County cricket makes its competitive return on Saturday, with a new tournament getting the shortened season under way.
Essex won the County Championship and T20 Blast last season, but will only have the chance to defend one of those two trophies this summer.
The delay to the 2020 season, caused by the coronavirus pandemic, has resulted in a fresh red-ball competition being created and named in honour of one of England’s greatest players – Bob Willis, who died in December aged 70.
There are some subtle differences in format compared to the County Championship, and there will be a five-day final to decide the winner.
“It’s fantastic we’re getting some cricket,” Sussex head coach Jason Gillespie told BBC Radio Sussex.
“I love the initiative. At this stage it’s a one-off, but it’s something that every team can aspire to winning.
“Even if it is just a one-off, what a trophy that will be to hold up at the end of the competition.
“Every team will be trying as hard as they can to get as many points as they can to take part in that Lord’s final.”
How will it work?
Rather than two divisions, as is the case in the County Championship, the 18 counties are split into three regionalised groups of six for the Bob Willis Trophy:
- North: Derbyshire, Durham, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire.
- Central: Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire, Somerset, Warwickshire, Worcestershire.
- South: Essex, Kent, Hampshire, Middlesex, Surrey, Sussex.
Each county will play five four-day matches, facing the other teams in their group once.
The first round of fixtures starts on Saturday, with the final round of group matches starting on Sunday, 6 September.
The two group winners with the most points after those five games will progress to the five-day final.
What changes are there?
While the Bob Willis Trophy will have first-class status in the absence of the usual County Championship schedule, there will be a number of revised playing conditions to help reduce the risk of injuries, especially to fast bowlers:
- A reduction to a minimum of 90 overs in a day’s play.
- Each county’s first innings of a match can last no longer than 120 overs.
- The follow-on will increase from 150 to 200 runs.
- The new ball will be available after 90 overs rather than 80 overs.
- Points awarded for a draw will increase from five (in the County Championship) to eight to help mitigate against the impact of weather during a shortened competition.
- All other points scoring will remain the same as in the County Championship, such as 16 points for a win with a maximum of five batting and three bowling bonus points in the first innings.
- For the final, in the event of a draw, whichever team gains a first-innings lead will be determined the winner when both first innings are completed. In any other circumstance of a draw or tie, the trophy will be shared.
There has also been a change in the loan system for this shortened season to allow counties to loan a player from another county for a minimum of a week.
What else will be different?
With England’s Test and one-day squads both playing international fixtures, the Bob Willis Trophy will provide opportunities for some new faces to emerge, and also signal a return to some less than familiar grounds in the modern era.
One of those counties who have had to settle into a “new home” is Hampshire.
The Ageas Bowl is acting as one of international cricket’s bio-secure bubbles, so Hampshire will make Arundel in West Sussex their temporary home.
Lancashire find themselves in the same situation with Old Trafford also designated for international fixtures, so the Red Rose will be taking one of their two home group matches to Liverpool.
“You cannot underestimate the work that’s required to get the ground at Aigburth up to speed,” chief executive Daniel Gidney told BBC Radio Lancashire.
“As an out-ground, there’s a lot of additional measures that need to be planned for to make it Covid-19 compliant.
“At the same time, we’ve only got so many bodies at the club who have also been working hard at Old Trafford to support the bio-bubble for Test matches.
“Full credit to the ECB for getting a competition together as at one stage, we were staring down the barrel of having no county cricket this season.”
Middlesex will also be ‘on the road’ from Lord’s, with two fixtures at Radlett.
Derbyshire, whose ground has been handed over to both Pakistan as their training base and for women’s international fixtures, will be playing all five of their group games away from home.
Leicestershire, meanwhile, have also seen their fixture schedule reorganised because of the local restrictions in place in the city of Leicester.
Their opening game against Lancashire has been moved to the neutral venue of New Road, Worcester, while the Foxes hope to play three games at Grace Road later in the competition.
Most games will also be played behind closed doors but, following successful pilots in the past week at The Oval and Edgbaston, crowds of up to 2,500 will be permitted to watch the first two days of Surrey v Middlesex and Warwickshire v Northamptonshire at the same two venues.
Those two fixtures form the next phase of the pilot scheme to test government guidance on crowds returning to sporting events.
Players to look out for
Global travel restrictions mean a host of overseas and Kolpak signings will be unavailable to counties, paving the way for some new and not-so-new domestic names to potentially grab centre stage.
Among them will be former England Test opener Haseeb Hameed, who finally starts life at new county Nottinghamshire following his exit from Lancashire last season.
Hameed burst on to the international stage in 2016 as a 19-year-old, playing three Tests during England’s tour of India and making two half-centuries at an average of 43.80 before fracturing a thumb.
That injury and early return home sparked a downturn in fortunes for the right-hander as a prolonged dip in county form saw him first disappear off England’s radar and eventually off Lancashire’s books.
Another young English batsman hoping to build on an impressive past 18 months is Kent’s Ollie Robinson.
While his Sussex seam bowling namesake came close to a Test debut in the recent series against West Indies, the England Lions-capped wicketkeeper-batsman warmed up with an unbeaten century in a friendly against Essex on Monday.
Robinson, 21, will hope to step up his responsibilities in the top order and with the gloves in the ongoing absence of Joe Denly, Zak Crawley and Sam Billings, who are on England duty.
Ongoing England success for Dom Sibley has left a vacancy at the top of Warwickshire’s batting order, which Rob Yates will hope to continue filling.
The 20-year-old left-hander from Solihull made his first-class debut last season, originally taking the number three spot made available by Jonathan Trott’s retirement and Ian Bell’s long-term injury.
A maiden century against title-chasing Somerset and 91 against Hampshire were the stand-out scores in his first Division One campaign.
That form appears to have continued into this season after a 65 and an unbeaten 38 in warm-up matches against Nottinghamshire and Worcestershire respectively.
How to follow
BBC local radio will have ball-by-ball commentary of every match, which will be available to listen to on the BBC Sport website and app.
There will also be live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app, which will highlight significant performances and achievements, and provide insight from our team of commentators at games.
Opening fixtures (1-4 August)
- North: Durham v Yorkshire, Derbyshire v Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire v Lancashire.
- Central: Gloucestershire v Worcestershire, Somerset v Glamorgan, Warwickshire v Northamptonshire.
- South: Essex v Kent, Sussex v Hampshire, Surrey v Middlesex.