Bob Willis Trophy: Everything You Need to Know

Introducing the Bob Willis Trophy: County Cricket’s Newest Tournament

County cricket will make its eagerly anticipated return when all 18 counties begin their Bob Willis Trophy campaigns on Saturday. This one-off first-class tournament is a stand-in for the County Championship season, which was significantly delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Read on to learn more about the format of the competition, how each team is shaping up and which players are set to shine.

Bob Willis Trophy Format

All 18 counties will have the chance to seize glory for the first time. They are divided into three groups of six: North Group, Central Group and South Group. The North Group features Derbyshire, Durham, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. In the Central Group you will find Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire, Somerset, Warwickshire and Worcestershire. The South Group includes Essex, Kent, Hampshire, Middlesex, Surrey and Sussex.

The action begins with nine matches from August 1-4. The next round takes place from 8-11 August, and there will be regular action until the group stage concludes on 9 September. The two group winners with the highest points tallies will go through to the final, although a date has not yet been set for that showdown. This is a one-off red-ball tournament that stands in for the 121st County Championship season, which was initially scheduled to run from April to September, before the coronavirus crisis forced it to be abandoned. It is named after legendary bowler Bob Willis, who died in December 2019.

Crowd Pilot Schemes

TV audiences have grown accustomed to watching sporting events take place behind closed doors over this period, creating a rather eerie atmosphere. However, a pilot scheme will see some fans allowed into grounds for the Bob Willis Trophy. Surrey and Warwickshire will be allowed to welcome up to 2,500 spectators to watch the first two days of their opening Bob Willis Trophy fixtures. The next phase of the pilot scheme will see fans head to The Oval and Edgbaston in the second round of fixtures.

Crowds of up to 1,000 were allowed to watch Surrey’s red-ball friendly with Middlesex at The Oval, paving the way for the pilot scheme to expand. Surrey chief executive Richard Gould called it “a definite success”. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that spectators could return to stadiums in England from October, provided pilot schemes prove successful, so the sporting world will be closely following developments in the Bob Willis Trophy.

North Group Top Contenders

The War of the Roses will resume as Yorkshire and Lancashire battle for supremacy in the North Group. Yorkshire won back-to-back County Championships in 2014 and 2015 and they have remained competitive ever since, despite several personnel changes. They made a blistering start last year, but finished fifth after running out of steam. Yorkshire were due to welcome overseas stars Ravichandran Ashwin and Keshav Maharaj to play first-class cricket this summer, but their contracts were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Dawid Malan is also struggling with a calf injury, but he should return to play some part in the Bob Willis Trophy. Yorkshire will need big performances from Duanne Olivier, Ben Coad, Adam Lyth, Gary Balance, Tom Kohler-Cadmore and Harry Brook if they are to reach the final. They lack depth and Ashwin will be a huge miss, but if the youngsters flourish they could surprise a few people.

Lancashire recovered from the ignominy of relegation by surging to promotion from Division Two without losing a single match last year. They finished 45 points clear of their closest challengers, Northamptonshire, and that should leave them full of confidence. They will also be desperate to enjoy a strong season in honour of chairman David Hodgkiss, who sadly passed away after contracting Covid-19. They will be without star man James Anderson, who is on England duty, while Saqib Mahmood, Liam Livingstone and Richard Gleeson will be called up for white-ball fixtures. However, they still have excellent players like Graham Onions, Matt Parkinson, Tom Bailey and Luke Wood, who arrives from Nottinghamshire. They were one of just two counties that did not furlough their players, so they have been training together for months and that could help them enjoy a strong tournament.

North Group Dangerous Dark Horses

Some fans might be inclined to write off Nottinghamshire’s chances of winning the Bob Willis Trophy following their disastrous 2019 campaign. Optimism abounded after they snapped up Ben Slater, Ben Duckett, Joe Clarke and Zak Chappell, and prepared for a bid for glory. However, they did not win a single Championship game and finished with a mere 67 points, a record low for the two-division era. Their misery was compounded by the fact that it was all filmed for the All In documentary series. However, they have now bolstered their squad with the arrivals of Haseeb Hameed and Peter Trego, which could galvanise the troops. They will play three of their five matches at Trent Bridge, and could certainly challenge Lancashire and Yorkshire for the King of the North title.

