Now that the fun and frolics of T20 Finals Day are at an end, those who label themselves as cricketing purists can focus fully on the question of which team is currently the best in the country. Or, in other words, who will win the LV= Insurance County Championship.
To such idealists, the question of who won the Vitality Blast matters no more than who triumphed in the mascot race. The memory that Kent succeeded in one and Derbyshire in the other will for them last about as long as it takes a bunch of green bananas to ripen or a set of banana suits to be returned to the fancy dress store marked “no longer needed”. What about The Hundred and its half a dozen newly created teams? For the red ball dogmatist, they probably fall into the same category as, in Victorian times, did certain items of ladies’ underwear known only as “the unmentionables”.
Even for many of us who enjoy all forms of cricket and who savoured to the full the distinctive features, both on and off the pitch, of T20 Finals Day at Edgbaston, a return to four day cricket this week will provide a welcome contrast. This is especially true in 2021. Last year was, from a spectator point of view such a non-event; and, by accident or design, the ECB seem to have come up this season with a format for the Championship that will guarantee an exciting last week of the season. And, unlike The Hundred, it hasn’t cost them £50 million to create it.
At the start of the year, the 18 first-class counties were split into three conferences of six with each team playing the other five home and away. The top two from each conference then went into Division One, the third and fourth-placed sides into Division Two and the fifth and sixth-placed teams into Division Three. Teams carried forward points from the conference phase based on the results of the two games against the team with whom they advanced. And now they are about to enter the last round of fixtures in which, avoiding their opponents from the conference stage, they have played the other four sides in their division.
The top team will be the Champions but will then play the runners-up for the Bob Willis Trophy.
The biggest downside of this format is that counties in Divisions Two and Three have only prize money to play for. But for those still in contention, the stage is set for a rousing finish to the season. And we should not let the absence of perfection blind us to the appeal of what we have.
Four counties – Hampshire, Warwickshire, Lancashire and Nottinghamshire – have a realistic chance of finishing top of the table and being crowned County Champions. Yorkshire, in fifth place, could come bursting through the field like, in days of yore, a mount ridden by Lester Piggott. The best they can do is achieve second place but that would qualify them for a chance of the Bob Willis Trophy. Only Somerset, last of the six counties in the top division, are playing just for pride and possibly to assuage some of the disappointment at having lost in the Blast final.
With 16 points on offer for a win, the 6.5 points separating the top four teams may count for little. The key match will surely be the clash at Aigburth in Liverpool between Lancashire (on 54.5 points) and Hampshire (currently top with 58.5 points). The winner in that match will be in pole position for the title. If Warwickshire (second on 55 points) beat Somerset and/or Notts (fourth on 52 points) beat Yorkshire, it will come down to bonus points, of which there are eight on offer, three for bowling and five for batting.
If that seems tricky enough to understand, there is always the possibility of drawn matches, maybe caused by weather interventions. Eight points (plus bonus points earned) are on offer for a draw. In theory, Hampshire could draw with Lancashire and both Warwickshire and Notts win and the southern county could stay ahead by scoring more bonus points. In practice, however, it is likely, unless the weather prevents a result in all of the last round of matches, that it will need a final contest win to clinch the title. Some time on Friday 24th September, the LV= County Champions should be crowned, maybe at Liverpool, possibly at Trent Bridge or at Edgbaston.
And then there is the Bob Willis Trophy.
Starting on 28th September at Lord’s, the top two teams (whoever they turn out to be) will play a five day match to produce the winners of the Bob Willis Trophy. So although the Championship will have been decided, the runners-up will have an immediate opportunity to gain revenge and maybe claim that they, after all, are the top county.
All in all, the next two weeks should bring the county red ball season to a rousing conclusion and create plenty of memories to be stored up and enjoyed during the coming winter months.