Spin, Spin and Some More Spin
This year's first-class competition has had a few tweaks to the playing regulations. Most intriguingly, the decision to have a new ball available after 90 overs, rather than the customary 80 overs, will have alerted spinners up and down the land. So often, spin bowlers are an after-thought in the County Championship. With a large number of games taking place in the spring and autumn, spinners are often limited to a cursory over before lunch and tea breaks or used as an attempt to increase the over-rate. But now, with a new ball less regularly available, a softening Dukes will be grabbed with relish towards the end of a day's play. Spin will be a genuine weapon towards the conclusion of a side's innings, and young batsman will receive the valuable experience of facing an old ball increasingly turning on dry pitches. Besides, Covid-based travel restrictions will see a decrease in international spinners playing for the counties. It is a chance I hope young spin bowlers grab with both hands.
Better Pitches...Much Better Pitches
As much as we relish the deadly medium pace of Darren Stevens, Peter Trego and company, 70 mph 'dibbly-dobbly' bowling is not good preparation for international cricket. The main culprit for this is not the players, but the green, moist pitches that are often served up for batsman to face from April onwards. With a mid-summer start, pitches should be harder, faster and drier. These conditions are what England will face at home and abroad on international tours. Pitches such as these encourage discipline and determination from the batsman, resulting in attritional, tough cricket. Bowlers will not be able to rely simply on the pitch and will be forced to bowl fourth, fifth and sixth spells in longer innings. Raw pace and reverse-swing may become a more decisive factor in close matches. Low-scoring thrillers on green pitches that end in two days should be a rare occasion and not the norm. If more games are alive and competitive to the last session of the last day, English cricket, it's players, and the fans are the ultimate beneficiaries.
Passionate Local Derbies
A long-held, and in my opinion, negative perception of county cricket is of a gentle spectacle, played at low intensity while elderly spectators read a paper or fall asleep. I love county cricket, and this is a view I have always rejected. I want my cricket to be meaningful, intense, and competitive. The three, six-team, regional divisions should provide plenty of context and rivalry to a competition likely to be played in its entirety behind closed doors. The Roses match up and London derbies are well known, but what about other regional rivalries? How will Leicestershire, so often in Division Two, play against a Nottinghamshire side who have pilfered players from Grace Road for years on end? What can Durham do against their illustrious, richer northern neighbours? There are so many subtexts and storylines that will be amplified by this shorter season. I cannot wait to see what unfolds.
Rise of the Underdog
For sides struggling in Division Two of the County Championship, it must be hard to keep maximum motivation and concentration when promotion hopes have faded. Using Gloucestershire as an example, a team who has never been County Champions, an opportunity this year to claim silverware in the longer form must be irresistible. The shortening of the season to five games has evened the odds and reduced the gap between the haves and the have nots of the county game. A lack of expensive, overseas signings further levels the playing field. Could a struggling county such as Derbyshire, so often at the bottom of the second tier, get on a roll and reach the Lord's final? This summer is a step into the unknown, and a climactic showdown between a traditional county powerhouse and an unfancied underdog would be an exciting prospect.
Increased Visibility for the County Game
Every game of the Bob Willis Trophy will be available to stream from each counties website. There are no Olympic Games or football tournaments to distract a casual sports fan from our national summer sport. Cricket is many things, but a forward-thinking trendsetter is not one of them. But by harnessing a large but undoubtedly dormant fanbase, watching this competition online is a huge opportunity for players and clubs alike to show the appeal of domestic cricket. Fewer people than ever watch sport primarily at home, but instead by short highlights on their mobile phones, or by the following of ball by ball commentary whilst they are meant to be working. SkySports have unquestionably given the English national team a boost in recent years with their cash and coverage of the game. Why not promote the County Championship with similar enthusiasm?