This was going to be the year the Hundred booted the County Championship to the margins of the summer and took over the school holidays with its new 100-ball razzmatazz. That was in the old new world.
The new new world sees four-day cricket lording it over August instead, in the guise of the one-off Bob Willis trophy, named after the much-loved England bowler and acerbic Sky pundit who died last year. The competition, which starts on Saturday, will consist of five rounds of four-day cricket played in three regional groupings – North, Central and South, with each team playing the other teams in their groups once. The two teams with the most points will then play a five-day final in the autumn.
All games will be held behind closed doors, with the 2,500 fans who had been anticipating watching the first two days of matches involving Willis’s old clubs – Surrey, who take on Middlesex under new captain Stephen Eskinazi at the Oval, and Warwickshire, who play Northamptonshire at Edgbaston – thwarted by the government’s announcement on Friday to postpone all pilot schemes.
At Trent Bridge, the young batsman Haseeb Hameed gets his first run-out for Nottinghamshire, where he moved in the winter after a disappointing couple of years at Old Trafford beset by injury and bad form. Notts play Derbyshire, who will not have any home group games as their ground has been sequestered by the visiting Pakistan team and will then be used for women’s internationals.
A new-look Yorkshire, who lost Tim Bresnan (to Warwickshire) and gained Dawid Malan, travel to Chester-le-Street to play Durham under their new captain, Ned Eckersley. Lancashire find themselves in the peculiar position of playing a home game at New Road: with Old Trafford procured by England, Lancashire were uneasy about travelling to Grace Road which was in localised lockdown. As of Thursday night, of course, that lockdown embraces Greater Manchester as well.
Lucky Hampshire, who will play all their home games at beautiful Arundel with the Ageas Bowl under temporary England management, travel to Hove for a match against Sussex, while last year’s county champions Essex play Kent at Chelmsford. Runners-up Somerset open with a game against Glamorgan at Taunton and Gloucestershire, promoted to Division One of the Championship at the end of last season, take on Worcestershire at Bristol.
The ECB has introduced a number of new rules designed to avoid wear and tear on the bowlers who are short of match practice. A first innings can last no longer than 120 overs, there will be no more than 90 overs a day, new ball available after 90 overs rather than 80, and the follow-on will come into play with a deficit of 200 rather than 150 runs. All, though, a small price to play for the joy of running back on to the pitch in competitive cricket.