Bob Willis Trophy: South Group Preview

The Bob Willis Trophy is a special, one-off first-class competition beginning on Saturday 1st of August. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a shortened competition based on six-team regional groups rather than two divisions was decided upon by the counties. Each team will play five games over the remainder of the summer, culminating in a five-day final at Lord’s between the two highest-scoring counties. Local derbies and the tantalising prospect for every county having the chance to be crowned champions will give a competitive boost to this new tournament.


Essex by @InsideEdgeCrick


Fixtures


Kent (h), Surrey (h), Sussex (a), Hampshire (a), Middlesex (h)


Overview


2019 was a year to remember for Essex as they won their 8th county championship and first T20 cup. The County Championship can be put down to a well-balanced side, that only experienced defeat once all season. With the return of former England captain Alastair Cook to the top of the line-up, Essex showed an ability to bat on every surface with Cook (45+ average) leading the way ahead of the likes of Dan Lawrence, Tom Westley and Ravi Bopara, all of whom enjoyed positive seasons with the bat. However it was the balance in the side that saw them win their 2nd championship in two years, South African born Simon Harmer took 83 wickets at just over 18 a-piece and he was supported well by the contributions of Australian Peter Siddle (34 wickets at 20 a-piece), Sam Cook (32 wickets at 21-a-piece), Aaron Beard (17 wickets at 23 a-piece) and Jamie Porter (48 wickets at 25 a-piece). It could be argued that Essex were perfectly set to win the 2019 Championship, and not a lot has changed for 2020. They’ve lost Ravi Bopara to Sussex, but otherwise, they still have their experience, their youth, their batting and their bowling.


Key Player


All eyes will be on Dan Lawrence this year. Fresh off his call into the England training squad, the 23-year-old boasts a 38.42 average in first-class cricket and he’ll want to push his case for that #3 spot in the England order. It’ll be interesting to see if he pushes Head Coach Anthony McGrath to bat in that #3 spot to get the experience of coming in at first drop. With one half-century and five centuries to his name in 2019, he’ll want to hit some big scores in this mini-season and he has the talent to do it.


Prediction


1st - It is hard to look past Essex as champions. They have an experienced side used to success and comfortable playing under pressure. Their record at Chelmsford is superb, proving to be nearly unbeatable there since 2017.

Hampshire by @cricthoughts


Fixtures


Sussex (a), Middlesex (a), Surrey (n), Essex (n), Kent (a)


Overview


Hampshire were effectively the best of the rest in division one last year. Finishing over 40 points behind second-placed Somerset, they did play a large part in preventing Somerset from lifting the title. In drawing six games, Hampshire struggled to push for victories which mainly prevented them in challenging for the title. Having lost two of their best players in Vince and Dawson to the World Cup squad this made it significantly harder to push on.


Felix Organ looks a very tidy top-order batsman and while not averaging a huge amount throughout his career so far he is only 21 and so has plenty of time to work on his game. He also showed how handy he could be with the ball picking up his maiden first-class five-wicket haul against Surrey in a crucial win last season


Key Player


With Sam Northeast overlooked once more by England when selecting their training squads he will be looking to show the selectors how good he is with some runs in the Bob Willis Trophy. With Vince and Dawson once again missing from the side on England white-ball duty within the biosecure bubble it will be unlikely that they can play many games at all. This also means that Northeast will likely captain the Hampshire side in Vince’s absence.


Prediction


3rd - Hampshire find themselves in a very tough South group with four of the six teams all expecting to have been playing division one cricket in 2020. Without two of their standout players in Vince and Dawson. With the added difficulty of not being able to play at their home ground, as the Ageas Bowl has been designated as a biosecure bubble for international games. Hampshire will be based at the beautiful Arundel ground in West Sussex. With all that taken into consideration, their aim should be to finish in the top three in the six-team group.

Kent


Fixtures

Essex (a), Sussex (h), Middlesex (h), Surrey (a), Hampshire (h)


Overview


Kent confounded expectations in 2019 with a comfortable 4th place finish in Division One. A team full of youthful exuberance and old heads played an attractive, attacking brand of cricket. Seamers Matt Milnes and Harry Podmore were superb, and the capture of young Derbyshire spinner Qadri will boost the spin department. If available, club captain Sam Billings will hope to continue his impressive form with the bat after an impressive 2019.

The drama swirling around veteran all-rounder Darren Stevens’ future raised eyebrows. Despite excellent performances, the 44-year old was due to leave the club, despite uproar from the club’s members. However, an incredible double century and seven wickets at Headingley finally secured another contract.

Key Player

The daunting prospect of being without batsmen Joe Denly, Zak Crawley and Sam Billings for most of the campaign due to their involvement in various England squads is a concern. The experience of Daniel Bell-Drummond at the top of the order will be crucial this season. He has the temperament and technique to score large quantities of runs, but will he have enough support from his team?


