Somerset will aim to go one better than 2020 and start as favourites in a group which promises to be nothing other than competitive.
As we stated for Group One, 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.
Last season’s finish (Bob Willis Trophy): 5th Central Group
Gloucestershire might not ever be the most fashionable side in English cricket but in James Bracey they do have a genuinely exciting prospect. Whilst Ben Foakes and Jos Buttler’s recent form mean the wicketkeeper slot isn’t available just yet he has a good five years on Foakes (28) and seven on Buttler (30). He will continue to press his credentials in a Gloucestershire side which lacks many recognised names beyond him.
Player to Watch: No young pup at 30 David Payne was a bright spot in Gloucestershire’s dire 2020, picking up fourteen wickets at an average of 14.21. He will hope to kick on this year and will be relied upon if they are to have any success.
Our Predictions: 6thEmbed from Getty Images
Last season’s finish (Bob Willis Trophy): 4th South Group
Hampshire have a squad on paper that should be right up there but failed to fire last year. They came into the 2020 tournament having finished third the previous season but have a bunch of players who should be sheltered from international call ups.
Mohammad Abbas is perhaps not one of them but will add firepower when he plays alongside Kyle Abbott who has proved himself one of the finest bowlers in English conditions. They will be assisted by Keith Barker in the strike attack and have both Mason Crane and Liam Dawson as spin options. Aneurin Donald, Sam Northeast and James Vince (when he plays) form the backbone of a strong batting line-up.
Player to Watch: This will be a key season for former England U19 all-rounder Tom Scriven who is yet to feature as much as he may like but scored a useful 68 in his last first class appearance.
Our Predictions: 4thEmbed from Getty Images
Last season’s finish (Bob Willis Trophy): 5th North Group
Grace Road is well known for having one of the smallest budgets on the County scene, but they have consistently looked after the burgeoning careers of plenty of fine cricketers. Stuart Broad, Harry Gurney and James Taylor spring to mind. As usual they may rely on a couple coming out the woodwork but in Dieter Klein and Colin Ackerman they have two veterans who have performed with the bowl and bat respectively over a number of years.
Player to watch: Arron Lilley will be someone well known to Lancashire fans but will be increasingly relied on in a Leicestershire side with little four day experience.
Our Prediction: 5thEmbed from Getty Images
Last season’s finish (Bob Willis Trophy): 3rd South Group
The events of 2020 removed the opportunity for Middlesex to bounce back from their 2019 relegation from Division One but they retain an impressive squad and have the opportunity to pick up a County Championship as a second tier side. Peter Hanscomb was immediately installed as Club Captain upon arrival in 2020 and boasts a test average of 38.91 across 16 appearances for Australia. Sam Robson and Nick Gubbins also boast first class averages above 35 in a batting line up packed with international experience.
Their success may come down to how much they can get out of fellow former internationals Toby Roland-Jones and Steven Finn, both with undoubted pedigree but having suffered injuries over the last couple of years. Finn looks back to his best but may be used sparingly in favour of the shorter formats. In Tim Murtagh they have a man with 841 first class wickets who was top class in 2020, taking 25 wickets in five matches and all at the age of 39. They will need him once more.
Player to Watch: For 22 year old Ethan Bamber, 2021 could be a big season. The paceman has already taken forty-eight first class wickets at 25.68 and will be increasingly relied upon as an energetic foil to an ageing attack.
Our Predictions: 2ndEmbed from Getty Images
Last season’s finish (Bob Willis Trophy): Runner’s Up
Never have Somerset knocked harder on the door to a County Championship title. Second in 2018, a whisker short in 2019 if they had won the Bob Willis Trophy it would have been dampened in the knowledge it would still not quite be the trophy they so craved. 2021 could be the year. James Hildreth and Roelof van der Merwe should continue to score runs, Tom Abell has justified his captaincy and Lewis Gregory, Jack Brooks and Craig Overton all form a dangerous attack, one that should spend much of the summer together. The absence of Jack Leach and Tom Banton to the international game could hurt them and they may yet need one more batsmen to step up to the cause, as well as a genuine spin option now that Dom Bess has also departed.
Player to Watch: Eddie Byrom‘s century in the Lord’s final indicated that the twenty-three year old could be the player to fill the void. Still maturing a breakthrough season could be the difference for Somerset.
Our Predictions: 1stEmbed from Getty Images
Last season’s finish (Bob Willis Trophy): 5th South Group
Winners in 2018, much of Surrey’s fortunes may lay in how much of a role Rory Burns plays in the Test cycle. The left-hander could miss the India series and still go to the winter Ashes, hence not missing Surrey’s season and indeed Vikram Solanki may quietly hope that to be the case. Morne Morkel’s departure has led to some serious reinforcements in the form of Kemar Roach and Hashim Amla. Both are expected to be involved in the County Championship. Add Ricki Clarke, Liam Plunkett, Jamie Overton, Amar Virdi and Mark Stoneman and you have the basis of a very useful side. Ollie Pope, the Curran’s and Ben Foakes will all be keenly missed though the latter may play a good amount for Surrey (not being involved in the shorter formats for England). In terms of strength in depth across all formats with Jade Dernbach and Reece Topley in the shorter format they have for my money the strongest in English cricket.
Player to Watch: Will Jacks was always seen as the next in a line of outstanding Surrey middle order batsmen but he has more recently played an uninspiring role in Melbourne Renegades Big Bash campaign. This could be a big season for the twenty-two year old and will be a major indication of what format he intends to specialise in.
Our Predictions: 3rdEmbed from Getty Images