With the first round of the Bob Willis Trophy done and dusted, Ben Gardner picks out eight key takeaways from the opening week of matches.
Spin to win
It turns out when you don’t play half the season’s first-class games in March and April, spinners actually have a chance of having some sort of impact. And it’s not just your Simon Harmers tearing through sides, but a host of youngsters too. Dan Moriarty was the pick of the bunch, snaring five in Middlesex’s second innings as the Seaxes chased a declaration, but there were as many as nine you could justifiably call young and reasonably say had good games.
Young openers back in form
The careers of Nick Gubbins and Haseeb Hameed have followed eerily similar trajectories to this point, though with the former’s peaks and troughs not quite as steep. Each had breakthrough 2016 followed by three fallow years, and now the pair have hinted at a joint return to form.
Gubbins, now batting at three for Middlesex, scored more runs than anyone else this round, making 192 and 60 and each time only falling in pursuit of quick runs, and while Hameed only managed a couple of half-centuries, and while we must be wary of getting too excited too quickly with one of the country’s most fragile talents, he did look so, so good.
Mind the gap?
The difference in quality between the two County Championship divisions is an oft-discussed talking point, and is used in selection debates often to explain why a seamer or opener from an ‘unfashionable’ county is perennially overlooked. The Bob Willis Trophy offers a live petri dish for testing the theory, with initial results promising for those who think the gap is less wide than it’s often perceived as. Worcestershire smashed Gloucestershire, Leicestershire knocked off a small, time-pressured chase against Lancs, and Middlesex overcame Surrey in a thriller, while in the reverse direction, Yorkshire were the only Division One side to beat a team in the tier below.
Setting the pace
With first innings restricted to 120 overs per side, pacing your opening salvos will be key for teams. Warwickshire only managed 369-8 in their first dig, allowing Northamptonshire to bat themselves to safety despite being skittled for 142 first time up, while Worcestershire timed their charge to perfection, giving them just enough time to secure victory on the final day. Could we see teams take a few more risks against the new ball or press the pedal slightly sooner than they otherwise would as the competition progresses?
No county for young men
Only in cricket could you be on the fringes of national selection one week and then playing for your club side the next. Henry Brookes, in England’s red-ball training group for the West Indies Tests, was deemed surplus to requirements at Warwickshire and farmed out to Knowle and Dorridge CC to get some Birmingham League action.
In a way it makes sense; you would back an experienced operator like Oliver Hannon-Dalby to fare better, on the whole, than a young tearaway like Brookes in the Bob Willis Trophy. But you fancy the England management would love to be able to ensure proper first-class practice for their seamers through the season.
Old is gold
The flip side to that is, it’s strangely comforting to see the same names that have appeared in dispatches for years churning out the performances again. Whether it’s Tim Murtagh bowling off three paces and taking poles, Samit Patel smashing sixes down at No.8, or 44-year-old Darren Stevens doing the lot as well as ever for Kent, maybe age really is just a number. You’d imagine Stuart Broad, desperate to convince he’s still got his best years ahead of him, is watching the live streams in his Hilton hotel room smiling proudly.
The live stream revolution takes root
The new broadcast deal has removed restrictions over what level of coverage counties can give games Sky aren’t showing, and the change is marked. Multiple cameras, some manned, make the streams something that can be enjoyed rather than endured. County cricket is better off for the hard work of unsung media people around the country.
Forget talk of the lack of promotion or relegation or that it’s not technically the County Championship diluting the competitiveness of the Bob Willis Trophy: the extended off-season has, if anything, sharpened how much the players want to win. Whether it was Dieter Klein copping a five-run penalty for hurling the ball at a Lancashire batsman, or the desperation with which Middlesex, Kent, and Nottinghamshire hunted wickets in the dying moments, the competition promises to be as high-quality and hard-fought as the County Championship that we know and love.