Almost four months after it was scheduled to begin, the county cricket season gets underway on Saturday. As with the world itself, so much has changed this season with the County Championship having to be condensed and as a result a completely new event – the Bob Willis Trophy – forms the red ball offering.
Usually we would do a comprehensive county-by-county guide with picks for everything but with things changing on a daily basis and the possibility of anything long-term coming to a halt at the drop of a hat we will save that for next season and offer up a more routine outright preview.
The 18 counties are all competing in this tournament and have been split into three geographical groups – North, Central and South. Each team will play the other five counties in their group once with the two group winners with the most points progressing to the final at Lord’s at the end of September. As with the County Championship teams get 16 points for a win but eight for a draw, up from normal due to the potential for weather to intervene. First innings last a maximum of 120 overs with the usual set of bonus points available in the first 110 of them. A new ball can only be taken after 90 overs. If the final is drawn the team who leads after the first innings will win the title.
There are two teams in the North Group that are in Division One of the County Championship. They are Lancashire who are going to be disadvantaged by playing away from Old Trafford while that is being used for international cricket and with England having two squads in operation they are missing plenty of bodies too. Yorkshire look in better shape personnel wise given that the majority of the players they are without who are on England duty they wouldn’t have expected to see much of anyway.
Derbyshire are another side who are going to be inconvenienced by a lack of home advantage as their ground is the base for England women. Durham on the flip side will play four of their five matches at home and that might well be significant. Nottinghamshire were relegated to Division 2 last season but have strengthened in the winter and will want to stamp their mark on red ball cricket once again while Leicestershire would appear to be making up the numbers.
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The Central Group contains four counties from Division One and two from Division Two. Warwickshire are the only side in this group who were in the top flight last season and that might be significant although they are not going to see anything of the likes of Chris Woakes and Dominic Sibley, and hardly anything of Olly Stone so that is a concern. Northamptonshire got promoted into the top flight last season and this truncated schedule might suit them nicely if they can get off to a good start. Gloucestershire could be the dark horses of the competition as they have been improving steadily in four-day cricket.
Worcestershire were expected to bounce straight back to the top flight in the County Championship last season but it never looked like materialising like that, much to their disappointment. Glamorgan went well in four-day cricket last season but it is hard to get excited about their chances when they are not going to have Marnus Labaschagne around for this competition. Somerset are the other team in this group and they might see this as their best chance of red ball success for a while as they start the next County Championship campaign on -12pts. Whether England have taken too many of their big players is the big question over them.
There are four Division One sides in the South Group as well and they include the reigning county champions Essex. A lot has changed for Essex since they lifted the trophy though with Ravi Bopara fancying some sea air and Peter Siddle not coming back over. England are sniffing around Dan Lawrence and if he gets called up that would be a big blow. Surrey are another top flight side in this group but surely England have taken too many of their stars away for them to prosper. The same could be said for Kent for whom the losses to England of Joe Denly, Zak Crawley and Sam Billings leaves an enormous hole in their batting.
Hampshire are the other top flight side in the South Group but their immediate disadvantage is a lack of a home venue while the Ageas Bowl is playing host to the England team. England have also taken James Vince and Liam Dawson away which is less than ideal. Sussex are an interesting side who in theory should improve under Jason Gillespie but the season ending injury to Chris Jordan added to the absence of Jofra Archer puts me off them. The other side in this group is Middlesex but their batting was an issue with Dawid Malan let alone now he has left for pastures new.
I’m not going too mad in this competition because so much could happen in the world in the two months of its duration so I don’t want a wad of money riding on it really. I will get involved in it though and given that there are only two Division One sides in the North Group it makes sense to target there for an outright bet. I’m going to leave the two top flight sides alone though as they are both missing players and have question marks over them.
Durham are a motivated county under Sir Ian Botham these days and he will be extra determined that his county win the trophy carrying the name of his huge late friend. Durham have done well on the recruitment side of things in the last couple of seasons. It isn’t ideal that Ben Stokes and Mark Wood won’t be around for them but they rarely are. The likes of Ben Raine and Chris Rushworth are very tough to face at the Riverside though and Durham play four of their five matches there. That is a huge advantage and in a wide open group with more Division Two teams than the other groups it makes sense that if they top the group they will be one of the higher scorers. They have enough talent to win at Lord’s so the 25/1 on them prevailing feels a little big to me.
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