Three rounds gone in the Bob Willis Trophy, two to go and only one team with a 100% winning record – reigning county champions Essex.
The new English red-ball competition that happened almost by accident is proving so popular that there is already talk of it being here to stay next season in a similar regionalised format. And what’s not to like about the exciting cricket seen so far.
Even in a frustratingly wet week, in which only three of the nine group matches ended in victory, there were still plenty of headline makers.
Most notably Essex, who overcame a few wobbles to finally beat Sussex by three wickets in the South Group and become the only side to win their first three games, after a round that started with three other sides – Somerset, Derbyshire and Yorkshire – all sporting back-to-back wins.
But while Essex celebrated at Chelmsford, there was despair at Edgbaston for Somerset, denied a seemingly certain victory over Warwickshire by the Birmingham weather, with the outplayed Bears on 140-8. And the other two victorious sides, Hampshire and Worcestershire, both had headline-making heroes.
Fast bowler James Fuller had the honour of claiming the first Bob Willis Trophy hat-trick to trigger Hampshire’s innings victory over sorry Surrey, while Worcestershire’s Tom Fell made an emotional century, his first in first-class cricket since embarking on his battle with testicular cancer five years ago.
It all leaves Essex 16 points clear at the top of South Group on 61 points, in the race for the two best group winners, who will contest the Lord’s final in late September – but only by a handful of points from both the top two sides in the North and Central Group.
North Group leaders Derbyshire (57) and second-placed Yorkshire (55), and Central Group pacesetters Worcestershire (57) and Somerset (56) are all within six points.
Derbyshire remain top dogs in the north after drawing with Yorkshire in the meeting of second against first at Leeds.
Once they had successfully got the three morning runs they needed to avoid a follow-on, in response to Yorkshire’s 400-6 declared, Derbyshire batted through the day to finish on 300-7 before fists were bumped at 17:20 BST.
Anuj Dal (78), Matt Critchley (63) and skipper Billy Godleman (54) all hit half-centuries to help their side claim three batting bonus points – to end the week still two points clear of the Tykes ahead of their next game against bottom of the table Durham.
Lancashire are still third, although they did have to follow on against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge.
Lancashire lost their last four first-innings wickets to be bowled out for 173, Tom Barber and veteran Peter Trego both matching Zak Chappell’s three scalps the previous day.
But it was a different story in the second dig as Red Rose openers Alex Davies (69) and Keaton Jennings (37) remained unparted, batting through 40 overs to see their side to a draw on 120-0 – a morale boost ahead of next week’s Roses match at Headingley.
Durham remained bottom despite the best efforts of both sides to force a result against Leicestershire.
Having forfeited an innings each, the Foxes were set 292 to win in 82 overs and needed 84 to win going into the last hour but it then rained heavily for about 15 minutes, forcing the sides to settle for a draw.
Round four fixtures:
Derbyshire v Durham (Chester-le-Street), Leicestershire v Nottinghamshire (Leicester), Yorkshire v Lancashire (Leeds)
Worcestershire remain top in the Central Group after becoming the first winners of the day when they finally saw off late Northamptonshire resistance.
Their 78-run win was their second in three games and Northants’ second defeat.
Centurion Fell set up the Pears’ victory with an unbeaten 110, his first red-ball ton since his career-best 171 at New Road against Middlesex in September 2015. In the 43 matches that have followed, he has only 10 times gone past 50 – but this was worth the wait before Dillon Pennington and Josh Tongue each took three wickets to bowl out Northants for 184.
Set 263 to win in 68 overs, the hosts’ batting failed again. They have managed only one half-century in their last four innings in this competition – and only Adam Rossington, with seven fours in his counter-attacking 44, came close.
While the Pears were happy, so were the Bears. But only with relief after Somerset’s feared pace attack were limited to just 15.4 overs in their vain pursuit to take the four wickets they needed on the final day to beat Warwickshire.
At 49-3, it looked briefly as Glamorgan might be in danger of defeat in Cardiff against Gloucestershire but an unbeaten half-century from Chris Cooke averted that threat.
Round four fixtures:
Northants v Glamorgan (Northampton), Somerset v Gloucestershire (Taunton), Worcestershire v Warwickshire (Worcester).
While Essex remain top of the group after finally seeing off Sussex for that third straight win, their next test is now against second-placed Hampshire in the scenic Sussex surrounds of Arundel next week.
Hampshire certainly enjoyed the first of their two ‘home matches’ at Arundel as they recorded their second successive victory by bowling out Surrey for just 74 to win by an innings and 52 runs.
Along with four wickets for hat-trick hero Fuller, two for fellow South African Brad Wheal, and one for USA one-day international all-rounder Ian Holland, Sussex-born Mason Crane finished it all off with 3-19 back on home soil.
As for Essex, despite George Garton (4-50) claiming the prize scalp of Sir Alastair Cook for the second time in the match, the hosts got home at Chelmsford with three wickets to spare, largely due to 60 from Dan Lawrence.
Two wickets in three balls for Mitch Claydon caused a few late flutters in the home dressing room, but Paul Walter and Aaron Beard saw it through.
Middlesex had to share the spoils with Kent in Canterbury despite a late declaration in the hope at pulling off a fourth-day upset.
After bowling out Kent for 191 at the start of the day, Middlesex had set about extending their 78-run first-innings lead through openers Sam Robson (82*) and Max Holden (72), declaring on 169-1. But too much of the weather-hit game had been lost and Kent made no attempt to go for the unlikely victory target of 248 in 32 overs, ending on 70-0.
Round four fixtures:
Hampshire v Essex (Arundel), Middlesex v Sussex (Radlett), Surrey v Kent (The Oval),