Bob Willis Trophy preview: part two

It’s the evening before the county season starts, and the squads have been announced. That means I can tell you which teams have the best chance of success.

Here’s a unique preview – data driven, based on each player’s red ball performances in the last four years. Most previews name a couple of stars, “one to watch”, and throw in some juicy facts and interviews. Redballdata.com sadly has none of this.

So how can I help you? Without the Test and overseas players, we’ll see lots of talent emerge from the 2nd XI. You and I may not know the names, but I’ve rated those players. The database uses the last four years’ data for Test, county, and 2nd XI Cricket, adjusted for difficulty. For each group, I’ve ranked teams in order of strength, and below the commentary you can zoom into each squad to see the individual rankings.

The North Group

Lancashire (Favourites): Have the bowling to force results. Livingstone, Vilas are two of the best batsmen in county cricket.
Yorkshire: Challengers, can they win their first game without the ODI players? Will Olivier come to the party? So far he hasn’t shone in the County game. Excellent top order, but will they miss Bresnan’s batting?
Durham: Raine & Rushworth are an effective pair. Deep batting line up covers the lack of stars. Having four home games helps. I’ve put a couple of pounds on Durham at 33-1 (Ladbrokes), if that sort of thing is of interest to you.
Notts: Best batting in the division: I’m baffled at how that unit struggled so badly last year. Worried about the bowling, especially if Fletcher is out for a while. Ball can’t do it on his own. Mullaney might bowl a lot this year, which is no bad thing.
Derbyshire: Hard to see this very raw attack winning the group. Batting’s not too bad mind (Godleman, Reece, du Plooy).
Leicestershire: On paper the weakest team. Maybe one of the younger bowlers will surprise us, otherwise 20 wickets is a tall order. Competitive top three batsmen (Azad, Slater, Ackermann) but not much after that.

The Central Group

Somerset (Favourites): Best attack of the 18 counties. Should win the weakest division.
Warwickshire: Will the batsmen let down the bowlers? Much depends on the ageing Bell, Bresnan and Patel. Better reserves than most.
Worcestershire: A couple of batsmen light. Moeen Ali and Ed Barnard are fine all rounders which help balance the side out. Banana skin vs Gloucestershire first up as Worcestershire won’t have Ali (England duty).
Northants: About three bowlers light. Can Sanderson repeat the magic of 2019 (60 wkts at 20)? If not, “definitely viewing it as a squad competition” might make for some weak teams by late August.
Gloucestershire: This campaign may be an awkward reminder that overseas talent is needed for Gloucestershire to survive in Division 1 next year. Dent and Higgins are clearly talented, but there are stronger squads out there.
Glamorgan: Cooke will need to deliver for Glamorgan to get enough runs on the board. The injury to Timm van der Gugten is unfortunate – Glamorgan are the weakest attack in the Central Division without him. This year could be valuable experience for the core of a fine future team- Selman (age 24), Carlson (22), Douthwaite (23), Carey (23), Bull (25).

The South Group

Essex (Favourites) are good. The best team in a tough league. Expect Harmer to deliver with the ball, supported by Porter & Cook. Sir A. N. Cook is the best batsman on show in county cricket.
Surrey … Imagine what they could do at full strength. Can hardly blame them if this year is a struggle. Adding Jamie Overton helps, an unexpected development.
Middlesex are my kind of team – enough batting and bowling to compete, maybe slightly under the radar. Lack of spin options may be exposed in their three away matches, if groundsmen play their cards right.
Hampshire: Ditto. No Abbott. No Edwards. Need to get through the games without the ODI players (Vince & Dawson), and see what happens. Mason Crane has an opportunity – there’s lots of right handers out there.
Kent: May do OK against Hampshire and Sussex’s attacks. The other three sides will take some withstanding though. Could do with Denly making an appearance.
Always up against it, Sussex have given a chance to lesser known players this year. A shame. Not sure where Wiese, Wells, Bopara and Beer are. I’ll give anyone sitting this tournament out the benefit of the doubt: I’m not playing cricket in a pandemic, so can’t expect them to.

Anyone can win. Don’t expect it to be the best team – it’s only a five match series. The bookmakers know this – there are 11 teams with more than a five percent chance of winning, yet no team has a greater than fifteen percent chance.

Tomorrow I’ll be following Durham-Yorkshire. A Durham win would make the North group so much more interesting.

Before you go, here are some trends we might see this year:

  • 0fers – there are bowlers that just aren’t ready for this level. They’ll go wicketless, and heap pressure onto captain and opening bowlers. Canny batsmen will get after them.
  • Clusters of wickets – inevitable when the standard is this variable.
  • The league won’t be won by stars – it’ll be won by the deepest batting lineups, and the bowling attacks that never let up. Hence Lancashire, Yorkshire, Somerset, Essex being favoured. Many won’t see it that way – they’ll talk of centuries and five-fors, but it’ll be “Not Collapsing” and “9-2-30-1” wot won it.

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.