Cricket news - A boost for English domestic cricket in challenging times

Essex, the County Champions for two of the past three years, will once again be the favourites when the Bob Willis Trophy gets underway

Essex, the County Champions for two of the past three years, will once again be the favourites when the Bob Willis Trophy gets underway

Following the government's announcement on Friday that pilot events for re-introducing spectators at sporting events would be postponed for two weeks following a spike in COVID-19 cases - meaning no spectators will be allowed into The Oval this weekend as planned - the Bob Willis Trophy, which begins on Saturday, will be a behind closed doors affair without any crowds. Those who scoff at county cricket might be tempted to ask: 'What's the difference?'

The notion that county cricket does not attract people to watch has always been wide of the mark and Boris Johnson's announcement has been a setback for the counties who had hoped to be able to gradually let crowds in during this truncated season in order to help mitigate the financial impact they are all feeling. Playing international cricket is important for the general financial health of the game, through the bumper broadcasting deal, but aside from central ECB funding, the lifeblood of county finances are ticket sales.

Nevertheless, there will at least be some domestic cricket played which a couple of months ago looked unlikely. The format of the Bob Willis Trophy is markedly different to the normal County Championship structure. Indeed, the 18 counties aren't playing for the Championship title, given the truncated season. Instead, three divisions of six teams - in the North, Central and South Groups - will play five four-day matches each with the best two performing teams contesting a five-day final at Lord's. All the matches will be first-class.

There are various tweaks to the normal Championship playing conditions including, amongst other things, banning the use of saliva on the ball, reduced overs in a day's play, from 96 to 90, and a maximum of 120 overs for first innings. More or less, however, it will be four-day cricket as we know it. It will be watched too, albeit not in person, with the streaming services offered by the counties expected to do a roaring trade. There were 92,000 unique views for the friendly between Middlesex and Surrey last week, for instance and precious little other live sport to compete with.

Despite the later than usual start, the counties have been back training, first individually and then as groups, for weeks and most played recent friendly matches so they should be prepared. Some players even say that the individual preparation they were able to do, mandated by the initial COVID-19 safety protocols, has actually put them in a better place than general team training might have done. Eoin Morgan, who took part in Middlesex's individual training programme, says England may even adopt some of the same methods of practice when things return to normal.

There has been some concern about the length of time the fast-bowlers have had to prepare, although that seems to have quietened down now, and the upside of a shortened season is that there shouldn't be any conserving of energy as is usually the case with a packed, six months campaign necessitating the bowlers to sometimes keep their powder dry. If the weather stays warm, and the pitches harden up nicely, we could see some welcome pace from the quicks.

Essex, the County Champions for two of the past three years, will once again be the favourites although Yorkshire, having signed Dawid Malan from Middlesex and with Jonny Bairstow set to play at least a couple of matches, look strong too. Somerset, runners up last year, are unlikely to have Dom Bess or Jack Leach for their whole campaign which could hamper their challenge. Given the regional groupings, designed to minimise travel, there is also the chance for some of the perennial second division counties such as Leicestershire and Glamorgan to give some of the so-called bigger clubs a bloody nose or two.

It is fitting that the counties are playing for the Bob Willis Trophy. Willis, one of England's greatest ever fast-bowlers, passed away last December and the idea of naming the trophy after him was suggested by his great friend Sir Ian Botham. The trophy itself will feature a design of Willis bowling, painted by his wife Lauren, who has found solace in her art since his death. "Anything that keeps Bob's memory alive is as beautiful as the man I married," she said. "This would mean so much to him."

The Bob Willis Trophy may be different, it may not be played in front of spectators, it may not be what we are used to. But that doesn't mean it isn't important and doesn't mean it won't be special. It might also be quite a lot of fun. And we could all do with some of that right now.