Conferences: what we can learn from the 2020 Bob Willis Trophy

This year’s Bob Willis Trophy was entertaining. I’m glad the counties and the ECB made it work. It was the right format for a condensed season, and the Essex / Somerset final should get the attention it deserves.

The setup looks like it will be broadly maintained next season. The expected structure is ten games in three conferences to sort teams into three divisions, four further games within those divisions, and a final for each division.

While there are merits to this structure, there are also risks: specifically mismatches and the dilution of talent. I’m going to show you the key weaknesses in the format by looking at the 2020 tournament.

1. Mismatches

Two divisions ensures a smaller step from CCD1 to Test cricket. Yet under the new structure, a good chunk of the ten games at the conference level (ie. the first part of the season) will be against weaker teams.

I can show you this with data – comparing how players did this year versus their four-year domestic record. Because there was no mixing between groups, we can look at each conference separately:

Note that a negative impact for bowlers means you would expect them to record a lower average (eg. a bowler who would average 30 in CC D1 would expect to average 18.9 in the BWT North group).

I estimate the overall standard was 19% lower than CC D1, with conditions 22% harder for batting (perhaps pitches were understandably not in as good nick as usual, perhaps batsmen need more preparation than bowlers). That’s a big step up to Test cricket.

Is it sensible to establish a competition where Simon Harmer’s expected average is 14? This year was unusual; longer term the red and white ball England squads need to be available for county duty as much as possible, else the cricketing value of the championship will be diminished. My prediction – a year or two of the best bowlers averaging 10-15 would drive Test selectors to look to the IPL and CPL for performances against the best (if their heads aren’t already turned in that direction).

Of course, exceptional circumstances meant squads were unusually depleted (no overseas players; many foreign-based cricketers were unavailable until the Blast; England’s red and white ball teams were otherwise engaged). Surrey’s squad was often just a list of their available players. Even without that, the mixing means the best aren’t playing the best as often.

2. Dilution of talent

Generally, Test batsmen have been drawn from CC D1. They’ll face a variety of top bowlers there. There are still great bowlers in D2 (James Anderson and Mohammad Abbas, for example), but it’s less consistent.

An example- this summer’s Central group was definitely light in the spin department. Here’s the top 10 spinners by wickets taken:

Nothing against these players – but would a summer in the Central division give a batsman confidence he could tour India with reliable technique against spin?

The wider point – there’s no guarantee a conference structure will provide the rounded challenges to turn a good player into an great one.

**

County cricket has to serve three purposes: to maintain tradition, to entertain, and to help the Test team flourish. The two division structure wasn’t perfect, but ticked all three boxes. The new conference structure can’t afford to fall down on the last point. For a fuller appraisal, I recommend George Dobell’s piece in this month’s Cricketer magazine.

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