Bob Willis Trophy preview: part one

Strange times. This year’s County Championship makes the best of a bad situation by fitting in a five-match group stage across August and September. Here’s what I think will happen, based on the Playing Conditions; disrupted squads; and the weather. Part two of this post will look at which players and teams I expect to do well.

Playing conditions

  • A reduction from a minimum of 96 overs 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
  • Eight points for a draw
  • Three regional groups of six. Two group winners with the most points contest the final.

Impacts

Perversely, more draws. Fewer overs per day removes up to 24 overs from a match. Capping an innings at 120 overs limits a team’s ability to go big batting once. Add to that the increased points on offer for a draw, and canny captains (once behind in the match) may change focus to points accumulation. While there is need to win the group and outscore one of the other group winners, a defeat makes qualification very unlikely – so conservative cricket may dominate the first two rounds. The last thing you want to do is give your rivals a 20 point head start.

Mismatches – all 18 counties together for the first time since 1999 gives an opportunity for the stronger players in the second division to prove themselves. However, there is the potential for some mismatches. Gary Ballance against some of the weaker attacks in the North group, for example.

Lopsided groups. The South group is toughest, and thus we are obliged to tag it the “group of death”. Sussex and Middlesex are the second division teams in that group, but are better than that. It will be difficult to win the South group, and the winner may not even qualify for the final if their victories don’t yield sufficient points.

Nothing to play for. After two defeats, a team is almost certainly out of contention. With no relegation, I hope teams do the decent thing and give 100 percent. This will be difficult. “Come on lads, let’s do it for the fans streaming this whilst working from home!” Hopefully something resembling the best possible team is selected, though it would be totally understandable if this weren’t the case: players may have other priorities in a pandemic.

Spinners to the fore. A new ball after 90 overs favours spinners (who will have the ball in their hands more) and lower middle order batsmen (who get easier conditions for longer). Win the toss and bat, surely.

Timing and weather

August / early September matches should slightly favour the bowlers. Last year’s first innings scores were 20 runs lower in August/September than the rest of the season. The Test matches have offered turn, indicating what pitches might do given the dry summer we’ve had.

The long range forecast from the Met Office is understandably vague, though hints at more weather disruption in the north than the south.

Confidence is low, but the second week of August is likely to see a mixture of dry and settled conditions, interspersed with occasional bouts of wetter and windier weather. The majority of the unsettled weather will most likely be in the north and west, though it may spread further south and east from time to time. Temperatures are likely to be around the average for this time of year, with any particularly warm weather being short-lived and generally towards the south or southeast. Looking further ahead into late-August, there are some tentative signs that conditions could become more widely dry and settled, particularly in the southeast.

Availability

These aren’t the county sides you’re used to. No overseas players. No England Test players. Won’t see much of the England white ball crew either. That means ignore the 2019 league positions and look at who will actually be playing. Are Hampshire a credible force without Vince, Dawson, Edwards and Abbott?

This is a great opportunity for the 200-250th best cricketers in England & Wales to get a run of five games. Let’s see how many of them can translate second XI success to First Class.

I’d normally end with a proper conclusion- but without analysing the squads that would be a mistake. Will save that for next time- once the teams announce their squads, I can pull in the ratings from my database to see who is best on paper.

For now- my hunch is that the Central group is the best one to be in. Can’t wait to run the numbers on Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire and Somerset and see who is best placed.

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