Prediction

2nd - Expect a strong challenge from the Kentish men, but lack of top-order runs is likely to scupper a chance at Lord’s.

Middlesex


Fixtures


Surrey (a), Hampshire (h), Kent (a), Sussex (h), Essex (a)


Overview

Middlesex endured a torrid Championship campaign in 2019. With three promotion positions available, and highly rated Australian coach Stuart Law at the helm, they were some bookmaker’s favourites for champions of Division Two. What transpired was a series of insipid batting performances and a below-par bowling attack over-reliant on veteran Tim Murtagh. Alarm bells were ringing after a comprehensive defeat at Lord’s by Lancashire in the opening round, where confidence, and alarmingly, motivation appeared non-existent. The fall-out was captain and stalwart David Malan transferring to Yorkshire, with some choice words about Middlesex’s ambition as he left.

But things have to get better for a squad full of so much talent and experience. The London side boasts one of the best bowling attacks in the country. Steve Eskinazi takes on the role as captain, with Australian Peter Hanscombe unable to travel to the UK. Intriguingly, Middlesex will play their home games at Radlett, not Lord’s. This could be a blessing in disguise, as results at the home of cricket were disappointing last season.


Key Player

After Middlesex’s title-winning season of 2016, young opener Nick Gubbins was touted as a future England star. Since then, the grind of county cricket and a difficult Lord’s wicket has contributed to a gradual decline in form. The stylish left-hander undoubtedly has the talent, but now he needs big runs to arrest his teams slide from prominence and alert the England selectors once more.

Prediction

5th - Performances must surely improve for Middlesex but filling a David Malan shaped hole in their middle order will prove to be incredibly difficult. The seam bowling unit of Murtagh, Finn, Harris, Roland-Jones and Helm must be exceptional if Middlesex are to succeed.

Surrey by @InsideEdgeCrick

Fixtures


Middlesex (h), Essex (a), Hampshire (a), Kent (h), Sussex (h)

Overview


2019 was a season to forget for the 2018 champions, Surrey would end the season with just two wins and not a lot to get excited about. They were without several star players who were absent on international duty and the injury to Ollie Pope which saw him miss a significant amount of time won’t have helped either. Pope returned to average 80 over five games, showing Surrey exactly what they missed. However it wasn’t a lost season, the emergence of young English spinner Amar Virdi who took 23 wickets at a shade under 20 was a bright spot, but overall it was a big disappointment


Opener Mark Stoneman will be looking for a bounce-back season after averaging under 30 in 2019. Surrey will be hopeful that South African duo Hashim Amla and Morne Morkel will be allowed entry into the UK to play a part in the truncated season, but there’s been no confirmation either way at the moment. Surrey do have a new head coach in Vikram Solanki. Ryan Patel and Will Jacks will get an opportunity to stake their claim to a starting spot in the middle order, and we may even see exciting youngster Nico Reifer at some point, but you do feel as though Surrey doesn’t have the batting to compete in 2020.


Key Player

With all their stars likely missing the season due to international duty, veteran Rikki Clarke will be key to the success of the team. His bowling and batting will be vital and Surrey will need him to be at his absolute best if they hope to make their way to Lord's.


Prediction

4th - You do fear that 2020 may be similar to 2019, with a packed international summer Surrey will likely have to do without the majority of their star players, and with Foakes being named as an England reserve they’ll start the season without their #1 wicket-keeper.


Sussex

Fixtures

Hampshire (h), Kent (a), Essex (h), Middlesex (a), Surrey (a)

Overview

2019 did not go to plan for the south coast county. Under the stewardship of coach Jason Gillespie, a return to Division One was expected. Four victories from fourteen matches was not enough in a highly competitive division, an opportunity squandered by a talented squad. Scoring runs was largely reliant on captain Ben Brown and South African import van Zyl. Ravi Bopara was recruited from Essex in the off-season, with an eye largely on white-ball cricket. But his experience and class could be vital in Sussex’s middle order. Attacking batsman Phil Salt, more noted for his T20 performances, will be expected to score heavily when called upon and fulfil his undoubted promise.

However, it is hard to shake the feeling that Sussex relies too heavily on a small group of players. South African all-rounder David Wiese and batsman van Zyl are not currently in the UK due to travel restrictions. An injury blow to experienced seamer Chris Jordan means it is likely he will miss the start of the season. Perhaps George Garton, the young left-arm quick, could replicate the form that saw the England Lions select him in recent years.

Key Player

Ollie Robinson has taken 137 first-class wickets in the past two years. The tall seamer possesses unrelenting accuracy and extra bounce that compensate for a lack of pace. England’s selectors have their eyes on Robinson, and another impressive season could see him force his way into a team looking at a post-James Anderson world.

Prediction

6th - Squad depth is likely to prove costly to Sussex, despite the shrewd acquisition of Bopara. Captain Brown and Ollie Robinson will have to play superbly if Sussex are to reach the final at Lord’s.


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