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Warwickshire claim Bob Willis crown as Mark Robinson achieves dream county return

Will Rhodes lifts the Bob Willis Trophy after Warwickshire's victory at Lord's Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Warwickshire 518 (Rhodes 156, Yates 113, Sibley 57, Hain 55, Parkinson 4-78) beat Lancashire 78 (Miles 5-28) and 241 (Balderson 65, Briggs 3-58) by an innings and 199 runs

Warwickshire have completed their first double since 1995 with an emphatic victory in the Bob Willis Trophy at Lord's.

The club, which wrapped up the LV= Insurance County Championship title a week ago, completed an innings victory over Lancashire within 70 minutues of the start of day four. They won the 2nd XI T20 competition, too. Whichever way you look at it, really, that's a fine season.

It was noticeable that there were no Warwickshire players in the PCA's Championship team of the season named earlier this week. You could argue there should have been - certainly Rob Yates, who made more first-class centuries than anyone else and Liam Norwell, who passed 50 first-class wickets in this match, are worth a mention in dispatches - but it wasn't an outrageous miscarriage of justice. Nobody in the side claimed 50 wickets or scored 900 runs in the Championship, after all.

But it is a team game. And five players claimed at least 20 wickets and five scored at least 500 runs. The depth of Warwickshire's squad allowed them to spread the burden of performance, with current and former England players like Chris Woakes, Dom Sibley, Tim Bresnan, and Olly Stone playing vital roles at various times. Having beaten Essex, Somerset, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Nottinghamshire (home and away) in first-class cricket over the course of this season, it would be churlish to deny them full credit for their success.

There is talk - particularly around the Warwickshire camp - that Danny Briggs should be considered for the Ashes tour party. And it is true, with his improved batting, his calm head and his reliable left-arm spin, he would not let England down. It must be remembered, however, that he hasn't taken a first-class five-for since 2016, and he hasn't taken one in Division One of the County Championship since 2011. If he goes, expectations of what he can achieve should be realistic. Jack Leach could feel justifiably aggrieved if Briggs were selected ahead of him.

Briggs has been a terrific acquisition for Warwickshire, though. Given how successful Luke Wells - who is a terrific slip fielder and averaged 40 in the Championship despite the challenges of batting in the top order - has been at Lancashire as well and it's hard not to scratch your head at some of the decision-making at Sussex in recent times. The club, which deemed both Briggs and Wells surplus to requirements at the end of 2020, finished 2021 at the bottom of Division Three.

Their supporters might take some solace in the success of those former players and of Mark Robinson, who developed his coaching career at the club, and has just become a rare example of winning the Championship as head coach at two different clubs. Peter Moores, another Sussex graduate is the only other man to have done so. Robinson's appointment at Edgbaston, as an outside voice at a club which may have become something of an echo chamber of former Warwickshire players in recent years, has been proved wise.

Sussex, indeed any organisation or individual, could probably do far worse than look at Robinson's phlegmatic attitude to the ups and downs of his own career. His previous visit to Lord's was as coach of the England Women's side which won the 2017 World Cup. But, in between times, he was sacked and spent some time on the periphery of the professional game. He looks at it now as something of a blessing.

"Having a year out of the game was really good for me," Robinson said. "You recharge. You think differently. I worked with an Associate Nation; I did some consultancy work with first-class counties; I worked with the England Deaf team. I did private coaching with eight-year-old girls and 55-year-old men. And the thing I learned was, I absolutely love coaching.

"But yes, you do wonder if you'll ever get to come places like this again. So coming here was really special for me. Maybe, the older we get, the wiser we get and we learn to savour everything we're given.

"At Sussex I was lucky enough to inherit a very good team. The success with England's women was so special because it was such a monumental day for the sport.

"So, how special was this? Well, I had to come back. And I hope it reflects well on the women's game because I'm a better coach for the experience. They taught me a lot. So, yes, it is different and it is special. I'm a happy bloke."

Robinson believes the key moment in the season came early. In the second match, at Trent Bridge, Warwickshire spent the best part of three days clinging on against a Notts team which looked better than them. But they snatched a win there and backed it up with almost an equally unlikely victory against Essex at Edgbaston.

"We stayed alive in a game in which we were being bullied," Robinson said of the Trent Bridge encounter. "And then we stole it. And from moments like that, players get belief.

"This club has lost great players like Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott, Jeetan Patel and Tim Ambrose over the last few years. So, I've said to the team 'this is your time, this is your chance to create the habits and behaviours of a successful team'. You never want to get too carried away, but this success should give them further confidence and we'll look to build on that."

He remains concerned, however, about the first-class game in general. In particular, he warned that the proliferation of low-scoring surfaces will compromise the development of Test players in the long-term. "There were always difficult pitches at the start of the season," he says. "But you had better ones in July and August. We miss out on those now and there's less pace in the game as a result. You generally only want a medium-pacer who can hit batters on the shins. Batters get a bad press, but it's really tough for them now."

In Robinson's view, a return to two divisions with promotion and relegation would be welcome. "The draw becomes really important in that scenario," he says. "What we saw this season was a scramble for results at the end of the conference system with result wickets all over the place. There were 25-wickets in a day. It can't be right."

It was probably fitting, then, that this match was defined by events within the first hour of the first day. Having been put in on a late-September morning, Lancashire found themselves 12 for 6. It's a long way back into a game from that position. Just as we found when we played limited-overs finals on this ground so late in the season, the toss becomes disproportionately important. The integrity of matches played in such circumstances has to be open to question.

Much the same could be said about the scheduling of the Championship season. While it is routinely suggested the ECB has prioritised white-ball cricket as it more importantly financially, it is a naïve understanding of the situation. Instead, the bulk of broadcast revenues still come from the Test game so, by compromising the value of the domestic competition which produces Test players, you might argue the ECB is risking the sport's financial security.

Certainly, until the ECB starts prioritising the scheduling of first-class cricket, claims that Test cricket remains paramount feel hollow. An end to white-ball windows in the prime weeks of summer would be the easiest way to achieve better scheduling, but centrally contracting groundstaffs and even allowing first-class cricket to be played on hybrid pitches might also be worth exploring. At present the value of most Championship cricket as a breeding ground for Test players is minimal. And if counties render themselves irrelevant - and one or two are certainly flirting with that definition - they will be in real trouble. We live in pragmatic times.

It might be noted that the vote the ECB originally hoped to hold this week into the structure of the 2022 and 2023 season has been delayed amid uncertainty it would be carried. A significant number of counties - at least seven, it seems - favour an immediate return to two divisions with promotion and relegation rather than another season of conferences.

Whether the Bob Willis Trophy has a future is also open to debate. It might well have a place as the curtain-raiser to a season and it could, perhaps, be incorporated into the MCC's Champion County fixture which has traditionally served that purpose. But squeezing it on to the end of a season serves very little purpose and threatens to compromise the validity of the Championship title. There's a good reason first-class cricket hadn't been played in October for more than 150 years.

Lancashire 3rd innings Partnerships

WktRunsPlayers
1st23AL DaviesGP Balderson
2nd71LWP WellsGP Balderson
3rd26JJ BohannonGP Balderson
4th23DJ VilasGP Balderson
5th15SJ CroftDJ Vilas
6th0DJ VilasRP Jones
7th37L WoodRP Jones
8th17TE BaileyRP Jones
9th21TE BaileyJM Blatherwick
10th8TE BaileyMW Parkinson