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.