Make Bob Willis Trophy a County Championship curtain-raiser - Chris Waters

THERE HAS been much talk lately about the structure of county cricket going forward.

Essex's Tom Westley poses with the trophy after day five of the Bob Willis Trophy Final at Lord's (Picture: PA)

In many ways the game has a blank sheet of paper, brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

This year it adapted intelligently by playing what was known as “The Bob Willis Trophy”.

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Named after the former England captain, who died last year, it was a short and sweet regional competition in which the 18 first-class counties were split into three groups of six, with each team playing five games before the two group winners with the most points – Essex and Somerset – contested a five-day final at Lord’s.

Essex celebrate after winning the Bob Willis Trophy Final at Lord's, London. (Pictures: Steve Paston/PA)

After Essex prevailed by virtue of scoring more runs in their first innings in a weather-affected draw (perhaps not the best way of deciding the trophy, not that I can think of anything better off the top of my head), most agreed that the tournament was a success.

Although some of us retain doubts as to whether it should necessarily have been named after Willis (after all, he viciously slated many of the players who took part in it and there were greater champions of the county game), it was a timely gesture and that point is secondary to the fact that the Trophy answered the unique – at least let us hope that they are unique – challenges presented by this summer.

So much so, many are now wondering: what next for The Bob Willis Trophy (aka BWT)? It clearly worked as a one-off this year, but there are those who would now like to see it retained in the guise of a showpiece final at the end of each season – a showdown between the Championship winners, perhaps, and the Championship runners-up.

My own view is this: that’s a great idea, but the wrong way round.

Winners: Essex's Tom Westley, left, with the trophy alongside Bob Willis' wife Lauren Clark and Sir Alastair Cook. (Picture: PA)

Why not play it instead as an annual curtain-raiser to the English summer, dispensing with the traditional MCC versus Champion County match, which is nothing more than a glorified pre-season friendly anyway.

That way, the Trophy could continue (perpetuating, for those who wish it, Willis’s legacy) and provide a meaningful fixture/silverware to begin each year; it could just as easily, however, be called the “County Cup” to go with the – presumably still to 
be called – “County Championship”.

Money from ticket sales (assuming that fans are ever allowed back into grounds) could go to charity, with the BWT having helped out Prostate Cancer UK, the disease which Willis fought so bravely.

My reason for playing the BWT/County Cup as a one-off at the start of the season, as opposed to at the end, is this: to do it the other way round would dilute its effect and the sense of achievement in winning the Championship.

It would seem unfair to the team that had proved itself the best in the land throughout the long summer if they then had to go into a five-day final with their coach no doubt echoing the words of Sir Alf Ramsey prior to extra-time in the 1966 World Cup final: “You’ve won it once – now go out there and win it again.”

Far better for the champagne hangovers to subside for the champions, the autumn leaves to descend, and the winter snows to clear before the champions and runners-up get together six months later to play a one-off fixture to kick-start the season in a sort of cricketing Community Shield. The footballing analogy is vulgar, but you get the drift.

While we ponder the future of the BWT, we await with interest the exact nature of the Championship going forward.

There is now an overwhelming desire among the counties to retain the Conference-style system of the BWT, albeit with three non-regionalised groups in which each side plays 10 games (five home, five away) before transferring into three separate divisions based on group placings. Counties would then play a further four matches (maintaining the current total of 14 Championship games each) before a five-day final.

If that sounds complicated then that is because it is complicated, which is my first and principal objection to it.

Cricket, in fact, is almost impossibly complicated and could do without the constant tinkering to the Championship format.

What was wrong with the previous system of two divisions of nine clubs playing 16 games each?

Nowt, that’s what.