The inaugural Bob Willis Trophy has taken the place of the traditional County Championship for the 2020 season due to the Coronavirus pandemic. All 18 first-class counties will be striving to win the red-ball tournament to etch their place in history.
The teams have been separated into three regions and will each play five matches. The two sides with the best records after the matches are complete will participate in the grand final. It’s all to play for in a truncated campaign where divisions and past form counts for nothing this term.
We’ll now look at three of the standout fixtures of the opening round of the Bob Willis Trophy.
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Essex fended off Somerset in a thrilling conclusion to the final round of fixtures in the County Championship to claim the Division One crown last term. The club will begin the truncated 2020 season as favourites for the Bob Willis Trophy given the pedigree of their outfit. Sir Alastair Cook leads a formidable batting unit also containing England hopeful Dan Lawrence, who will be determined to enhance his reputation after missing out on the West Indies Test series.
Simon Harmer has been dominant in the first-class game and led the wicket column in the top division last term. Jamie Porter and Simon Cook will provide the threat with the new ball for Anthony McGrath’s men. Essex are well balanced and will be keen to re-affirm their reputation as the leading first-class team on the circuit, especially opening up on home soil at Chelmsford.
Kent will be without Zak Crawley, Joe Denly and Sam Billings, who are all on England duty. It weakens their batting ranks significantly and puts Daniel Bell-Drummond and Heino Kuhn under pressure at the top of the innings. Jack Leaning’s arrival from Yorkshire will strengthen the batting ranks as he seeks to rebuild his career.
The evergreen Dan Stevens will be as important as ever in the middle order and with the ball. Matt Milnes had a breakthrough campaign in 2019, claiming 55 wickets. For Kent to succeed, their key players have to thrive in the middle given the absences in the line-up.
Tip: Expect a strong performance from Essex in the opener to kickstart a charge towards the final against a team that they bowled out for 40 last season on the road.
It was so near yet to so far for Somerset last season, just falling short in the final game. They have a chance for redemption in the Bob Willis Trophy, although it will be an uphill challenge given a number of absentees. Last season’s overseas star Murali Vijay will not be present along with England players Jack Leach, Dom Bess, Tom Banton and Lewis Gregory. However, there’s more than enough talent in the ranks to get off the mark from the off.
Skipper Tom Abell and Steven Davies provide a strong base at the top, while the experience of James Hildreth holds down the middle order. Roelof van der Merwe is a vital player in the tournament for Jason Kerr’s men in the spin department given the absences of Bess and Leach. Somerset do have a battery of strong seamers to fire at Glamorgan led by Craig and Jamie Overton. The two brothers were on point last season as crucial elements of Somerset’s title challenge. Gregory’s absence is a tough blow given his excellence with the ball, although Jack Brooks provides ample cover. Somerset can field a strong outfit and will be contenders from the off.
Glamorgan just missed out on promotion to Division One last season, finishing fourth in the second tier. They’re going to be out to prove a point that they can cope with the higher standard of opposition. Aussie Marnus Labuschagne will not be available due to the pandemic, leaving the Welsh outfit light on batting options. A lot will rest on the form of Billy Root, while Marchant de Lange and Michael Hogan will carry the burden of wicket-taking responsibilities.
Tip: Somerset should have more than enough to clinch an opening-week victory in this one.
Durham will look to take the scalp of Yorkshire at Emirates Riverside to take charge of the North Group. James Franklin’s men overcame a slow start to the last campaign, losing their opening four matches of the term, to fall narrowly short of promotion from Division Two. For the first time since their relegation in 2016, the north-east side seemed capable of mounting a charge back to the top.
Chris Rushworth will be their spearhead with the ball. Few bowlers have taken more wickets than the 33-year-old in the county game over the last decade. He will be supported by Ben Raine, Matty Potts and the recently-signed Paul Coughlin, who returned to Durham after a spell with Nottinghamshire. Skipper Cameron Bancroft will not be present due to the pandemic, leaving the run-scoring burden in the hands of Alex Lees, Cameron Steel and loanee Sean Dickson.
Yorkshire will be without their England contingent for the trip to the Riverside. Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Adil Rashid and David Willey are all away, while skipper Gary Ballance will miss out due to a virus (not COVID-19). Fortunately for Andrew Gale’s men they’re blessed with a great deal of depth. Dawid Malan should slot straight into the side after signing from Middlesex. Adam Lyth and Tom Kohler-Cadmore complete a talented top order.
The bowling ranks have been thinned by Tim Bresnan’s departure. Ben Coad and Duanne Olivier are two top-quality operators and will relish conditions at Durham. The difference will be which bowling attack can settle the fastest in the north east.
Tip: It promises to be a close game, but Yorkshire should just have the edge over their rivals due to their experienced batting unit. Durham are worth a shout though with an outside bet of 2.50 at Dafabet.