All hail the Bob County Willis Championship Trophy

There’s something very English about the compromise that has been struck for the 2021 red-ball season. On the one hand, you have those who wish to preserve the two-division structure; one the other hand, those who wish to move to conferences and an end-of-season showpiece final.

In a triumph for the Department For The Simultaneous Retention And Consumption of Baked Goods, the ECB have come up with a solution that incorporates both the Bob Willis Trophy and the County Championship into one mega-cake. What’s more, it’s not actually too bad a wheeze.

Conference supporters are probably the happiest of the two camps. Yet defenders of the two-division format may also welcome the realisation that this set-up means that the Champion County, whoever it is, will have had to prove itself against a greater number of opponents. In a nine-team division, the Champions would play only eight other counties, a minority of all possible opponents; in this format, they will play nine, a majority. Arguably, then, they will have greater authority to declare themselves the foremost county that year.

There’s one change I would make to the recipe (aside from renaming Group 1, 2, 3, to A, B, C to avoid confusion with Divisions One, Two, Three). As it stands, the Bob Willis Trophy final will inevitably be contested by the Championship-winning team and the Championship runner-up. This strikes me as both rather unimaginative and superfluous: it could easily result in a re-run of the final divisional game.

Why not instead make the Bob Willis Trophy Final a contest between the County Champions and the highest-placed team from the group stages? Or the County Champions vs the county with the most wins in the season, regardless of division? Or the most runs/wickets? Of course, if the Champions were also the highest-placed team, etc., then the opponents would be the next-highest-placed, etc. With two different qualification routes to the final, it would almost have something of the flavour of a World Series, or a Super Bowl.

If the first option were chosen, teams that started strongly would be rewarded with the chance of an end-of-season bonanza – even if they were to suffer a mid-season slump. This would be particularly valuable to sides that found themselves depleted through international call-ups during high summer.

Conversely, if one of the latter options were chosen, teams in Division Two (and possibly Three, although it would be unlikely that after such a poor start they would amass the needed number of wins/runs/wickets to pose a real challenge) would have added incentive, beyond mere prize money, to perform strongly despite their struggles in the first part of the season. The Championship pennant would be safeguarded for the strongest team across the season, but the Bob Willis Trophy would provide the chance of a knockout bonus for a plucky contender.

Obviously, despite either modification, the Bob Willis Trophy Final might still end up being County Champions vs runners-up. If nothing else, though, the run-up to the Final wouldn’t have been entirely straightforward and unimpeded. A bit like Bob’s run-up, in fact. How appropriate that would be.

Joe’s Averages

As cricket gingerly limbers up and takes its first steps into its brave new bio-secure world, one might wonder that Joe Denly is still in it.

Another Test, another underwhelming return of 18 from 58. He is now averaging under 30 from his 16 Tests. Compton, Malan, and Vince were all returning similar figures (Vince actually a smidgeon over 30) when they were dropped, terminally in the case of Compton.

It is the manner of his dismissals that invites particular scrutiny: this time, bowled through the gate. He has been bowled or LBW five times in his last seven innings, suggesting a technical weakness is surfacing fast. Similar charges have been levelled against Bairstow – now out of favour – and unlike Johnny, Joe does not have the excuse of an excess of ODI cricket.

Why, then, does Ed Smith persist with ? Is it merely a case of loyalty or a soft spot for his old Kent mucker?

The following table should cast some light on why Denly may be valued as he is.

PlayerInnsRunsHSAveBFSRAv BPI
AN Cook361343244*38.37279748.0178
JE Root69281022641.32533252.777
RJ Burns30100913333.63225244.875
JL Denly277989429.55201639.5875
BA Stokes572123135*40.05388554.6468
DJ Malan2672414027.84176241.0868
MD Stoneman205266027.68118844.2759
KK Jennings26573146*22.92136741.9153
JC Buttler44135610632.28227959.4952
JM Bairstow56153411927.89279254.9450
CR Woakes27586137*24.41105855.3839
MM Ali407618419.51148151.3837
SM Curran307117827.34107466.236
MJ Leach182209218.3355439.7131
SCJ Broad564635610.2877259.9714
JM Anderson4280125.3331525.398
England batsmen, 9 July 2017 – 9 July 2020 (minimum 10 Tests). Source: ESPNcricinfo Statsguru

The key metric here is average balls faced per innings (BPI). Over the last three years, no non-opener has faced more balls per innings bar Root. Denly, despite his low batting average, is adept at soaking up deliveries, and his position in the top order means that he can lay a foundation for the stroke-playing middle order – not in scoring runs, but in blunting the attack and aging the ball. With potentially free-flowing players such as Stokes, Pope, and Buttler down the order, the value of this shouldn’t be underestimated.

For comparison, Compton’s BPI was 72, Malan’s 68, and Vince’s 63, meaning Denly compares favourably to all the discards. Bairstow languishes at 50 over the 3-year timeframe; Buttler, hanging on, is little better at 52.

Denly’s USP – to use a trendy acronym – is also his vulnerability. The problem for him is that his strength should, in theory, be pretty easy to replicate: it should not be so unique. As soon as England have a batsman who can simply stay there, regardless of scoring, his “unique selling point” evaporates.

The problem for England is that this apparently simple task has been beyond their batsmen of late. The new men may buck that trend; Crawley has a BPI of 56 from 4.5 Tests, but Pope a BPI of 72 from 7.5 – with that important “1” in the centuries column. As soon as either or both of them manage to both survive and score consistently, Denly’s place will be close to unjustifiable, unless by then he’s started scoring serious runs as well.

To mangle an old expression: it’s not about how many, it’s about how many.

COVID-19 and clubs: six cricket activities still possible

As you may have noticed, there’s a pandemic on. If you’re a cricket person, you’ll also have noticed how hard-hit the sport has been. Yes, the football season has been hurt by its postponement, but it’s in no real danger of losing its position in the public’s mind or affections.