Central Group Interesting Outsiders

You will find longer cricket odds on Durham, Derbyshire and Leicestershire prevailing in the North Group. Durham were the 2013 champions when Onions led the charge, but they went on to endure a tough few years. They look to be improving under James Franklin and Marcus North, but they fell well short in last year’s promotion bid. Since then, they have focused on strengthening the group, bringing in Farhaan Behardien, David Bedingham, Sean Dickson and Paul Coughlin. If key man Chris Rushworth achieves consistency, Durham could enjoy a strong run in this truncated tournament.

Derbyshire were disappointed to finish seventh in Division Two last year. England Women are playing at their home ground, meaning all their fixtures will take place on the road. That could prove to be a handicap. They made some impressive moves over the winter, bringing in the likes of Ben McDermott and Sean Abbott, but both of those deals had to be deferred to 2021 due to the pandemic. There will be pressure on Ravi Rampaul, Luis Reece and Billy Godleman to carry this team. Leicestershire picked up just one win last year, and they will look to Hassan Azad, Callum Parkinson, Harry Swindells and Harry Dearden to lead an improvement in fortunes, but they will miss the wickets of Mohammad Abbas, who will also miss out due to Covid-19.

Central Group Top Contenders

A brave new era gets underway in Somerset this year. They were on the brink of ending their Championship drought in 2019, but a late surge from Essex saw them finish second. Since then there has been a changing of the guard: Marcus Trescothick retired, Trego moved to Nottinghamshire and Tim Groenewald went to Kent, while Gordon Hollins is the new chief executive. There have been no new arrivals of note, so it will be up to the young generation to lead the county into a successful new era. Tom Abell will lead the charge, and James Hildreth must also be prolific with the bat. The likes of George Bartlett and Kasey Aldridge will also be thrown in at the deep end, and it will be interesting to see if Somerset sink or swim.

Central Group Dangerous Dark Horses

Warwickshire and Northamptonshire look capable of causing Somerset problems in the Central Group. Warwickshire finished seventh in Division One last year, but they were never in any real danger of relegation due to Nottinghamshire’s woes. Paul Farbrace did well to incorporate several new faces into the squad. They will be without Dom Sibley, who will be on England duty, but they have proven scorers like Ian Bell and Sam Hain in their ranks, plus exciting players such as Olly Stones and Henry Brookes. The veteran Jeetan Patel will seek to go out in a blaze of glory, and he could enjoy drier pitches than he has grown accustomed to in England. Willis spent most of his career at Warwickshire, and the players will be keen to clinch the trophy that bears his name, so they could be dangerous.

Northamptonshire should carry considerable momentum after finishing second in Division Two last year. They were looking forward to a Division One campaign, but now they will be up against their local rivals in the Central Group instead. However, it should be noted that they were the most vocal county in calling for the 2020 season to be abandoned. They have one of the smallest squads in the county game, they lack spin and they will not be able to take advantage of loan signings, but they do boast some impressive talent, including Rob Newton, Brandon Glover and Ben Sanderson, who was on fire during last year’s nine-match unbeaten streak.

Central Group Interesting Outsiders

Gloucestershire, Glamorgan and Worcestershire look like intriguing outsiders in the wide open Central Group. Gloucestershire finished third in Division Two last year, earning promotion along with Lancashire and Northamptonshire. It was to be their first season in the top tier since 2005, and it marked the county’s 150th anniversary, so it would have been a big year. Their overseas plans were ripped up as a result of the pandemic, meaning Cheteshwar Pujara could not join the club. However, they will welcome Josh Shaw, George Scott and Jerome Taylor into the fold. Chris Dent, James Bracey and Ryan Higgins are superb, and Richard Dawson has shown himself to be a talented coach.

Glamorgan just missed out on promotion last year. Marnus Labuschagne was on fire, but he will not return to Wales this year due to the coronavirus situation. Billy Root, Nick Selman and David Lloyd will have to step up and provide plenty of runs, while it will be interesting to see how young wicketkeeper Alex Horton fares. Worcestershire had the second worst record in Division Two last season. They fell well below expectations, and the squad has not changed much this time around. Moeen Ali will be with the England team, and an established core of players will remain, with Jake Libby arriving to provide a bit more firepower with the bat.

