Warwickshire made a strong start to the new Bob Willis Trophy appropriately enough, as the competition has been named after the late Warwickshire and England captain. They sent in Northamptonshire under high cloud and dismissed them for 142, although their batting so far makes it unlikely they will reach 400 and take the full 24 points which would put them on top of the Central group.
But no home crowd cheered Warwickshire on their way, following the government’s decision not to allow a crowd of 2,500 spectators at Edgbaston and the Oval, less than 24 hours before the games were due to start. Edgbaston had 24,000 empty seats, while beaches and bars were packed.
This silence on the opening day of the Bob Willis Trophy was all the more deafening because it was a year to the day since the start of the last home Ashes series at Edgbaston. The Hollies stand had been rocking to the strains of “Same old Aussies, always cheating!” Yesterday it contained a couple of photographers.
Willis himself was no fan of the full county programme as it drained the life out of England cricketers, especially pace bowlers, before the era of central contracts began in 1999. So he would have approved of five first-class matches for each county in three geographical groups. Sardonically, he might even have approved of the absence of a home crowd, as Warwickshire fans were known to criticise him for not bowling flat out off his full run the day after a Test.
This new one-off competition, which will have no bearing on next season’s championship, began on Willis’s home ground with the toss of a coin in accordance with custom but nobody touched it other than Warwickshire’s new captain Will Rhodes. No team-sheets were exchanged: only a look at the two elevens on the mobile of the match referee Tim Boon. No shaking of hands, a practice which cricket captains introduced to modern sport.
Five minutes before the start the two teams lined up at opposite ends of the ground, Warwickshire outside the home dressing-room, Northants outside theirs at the City end, the one used on T20 Finals day. First a minute’s silence for the NHS, before all the players took a knee. By the end of his career Willis would have needed a hand up.
After six overs of bowling the Warwickshire players scattered to all corners as if a big hitter had entered, not another novice in the Northants line-up. Everyone went to the hand-sanitising bottle nearest to them on the boundary - except for the batsmen and wicketkeeper, being gloved, and the umpires.
This scattering happened every six overs except when an interval intervened. Thus Northants were 68 for three at lunch after 29 overs, so the next break was after 35 overs not 30. By then Olly Stone’s pace had proved too much for young batsmen, as he took four wickets for 39, rather like when he took three for 29 in his solitary Test against Ireland.
In his 14th first-class match Ben Curran, the middle of the three brothers, was the senior opener. In his second game the lefthander Emilio Gay, aged 19, fended Stone’s bouncer to second slip. In his ninth game Charlie Thurston threw his bat at a wide half-volley and edged to third slip. Ricardo Vasconcleos was hit on the left arm by Stone, then flush on the helmet by Tim Bresnan before being bounced out.
Most of the ball-polishing was done by Matt Lamb on his sweater at mid-on or mid-off: no warnings were issued by the umpires for the use of saliva, let alone a five-run penalty for a third offence. The last two wickets were taken by a new offspinner, Alex Thomson, but they were tailenders. Spinners this August may have an even harder time than usual on pitches that are unblemished.
Warwickshire’s batsmen were just as rusty apart from Rob Yates, a 20 year-old lefthanded opener with a future, such is his balance, calmness and compactness. One of the most attractive features of county cricket this mini-season is the number of young players who are being given first-team games which they would not have had if overseas players had been as numerous as normal. Yates, in his 13th first-class game, reached his 50 off 74 balls by stroking his eighth four.
It is the earliest of days but if there is a different approach to county cricket since the advent of Covid then it might be that players are less likely to appeal for a catch behind when they know the batsman has not nicked it. This may change when counties are striving to reach the five-day final which will provide the climax of the BWT in the first week of October.