Cricket, by contrast, is in a much more perilous situation, both professionally and recreationally. There’s a real chance no county – and maybe no international – cricket will be played in the 2020 summer. That’s bad enough for the financial state of the English game, yet even more serious is the impact of COVID-19 on club cricket. 2020 was the year to relaunch the game for a new generation, one where the Hundred (whatever your views on it are) would build on the success of the England men’s World Cup triumph and inspire a new set of young players to take up the game. Delayed by a year, that surge may never arrive.

The pinch is at both ends of the age spectrum, though. Many current players may never return. This is not a comment on mortality – although, sadly, coronavirus will without a doubt claim many club cricketers – rather, it’s a recognition of the fact that many older cricketers are playing on a season-to-season basis, always half-wondering whether this year will be the one to officially draw stumps. Once off the treadmill, the fear is they’ll never get back on it – and club cricket will lose the several years they would have otherwise gone on to play. It can ill-afford to lose the wealth of knowledge and the sturdy good sense it needs to guide it that they provide.

As the weather turns warmer, spirits will soar with the sun, only to be dulled by the restrictions. The idea of net practice, which captains may have struggled to induce players to attend in years gone by, suddenly seems a delectable forbidden pleasure. The pre-season April friendly in near-gale conditions takes on an air of Edenic beauty. Meanwhile, players are stuck at home with Fifa/iPlayer/TikTok.

Yet they – we – are not powerless. There are cricket-related lockdown activities that will be of genuine use in preparing for when the key is turned and the door is opened again. We’re not talking about practice drills you can do in garden/hallway/room, useful as those are; not everyone has access to the space needed for them, and they often require some specialist equipment. Nor are we discussing alternative cricket activities – watching clips on YouTube, book cricket, etc. We’re discussing practical steps that require effort but will still leave your club in better shape.

Are they glamourous? No. Will they provide hilarious footage ripe for a 30-second YouTube video? No. Will they mean your club is better able to hit the ground running when the blessed day of cricket dawns? Yes.

1. Train as a scorer

You’re stuck inside. You’ve tidied your workspace for the 39th time today. You’re watching cricket through a little rectangle in front of you. Yes, self-isolation is the ideal preparation for time in the scorebox.

The ECB have a free online cricket scoring course, “Basic Scoring”. It’s been there for several years. If you’ve been putting it off for reasons of time and now you have a lot of time on your hands, you have no excuse.

As far as practical impact on the game goes, this has to be up there: club cricket needs more trained officials. The smoother the games proceed, the happier the participants: this’ll help to ensure that the few games played this season yield maximum satisfaction.

2. Gen up on umpiring

I did warn you these tips were going to be glamour-free.

Unlike scoring, it’s harder to do this all electronically. However, you can do the first, most basic course, “Occasional Umpire”, free online. This can be augmented by reading Tom Smith’s, not to mention the Laws themselves, and sets you up for further training when the lockdown ends. (It would be a great idea for the ECB ACO to hold umpire and scorer training webinars during the lockdown to allow further progression through the more advanced courses.)

On a more morbid note, it should be recognised that those who traditionally make up the majority of the umpiring community fall into a high-risk group, and therefore that portion of the game runs the risk of being particularly badly hit by COVID-19. There’ll be a need for new officials to make up the shortfall: start learning now, and remove the need to guess what should happen when the batsman taps a ball gently on to the square only for an over-zealous canine to confiscate it.

3. Revamp your club’s website

You’d never guess that I’m a web designer in another life, would you? Still, there’s no need to call a professional in. Take the time now to review, refresh or rebuild your club’s website. What does it say? Are the contact details up to date? Is its messaging clear? Does it provide all that a prospective player/parent wants to know? Does it show any signs of life? Even now it can be a crucial conduit for club support, as clubs request donations to stay afloat, and keep club members abreast of any movement towards the possibility of cricket restarting. You might not have the best facilities in the area, but you can have the best website.

4. Maintain a local club’s facilities

Talking of facilities, the ECB’s interpretation of Government guidance is that essential maintenance can proceed, provided social distancing and other appropriate measures are observed. It’s a good opportunity to get out of the house and on to some green space. It also means that rather than cramming all the maintenance into one weekend just before the season starts, sufficient time can be taken over matters that require more planning.

Not affiliated with a club who has their own ground? Volunteering provides a chance to build a link with them and provide real help. If the lockdown is lifted and no work has been done on the ground up to that point, it’ll be weeks before it’s ready for play. So don’t let the lack of game time translate to a lack of preparation.

5. Build a scoreboard

Need a project to keep you going and that you can do from home? Build a scoreboard. Ideally, you’ll need a home workshop, or at least an area of your home that you can devote to construction. Yet even if you can’t spare much space, you should at least have enough to fabricate some new number cards. Let there be no more scratching around for a spare 3 next year.

Want a greater challenge, or are inclined to the geeky? Have a go at an electronic version: there’s an online guide on how to do so from Westbury-on-Severn CC. It’ll probably be the envy of your league.

6. Support your sponsors

With businesses struggling on every side, now is the time for your club to repay the support that your local businesses have given over many years. Want their support in the future? Make sure you help them now. So don’t buy Tom Smith’s from Amazon, buy it from Jones Books, proud fixture-list sponsor of Village Wanderers CC; order your scoreboard materials from County Building Merchants, main sponsor of Local Town CC; etc., etc.

In conclusion

Weird as it may seem to say it, clubs could exit COVID-19 stronger, thrown together by adversity, emerging with a better structure and greater focus. Let’s hope so. In the meantime, let’s look out for one another, through both reaching out and staying home – and hope to see each other in person at the cricket.