South Group Top Contenders

Essex are the reigning champions and all eyes will be on them as they gear up for an assault on the Bob Willis Trophy. They could prove popular in the cricket spreads this year after last year’s heroics, which saw them become the first county to ever win both the County Championship and the T20 tournament in the same summer. Ravi Bopara has left for Sussex, but otherwise the team is unchanged, with big players like Sir Alastair Cook, Simon Harmer, Jamie Porter, Sam Cook and Aaron Beard ready to wreak havoc on their rivals. Chelmsford is a fortress, and Essex will play three of their five games at home, so they are the favourites to win this South Group.

South Group Dangerous Dark Horses

The South Group looks to be the strongest overall. Hampshire, Kent and Surrey finished third, fourth and sixth respectively in last year’s Division One, and all three will fancy their chances of toppling Essex this time around. The Hampshire line-up is stacked with quality players such as Sam Northeast, James Vince, Liam Dawson, Kyle Abbott and Fidel Edwards. They would have been formidable if the signing of Nathan Lyon for the entire summer had gone through, but it had to be scrapped due to Covid-19. Vince and Dawson will probably play white-ball cricket for England, leaving Northeast to serve as the key lynchpin in the batting department, while Abbott will need to thrive with the ball. All of their fixtures will take place on the road, as England are using the Ageas Bowl, and that could be problematic, but there is no denying Hampshire’s quality.

Kent blended youth and experience to devastating effect as they enjoyed a successful return to the top tier in 2019. Darren Stevens, Matt Milnes and Harry Podmore were fantastic with the ball, and hopes were high for 2020. Jack Leaning and Tim Groenewald have since moved to the Harden of England, leaving Kent with a strong squad as they prepare for the Bob Willis Trophy. That should make up for the loss of Dickson to Durham. Zak Crawley and Sam Billings could have international commitments, but Kent look like intriguing contenders in the South Group.

Surrey’s title defence floundered after Jason Roy, Rory Burns and the Curran brothers spent significant chunks of the season on England duty in 2019. They also had Ollie Pope out injured, and the 2018 champions ended up finishing sixth. Head coach Michael di Venuto has since left, with Vikram Solanki arriving to replace him. Surrey will miss many key players again this time around, as Pope has joined the Currans, Burns and Roy in both England squads. Mark Stoneman, Will Jacks and Ben Foakes will be tasked with leading their bid for glory this year, alongside new arrivals like Reece Topley and James Taylor, but they would be forgiven for falling short.

South Group Interesting Outsiders

Sussex and Middlesex are the final two counties competing for supremacy within the fiercely competitive South Group. Both teams struggled to make an impact in Division Two last year, but they could emerge rejuvenated this time around. Sussex have bolstered their ranks with Ravi Bopara, Mitch Claydon and Stuart Meaker, which should more than offset the departures of Michael Burgess, Reece Topley and Abi Sakande. Bopara should primarily shine in the Blast if and when it takes place later this year, but Claydon has the talent to light up the Bob Willis Trophy. Jofra Archer is away with England, so Luke Wells will need to thrive. Harry Finch, Tom Haines and Tom Clark provide experience in the top order, so Sussex may feel quietly confident in their ability to upset their vaunted rivals.

Middlesex are gearing up for life without Dawid Malan and Paul Stirling. They were poor last year as their promotion bid fell apart with several matches to spare. Malan has decided to decamp to Yorkshire, while Stirling has left for the bright lights of Northants. Tom Barber, George Scott and Ollie Rayner have all departed too. Peter Handscomb would have made a great new captain, but his deal had to be deferred, and that could leave this team lacking leadership. The seam department looks ferocious, but whether they can hit the necessary runs to challenge this year remains to be seen.

Yet the fiercely competitive South Group shows just how open, unpredictable and exciting this one-off tournament promises to be. We will have to see how well each team fares in a short season after such a lengthy absence.

Many counties have had their preparations plunged into chaos as overseas players had to have their contracts deferred or cancelled, so we could be in for a tumultuous few weeks ahead.

We will have cricket odds and cricket spreads on all the action in the Bob Willis Trophy. Then it should be time for a rejigged T20 Vitality Blast, and there are some big England Tests and white-ball matches on the horizon too, so the remainder of 2020 promises to be an exciting period for cricket fans.





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