The entire world of sport has been hugely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe. Seasons and events have been postponed, games are being played behind closed doors, and, in the case of cricket, a new tournament has been scheduled to replace the regular county championship. August 1st sees the opening of the Bob Willis Trophy, named after the late England captain and fast bowling legend, who died in December of last year after a long illness. Middlesex, after having a disappointing season last year, has faced uncertainty more than most, thanks to the coronavirus outbreak. Stephen Eskinazi has been selected to steady the ship, as Australian Peter Handscomb, who had been expected to come to the UK and captain the side, has deferred until 2021 in light of the pandemic. Having stood in as captain on numerous occasions last season he acquitted himself extremely well, so Middlesex will be hoping that he can lead them to success in this unprecedented, truncated season.
Born in Johannesburg in 1994, Stephen Eskinazi grew up in Perth but holds dual British and Australian citizenship. He made his List A debut for Middlesex in 2018, and is a valued and highly respected member of the squad. He takes over the captaincy at a turbulent time for Middlesex, with coronavirus heavily affecting preparations for the Bob Willis Trophy as well as wreaking havoc on the club’s finances. His experience deputising for outgoing captain Dawid Malan last year will prove invaluable as he seeks to better the lowly 8th placing in the County Championship Division Two that Middlesex achieved in an underwhelming 2019 campaign. Also crucial to his success will be his relationship with seasoned all-rounder Toby Roland-Jones, elevated amongst the turmoil to a deputising role as vice-captain. According to club insiders, Eskinazi has the dressing room on board, with players eager to perform for him, and a strong sense of team spirit, despite the disruptions to their preparations for the coming matches.
Due to the pandemic, the decision was taken to heavily modify and truncate the season. The action starts on August 1st, and will run into early October, all being well. After much planning and discussion, we will see all 18 first-class counties playing. With training regimens being heavily disrupted and training sessions often socially distanced, how the sides will square up is a matter of some debate, reflected by the few bookies that offer bets on Cricket. Essex, crowned champions in 2019, will certainly be among the favourites among the punters. But right on their coattails will be Somerset, raring to go after missing out last year. Never discount Yorkshire either – the County Championship’s most successful team are always a force to be reckoned with. Whatever happens on the field, the atmosphere of the season is sure to be different. There is no consensus as to when crowds will be allowed back at sports events, and as we have seen with football, playing behind closed doors in an empty stadium isn’t quite the same. How this will affect players is an unknown quantity, without the cheers and reactions of the crowd, the ebb and flow of the game may be different. There will also likely be social distancing measures in place, such as temperature tests and increasing sanitisation, which may affect the atmosphere in the dressing room. Whatever happens, cricket fans are delighted that the sport is returning, and with all teams on board.
Australian Handscomb had been slated to join as Middlesex captain for the coming two seasons. However, with the COVID-19 crisis around the world showing no signs of disappearing, this has caused huge issues both logistically and financially for the club, and Handscomb has agreed to push back the start of his contract until 2021. Handscomb has proved himself a prolific batsman since his Australian test debut in 2016, and is also regarded as an agile and versatile fielder. While it must be disappointing to be without a tried and tested international test cricketer, Middlesex clearly feels that Eskinazi has sufficiently safe hands – as captain (and wicketkeeper) to steer the ship for the coming fixtures.
The teams will play for the inaugural Bob Willis Trophy. Willis, who died in December last year, was England captain between June 1982 and March 1984, with a strong success rate in both test matches and one-day internationals. More notably, he was a key part of the England side who were victorious in the 1981 Ashes series. Although largely overshadowed by Ian Botham (as were the rest of the squad), Willis’ speed and skill as a fast bowler crushed the Australian order, and he proved to be a crucial factor in the England bowling attack. A longtime proponent of a truncated County Championship, naming the trophy after him seemed fitting.
Middlesex and new captain Stephen Eskinazi have their work cut out for them. All teams face the unknown this year, but fans and players alike will be eager to kick off the ‘new normal’ 2020 season.