Counties hopeful fans can return for Bob Willis Trophy

Premises licence could provide clubs with closed-door loophole

George Dobell
George Dobell
Surrey members watch the first Test from the rooftop bar at The Oval  •  Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Surrey members watch the first Test from the rooftop bar at The Oval  •  Alex Davidson/Getty Images

County chiefs remain optimistic spectators will be allowed to attend games in the Bob Willis Trophy.
The Trophy, the replacement first-class competition to maximise the last couple of months of a virus-ravaged season, is set to start on August 1.
While there are not currently plans to permit spectators, the sport is hopeful it can make an argument to the government as something of a test case before the return of Premier League football in September.
Specifically, it will argue that, in comparison to football, county cricket will attract relatively low numbers of socially-distanced spectators, all of whom would be club members and therefore easily traceable should it be required.
As a result, they hope a couple of games in early August - one at a Test-hosting ground; one at a smaller venue - will be utilised as a trial to demonstrate the sport's ability to safely welcome back spectators. If those trials are successful, they hope spectators will be allowed to return to all county grounds. The counties are especially keen to see spectators return for the Vitality T20 Blast; a competition which remains key to the cash flow at most clubs.
Some counties may also have found a loophole. It is, for example, permissible to show televised cricket from the Test series on the terrace at The Oval to a limited number of spectators thanks to the club's status as a licensed premises. It could well be that first-class county cricket is played at the ground at the same time.
There have been concerns about the welfare of players, too. Most notably, some counties felt their players - and their seam bowlers, in particular - risked injury if they returned to cricket without sufficient preparation. The ICC recently recommended a minimum of eight weeks of training before international players returned to competition but, with most counties not coming off furlough until the start of July, four weeks is having to suffice. As a consequence, some counties have expressed a fear of litigation should players sustain injuries.
The counties rejected the idea of 12-a-side games, though, as such a move would rob the competition of its first-class status.
Instead, they hope that a raft of measures designed to mitigate the risk of injury will provide protection for the bowlers. Those measures include a reduction in the number of overs in a day (from 98 to 90), limiting the number of overs in an innings to 120 and delaying the availability of a new ball until 90 overs have been bowled. The follow-on mark will also be increased from 150 to 200 to minimise the possibility of bowlers facing successive innings in the field.
With August given over almost entirely to red-ball cricket for the first time in many years - the Blast starts on August 27, but four successive weekends before that will feature first-class county cricket - the counties also hope the competition will provide increased opportunities for spin bowlers.
With few overseas players expected, either, there is also an expectation the competition will provide opportunities for many of those English-qualified players who are out of contract at the end of the season. There is no ban on overseas players but, with most counties having accepted government money to help them through the last few months, there is an understanding that it may be inappropriate to sign any new faces.
Some on existing contracts will return - as will some Kolpak registrations such as Duanne Olivier, Morne Morkel, Hashim Amla if they can reach the UK - but most have seen their contracts cancelled. Even Jeetan Patel, Warwickshire's overseas player for a decade, has been informed he will only feature in the T20 competition.
Draft fixtures for the trophy were shared with counties on Wednesday, with the ECB hoping to publish them at the start of next week. As reported by ESPNcricinfo, the competition will culminate in a Lord's final that will finish at the start of October.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo