In an age of T20 internationals, Tests on TV and the new Hundred format it is easy to forget the competition that predates them all. England’s collapse in India underlines its importance more than ever. English cricket needs to go back to basics and there a few better training fields than the outfields of County Cricket.
The fact remains the four-day format still has a crucial role to play in unearthing the next Root or fine-tuning the skills of cricketers who have not quite been ready for the grandest stage.
This year takes a slightly different format, though it’s fuller than last year’s Bob Willis Trophy. The 18 counties are split into three groups of six, playing each side both home and away. 1 & 2 in each group will go forward to a second group where they will play four further matches against the other 1st and 2nd place finishers across the other two groups (note four and not five fixtures which you may expect). The top two at this stage will play in the Lord’s final for the chance to be crowned County Champions, winning in the process the Bob Willis Trophy. Teams 3 and 4 and teams 5 and 6 will go two further divisions but will more or less be playing for nothing.
Here’s your Group 1 preview.
Last season’s finish (Bob Willis Trophy): 2nd North Group
Derbyshire’s sole County Championship title may have come all the way back in 1936 but the unfancied side punched well above their weight last season, only losing to Lancashire in the Bob Willis Trophy. Such an effort would again come against the odds for one of County Cricket’s less endowed clubs. Wayne Madsen is the most famous name but others enjoyed good 2020’s including batsmen Leus Du Plooy (296 runs at 42.29 last year) and all rounder Luis Reece (277 at 46.17). They will need the bowling attack to step up to mount a creditable challenge.
Player to Watch: Fynn Hudson-Prentice recently turned twenty-five but is slowly making a name for himself on the county circuit. 91 not out versus Notts he can be useful with the ball and will hope to kick on once more.
Our Predictions: 4thEmbed from Getty Images
Last season’s finish (Bob Willis Trophy): 6th North Group
Durham may be a far cry from the side that won three titles between 2008 and 2013 but they are a side that is nonetheless reinventing themselves in County Cricket. Their much publicised financial woes relegated them from the top division in 2017 but they have provided a second chance to some highly useful players. Cameron Bancroft is of course the most famous but Alex Lees (2020 first class average 48.25) provides experience since joining from Yorkshire in 2019. Scott Borthwick‘s signing from Surrey represents a welcome return home after five years down south. Durham’s success may come down to how they can perform with the bowl with no established match winners outside their international duo of Mark Wood and Ben Stokes (both who will play no county cricket).
Player to watch: David Bedingham may be Durham’s less illustrious overseas player but the soon to be twenty-seven year old South African boasts a first class average of 43.77.
Our predictions: 5thEmbed from Getty Images
Last season’s finish (Bob Willis Trophy): Champions
Essex will go into 2021 lacking a key player in their recent success in the form of Dan Lawrence to England. That said they still retain the base of squad few in County Cricket can rival, being about as good as it gets on the domestic circuit. Jamie Porter, Sir Alastair Cook, Ryan Ten Doeschate and Simon Harmer form the backbone of a team that, whilst ageing, are still close the best in County Cricket
Player to watch: Given England’s struggles at the top of the order consistent form for Essex could lead to Nick Browne grabbing selectors attention. He had a torrid 2020 with the bat with just one fifty but he has shown form in the past to add himself to the conversation.
Our Prediction: 1stEmbed from Getty Images
Last season’s finish (Bob Willis Trophy): 4th North Group
Nottinghamshire have a seriously talented side over the shorter formats and it will be interesting to see if they can translate this over four days. Plenty talk about Peter Moore‘s track record of strong man-management and there were some signs last summer that he may yet get the best out of Haseeb Hameed. Alongside the opening batsmen there is a nice balance of senior pros and talented youngsters who have had a taste of international cricket. Samit Patel, Steve Mullaney, Luke Fletcher and Peter Trego all provide the experience with Ben Duckett maturing and Jake Ball eyeing one last assault on the England pace line up.
Player to Watch: Batsman Joe Clarke enters the 2021 season with the scandals of his early career in the rear-view mirror. He will hope to kick on and demonstrate his undeniable talent and could form a big role in Notts’ campaign.
Our Predictions: 3rdEmbed from Getty Images
Last season’s finish (Bob Willis Trophy): 3rd Central Group
Sibley’s struggles may yet benefit Warwickshire and a chance to regain some form could be welcome for all parties. With Chris Woakes and Olly Stone likely to retain some involvement with England it is a team that will increasingly rely on a core of senior players.
Tim Bresnan will always be an asset and Oliver Hannon-Dalby will offer a consistency of line and length. A third former Yorkshire player in captain Will Rhodes will prove crucial should the Edgbaston side launch any kind of challenge.
Player to Watch: 21 year old George Garrett has just signed a contract extension with the club and will be hoping to seize on a promising debut in 2019 should opportunities provide. At 6ft 3 he may have to step into Olly Stone’s role in the side.
Our Predictions: 6thEmbed from Getty Images
Worcestershire are fortunate in that they possess a squad of highly talented players well versed on the County circuit but are unlikely to be too affected by a congested international summer. West Indian international Alzarri Joseph is a very exciting signing for the start of the season but behind that they possess an effective squad in their own right. Undervalued captain Joe Leach remains ever-reliable with the ball and has a first class average of 26.10 (bowling). Riki Wessels has now amassed over 11,000 runs at an average of 35.05 and Jake Libby had a great 2020, scoring 498 runs at 55.33 across nine Bob Willis Trophy matches. Ross Whitely and Brett D’Oliveira are now fixtures on the domestic scene. Moeen Ali would of course be highly useful but looks set to spend his summer in India, either with England or the Chennai Super Kings.
Player to Watch: Now 25, Ed Barnard is already one of Worcestershire’s senior bowlers and has taken 205 first class wickets. They will need him to have a good season to be in contention come the business end of the season.
Our Predictions: 2ndEmbed from Getty Images