County cricket rarely needs a trigger for an existential crisis but this week's Bob Willis Trophy final willingly obliges. The fixture, played between the teams finishing first (Warwickshire) and second (Lancashire) in the County Championship, is essentially a compromise between those who support an end-of-season final which ensures greater broadcast and media coverage and those who argue that the Championship must be decided through a league system, with the strongest team across the whole competition rewarded rather than the one which turns up in a one-off game. As a result, Warwickshire are county champions but will compete for a bonus piece of silverware over the next five days.
The problem is that this solution suits nobody. This week's final drags the season into October and looks certain to be spoiled by rain, while games at Lord's have been the low-scoring in the Championship this year and fans of the two counties can hardly be expected to book time off work and hotels in London at four days' notice. Reports suggest that most counties favour a return to two divisions either next summer or the following year, and it would be no great shame if this fixture fell by the wayside as an indirect result.
The game is essentially cricket's version of the Community Shield, but tacked on to the end of a season rather than raising the curtain for a new one. Naming a trophy in honour of Bob Willis and using the week as an opportunity to raise awareness about charities was a worthy idea but the prize would surely hold more weight and purpose as a replacement for the anachronistic MCC vs Champion County game than with both sets of players secretly wishing they were spending the week on the beach.
Warwickshire in particular are on a hiding to nothing. Celebrations on Friday after their final-day win against Somerset at Edgbaston are unlikely to have served as ideal preparation and the absence of Chris Woakes, rested ahead of a busy winter, is a further blow. They were worthy champions after an impressive season under Mark Robinson: victory this week might add a cherry to the cake but anything less would serve as an anticlimax.
"There were a few grumblings that we've got to play another game and it might tarnish what we've achieved," Will Rhodes, their captain, admitted. "It is quite strange, really. But you don't often get to come to Lord's and play a final so that is all the motivation that we need at the minute. To have two trophies in the cabinet rather than one would make it extra special."
Lancashire, meanwhile, have a free shot. Josh Bohannon, their leading run-scorer this season who made 170 in the drawn fixture between the sides in Division One, admitted there would "still be some hurt when we get to Lord's" after the squad followed Somerset's collapse in the pub together last week, the day after their dramatic one-wicket win against Hampshire at Aigburth. He also recognised the opportunity for players to "showcase their skills" in a televised game; for Bohannon, a bald Boltonian whose unflashy attributes do not lend themselves to fawning coverage, a good week in front of the Sky cameras could provide a key moment in his career.
In the spotlight
Alex Davies' impending move to Warwickshire was confirmed in midsummer and only a month ago it looked as though he had played his last game for Lancashire, the county through whose academy he developed, when he was left out for the Championship fixture between the two teams. He made a pair on his return to the side against Nottinghamshire but his free-swinging fourth-innings 44 at Aigburth last week proved crucial and he has been included in the squad for a farewell appearance against the county he will join in a few weeks' time.
Dom Sibley admitted last week that when he joined Warwickshire in 2017, his focus was not on domestic silverware: "I just wanted to play for England," he said. But after hearing international team-mates reminisce about Championship wins and celebrations he "started to get a bit jealous" and after he was dropped two Tests into the India series, he was sent a text by Tim Bresnan telling him, "there's a Championship to win here - get your head on". A series of middling scores - five between 45 and 57 in eight innings - were frustrating personally but set the team up well and Sibley should relish the scrutiny of a showpiece game, not least with an Ashes squad to be selected imminently.
Woakes has been rested by the ECB after back-to-back appearances at the end of the Championship season, with an eye on the T20 World Cup and the Ashes. Chemar Holder, who was expensive in his first two games as an overseas player, is not in the squad after picking up a niggle against Hampshire, with Oliver Hannon-Dalby, Olly Stone and Henry Brookes also out injured. Seamers Ryan Sidebottom, George Garrett and Manraj Johal are in consideration, with a late call to be made on the fitness of Craig Miles and Liam Norwell after long seasons.
Warwickshire (possible): 1 Dom Sibley, 2 Rob Yates, 3 Will Rhodes (capt), 4 Sam Hain, 5 Matthew Lamb, 6 Michael Burgess (wk), 7 Tim Bresnan, 8 Danny Briggs, 9 Ryan Sidebottom/George Garrett/Manraj Johal, 10 Liam Norwell, 11 Craig Miles
Luke Wood returned to the Lancashire side for the Hampshire fixture after a side strain and it remains to be seen if he is risked for back-to-back games. George Balderson's inclusion as an opening batter and fourth (or even fifth) seamer has helped balance the side while Jack Blatherwick impressed after he was handed an opportunity in Division One. Liam Livingstone is in the UAE playing in the IPL, Keaton Jennings and Saqib Mahmood are injured, and Jos Buttler and James Anderson will be rested by the England management.
Lancashire (possible): 1 George Balderson, 2 Alex Davies (wk), 3 Luke Wells, 4 Josh Bohannon, 5 Dane Vilas (capt), 6 Steven Croft, 7 Danny Lamb 8 Luke Wood, 9 Jack Blatherwick, 10 Tom Bailey, 11 Matt Parkinson
Stats and trivia
Tom Bailey is the only bowler on either side to take 50 Championship wickets in 2021, reaching the landmark thanks to his 7 for 37 in the second innings against Hampshire.
Rob Yates is one of four players (Ben Brown, Chris Cooke and Jake Libby are the others) to score four Championship hundreds this season. The last player to score as many in a Championship season before turning 23 was Ollie Pope in 2018.
Championship games at Lord's have seen 20.76 runs scored per wicket this season, the fewest of any ground in the country where multiple fixtures have been staged.
The Bob Willis Trophy is proud to support the Alzheimer's Society's 'Sport United Against Dementia' campaign. The third day of the match between Warwickshire and Lancashire at Lord's will help raise much-needed funds and awareness for the charity. Test UNITE2 70660 to donate £10