Phil Walker reports from the Bob Willis Trophy final at Lord’s, which smouldered intriguingly without ever catching fire as Essex secured their third first-class title in four years.
Essex’s grip on first-class county cricket is complete. At Lord’s in the gloaming they blocked their way to a third title in four years, concluding an absorbingly strange and in the end rather bathetic affair with sufficient grit to get it done.
Like those great monolithic football institutions, they appear to have forgotten how to lose. Here they engineered a narrow, crucial first-innings lead and stuck in thereafter, knowing a draw would be enough. They have rarely touched the levels of their best cricket this season – and skipper Tom Westley acknowledges the fact – but they’ve still emerged with the gong. On the final day of the first-class season, they withstood the maddened efforts of a perpetually wronged Somerset team that must be sick to death of the sight of them, and silenced any thoughts of putting on a show and going for the win. They did what they needed to do. County cricket is a game played between 22 players, and at the end of it Essex get the result.
An unshakeable flatness accompanied the finale, a few whoops and the odd fist-bump set to the kind of silence that trails the end of a show that never quite caught fire; then again, you can’t force a dance party without any meat in the room. Both teams have produced a week of high-end, gripping red-ball cricket in an atmosphere generated entirely by themselves. But there was no escaping the emptiness, no avoiding those vast swathes of unpopulated seating. The PA announcer heralded the inaugural winners of the Bob Willis Trophy to an audience of groundsmen, stewards and hacks.
Across the stretch of this one, Somerset may quietly claim to have played the more potent cricket. A couple of kids in Eddie Byrom and the latest sensation, Tom Lammonby, constructed brilliant hundreds with their team in desperate need. With the ball, Craig Overton and Lewis Gregory were great. Gregory, bustling in on his short legs, hitting the seam from round the wicket, took eight wickets in the match and barely let up, running through the pain even at the death when the game was done, while Overton, his cumbersome run-up smoothed out and sped up in recent months, is more fluent through the crease, and notably pacier for it. With the bat, moreover, he has the technique to make first-class hundreds: his 66 in the first dig was excellent, his all-round class laying claim to the PCA’s MVP award for the tournament. He is a serious cricketer for this level, and could yet be a good one for the next level up.
This will be a bittersweet day for Jack Leach. Belatedly thrown the ball 34 overs into Essex’s second innings, the spinner was tasked with doing the business on a track that famously refuses to yield. Such is the lot of the English spinner. His first ball was a ripper. Soon after, he trapped Dan Lawrence in front with one that straightened. This was his first red-ball wicket since November last year – he’s since endured appalling illness and a barren summer of bio-secure inertia – but he could only find one more wicket of note, that of Paul Walter, who allowed his coffee stirrer of a bat to get hidden behind his front pad, as Essex reverted early to all-out defence.
It was Adam Wheater, the minuscule stumper-bat, who held the firmest, dead-batting his way to the close to complete a brace of unbeaten knocks in the match. Neither will be recalled in the days to come; but that’s the point about this team, and its dynamic of worldies and scrappers. Every day they find a way.
With the contest all but done, Ryan ten Doeschate top-edged a sweep to mid-wicket, but the game had gone by then, and Somerset’s fielders barely acknowledged the moment.
The naffness of ten Doeschate’s dismissal was at odds with his work for the three hours preceding it. He is 40 now; there were some rumours kicking around that this could be his first-class swansong, though it’s hard to envisage this Essex team without him in it. This completed 18 seasons of service for the county, during which time he assumed the captaincy and shook a ragtag bunch of underachievers to the summit of the county game. Two of the last three first-class seasons, under his leadership, have fallen to Essex. Now this. Tom Westley may have lifted the trophy this evening, but it’s got Tendo’s fingerprints all over it.
“It’s been a challenging year,” Westley said later. “At one stage we didn’t know if we would get any cricket at all, so to win this trophy is amazing. We set out before the tournament not knowing if this final was a one-off or not; this may never happen again, so to win it is a great feeling.”
In the end it may have been the most apt finale, these two teams, rich in class, the most grown-up teams around, locked in a clinch, holding each other close. Neither county is what may be deemed well-heeled. They don’t live beyond their means. Their self-sufficiency, honed on the cobbles beyond the marble cloisters of the major venues, is a point of principle and pride. They are smartly-run talent factories, nurturers and producers, different in approach and social demographic yet exemplars of the status quo. They are proof that this routinely derided and perpetually threatened system can actually work.
In a campaign disfigured beyond comprehension, the clubs of Essex and Somerset stand for much that is good and strong and worth protecting. “The best two teams in the country,” said Westley. Let us hope that they return in one piece next year to go again.