him through to the end of 2022). Joe Root’s brother Billy will be looking to improve on a promising debut season for Glamorgan last year.
Chester-le-Street Durham v Yorkshire Probably the most evenly matched game in the north with two strong seam attacks – Duanne Olivier and Ben Coad spearheading for Yorkshire, who lost Tim Bresnan and gained Dawid Malan over the winter, and Durham bolstered by the return of Paul Coughlin from Trent Bridge and under the new red-ball captain Ned Eckersley.
New Road: Lancashire v Leicestershire. A home game for Lancashire at New Road because Old Trafford is in use by England and Grace Road was in the Leicester lockdown area. Greater Manchester, of course, has since joined that club. Lancashire, who made a triumphant return to Division One at the end of last season, are without Saqib Mahmood, Richard Gleeson, Liam Livingstone, James Anderson and Jos Buttler, all with England. Wooden spoonists Leicestershire have a new four-day captain in Colin Ackermann; promising batsman Hassan Azad continued where he’d left off last season with 69 against Notts in the pre-season friendly.
Trent Bridge: Derbyshire v Nottinghamshire: Notts had a disastrous season in the Championship last year – with zero wins – this then a chance, especially for their young batsmen Joe Clarke and ex-Lancashire Haseeb Hameed, to make a clean start. Derbyshire’s head of cricket, Dave Houghton, is hopeful but realistic “We’re not kidding ourselves, we are in a very strong section with Nottinghamshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire and a vastly improving Durham so ourselves and Leicestershire have our work cut out to compete with these guys. But we played really good cricket last year and I expect us to do the same this season.”
The Oval: Surrey v Middlesex Surrey, who went from injury to injury during a popped ballooon of a 2019 are without seven players currently on England duty – Sam and Tom Curran, Jason Roy, Reece Topley, Rory Burns, Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes. Recent under-achievers Middlesex are under a new captain Steve Eskinazi, after Dawid Malan left for Yorkshire.
Chelmsford: Essex v Kent Essex look a strong squad under the new red-ball leadership of Tom Westley. They are missing Ravi Bopara, who has moved to Sussex, and Dan Lawrence, with the England squad, but Simon Harmer hovers dangerously to exploit Chelmsford’s “crunchy” surface, and Alastair Cook moves serenely into another season . Kent, a wily mixture of youth and experience, will be without captain Sam Billings, Zak Crawley and Joe Denly, all in England training bubbles. In the pre-match friendly between the two sides, wicket-keeper Ollie Robinson made an unbeaten century.
Hove: Sussex v Hampshire Sussex, still under the stewardship of Jason Gillespie, had a unfulfilling season last year, though their spearhead seamer Ollie Robinson was impressive ; Hampshire are missing James Vince, but leg-spinner Mason Crane, whose career has been so beset by injury, is fit. Hampshire will play their home games at gorgeous, rolling, Arundel this summer because England have sequestered the Rose Bowl.