Ball one: Tom Westley’s men lead in the South Group
In my mind’s eye, it’s always David Coleman in his staccato voice. “So Bill Beaumont, the simple question for you is, what happened next?” I had turned on the radio and heard Don Topley saying: “Twenty-four runs needed for Essex; three wickets required by Sussex.” Regular readers of this column will know exactly what happened next.
The visitors may have been asked to make the highest innings of the four, but if Essex are in it, they usually win it. As so often, Simon “Michelle machine” Harmer was the key man, polishing off the Sussex tail with three of the last four wickets to fall in just seven overs, opening the door for Dan Lawrence to play the role that for many years fell to Ravi Bopara, his 60 the highest individual score of the match. Two of the more unsung members of this battle-hardened team, Paul Walter and Aaron Beard, held their nerves in an unbroken stand of 27 as the Hove shadows lengthened to ensure that the only 100% record in the Bob Willis Trophy is held by the club who also fly the County Championship pennant.
Ball two: Mason chisels out Stoneman’s tail
Hampshire are the only team in the South Group with two wins, having seen off a sorry Surrey team by an innings and 72 runs. Stand-in captain, Mark Stoneman, can point to England calling dibs on some key players, but an XI including four men with Test match experience and another who has played for England A, should not be bowled out for 172 and 74.
Ian Holland, who was born in Wisconsin and earned his first contract with Victoria in Australia by winning the reality TV series Cricket Superstar, was the first-innings destroyer with 6-60. After a hat-trick from James Fuller, it was leg-spinner Mason Crane (still only 23) who applied the second innings coup-de-grâce, with a couple of wickets to give him match figures of 12.4-3-27-5, four of which were LBW. The umpires were busy throughout play with more than half of the wickets to fall requiring them to raise the finger after batsmen had been rapped on the pads.
Hampshire play Essex next in what any journalist is obliged to describe as a “must-win” match.
Ball three: Leach grants a target, but carries the day
This column had some harsh words for Worcestershire’s Joe Leach last week when he chose to bat on to set a target of over 350 only to run out of time with the opposition seven down. So it’s right and proper to lavish praise this week when Leach called in his centurion, Tom Fell (his first since surviving cancer), and a set Ed Barnard and asked Northamptonshire to make 263 in just over two sessions.
Leach might have been harbouring second thoughts as Northants were approaching 50 at four runs per over, but he won an LBW appeal against Ben Curran and wickets fell at regular intervals as the home side never really threatened to embarrass a man who was rewarded for the courage of his convictions. Worcestershire top the Central Group.
Ball Four: Abell unable to take deserved victory
Fate, never backward at coming forward when Somerset hove into sight and there are boxing gloves close to hand, sucker punched Tom Abell’s men again, as they took 16 points from a match in which Warwickshire somehow gathered 11.
The facts are that the visitors were bowled out for 121, then ran into an Overton (Jamie) who swung from the hip to make 120 from No 10, while Steven Davies dodged the shells at the other end, compiling his own century. With 400 plus in the bank, Abell declared, and had eight of the nine wickets he needed (Matt Lamb nursing an injured toe) when the showers came in and stayed in for hour after hour, the scoreboard stuck on 140-8.
If you have scored 152 more runs than your opponents, used only nine of your 20 wickets and you’re an Oliver Hannon-Dalby wicket away from victory, I would suggest 16-11 is a poor reflection of the balance of the game.
The fifth and final match of the group stage is between Somerset and Worcestershire, which may prove to be a showdown for a place at Lord’s. Let’s hope it’s winner takes all and not an exercise in the accumulation and denial of bonus points. They do know something about “imaginative declarations” when Somerset play Worcestershire after all.
Ball five: Malan (and Yorkshire) set for a good year in 2021
All three matches in the North Group finished in stalemates, the top two batting themselves to a standstill as almost half the match was lost to rain and bad light.
Were he a footballer, Dawid Malan would be said to have paid back a chunk of his close season transfer fee with a maiden double century for the Tykes, his 219 stretched across three days. England seem set on pigeonholing Malan as a white-ball specialist, as they do his county colleague, Jonny Bairstow. With both players in the prime of their careers, Yorkshire – whose fans probably venerate the Championship at least as much as those of any other county – should score the runs their bowlers need next season.
Ball Six – A draw is no draw for the fans county cricket needs
This column loves a double forfeiture! You’ll hear terms such as “manufactured target” and “declaration bowling” as others look on with disdain at such contrivances, but few other sports allow dead matches to be revived simply by the consent of the captains aided by a thoroughgoing approach to the commitment they all make at the toss: “We’re going out there to win the match.”
On the fourth day of its life, Ned Eckersley put Durham’s first innings out of its misery, skipped the match forward with a couple of “after yous” and it was game on, with Colin Ackermann set 292 in 82 overs.
When the rain came down, Leicestershire were favourites to do just that, three down with 84 required in 16 overs. But add two wickets to the score.
So it ended in a draw anyway, but my point is that even after 186 overs had been lost, a positive result was still possible, real jeopardy present for both sides. It’s disappointing that both teams had to forego the opportunity to score bonus points in Leicestershire’s forfeited first innings, another flaw in a points system that needs some tweaking if (and this column thinks it would be a grievous error) any element of the Bob Willis Trophy is carried over into 2021’s County Championship.