The winners of last year’s Bob Willis Trophy began their campaign in style at Chelmsford, where they took on Worcestershire. Tom Westley chose to bat first and made sure he justified his decision by making an epic 213 in two minutes shy of nine hours at the crease, adding 157 for the sixth wicket with Adam Wheater. He declared on 490 for nine. Things continued to go the hosts’ way as Worcestershire fell to 145 for six, with Sam Cook taking four early wickets. Then Ed Barnard joined Jake Libby and together the pair added 244 for the seventh wicket, 12 short of the county record. Barnard’s 128 was his maiden century, while Libby went on to carry his bat, making 180 not out in a mammoth 681-minute innings as the visitors were finally bowled out for 475. Simon Harmer, after 61.3 overs, will have been glad when he finally removed Charlie Morris. By then, there was little time left in the game, and Essex finished on 28 for one as the match ended in a draw.
Also in Group 1, Nottinghamshire chose to field first at Trent Bridge, where Ben Raine top-scored for Durham, making 59 out of their total of 330. An unbeaten 96 from Tom Moores saw the home side to 267 in reply, with Matt Salisbury and Brydon Carse taking four wickets apiece. David Bedingham (a career-best 180 not out) and Ned Eckersley (113 not out) then added a county record 254 for the fifth wicket to take Durham up to 332 for four declared, leaving the hosts chasing 396 for victory, and they reached 298 for five before the game ended in a draw.
The other match in the group saw Derbyshire put in to bat at Edgbaston. When numbers two, three and four all fail to score, a side is always going to struggle, and the visitors crashed to 189 all out, with Liam Norwell becoming the first bowler this summer to take five wickets, finishing with five for 32. Warwickshire didn’t do too much better, replying with 221. In Derbyshire’s second innings it was Oliver Hannon-Dalby who did the damage, taking five for 76 as the visitors were dismissed for 244. But with various weather delays already, the hosts made 7 without loss in chasing their target of 213.
In Group 2, perennial challengers Somerset got off to a bad start at Lord’s, after deciding to field first. Sam Robson became the first centurion of the summer, his 165 was the only significant score in the hosts’ total of 313, with no one else passing 26. Lewis Gregory took five for 68. Tim Murtagh (four for 46) and Ethan Bamber (three for 24) reduced the visitors to 89 for nine in reply, but a run-a-ball 51 from Marchant de Lange on his debut for the county saw Somerset reach 172. The visitors fought back, as they skittled through Middlesex in the second innings, bowling them out for 143. Still, a target of 285 was unlikely to be easy. Tom Abell’s 84 set them up, but with the score on 187 for six Middlesex must have fancied their chances. However, an unbeaten 98 partnership between George Bartlett (76 not out) and Lewis Gregory (62 not out) in just 19 overs saw them home by four wickets.
At Bristol, Surrey were put in to bat, and 56 from Hashim Amla was their top score as they were dismissed for 220, Josh Shaw taking four for 48. After an opening partnership of 139, Gloucestershire might have hoped for better than a score of 326 in reply, but Reece Topley picked up five for 66 on his first-class debut for the visitors. A fine 133 from Ben Foakes saw Surrey up to 333, but a target of 228 for the home side was made to look easy – despite a rain delay that might have interrupted them – thanks to a 98-ball unbeaten 110 from Graeme van Buuren, who saw his side to a superb eight-wicket victory.
James Vince’s decision to bat first at Leicester was fully vindicated. Hampshire shattered their previous record score against Leicestershire of 548 for six, made back in 1927, as they compiled a hefty 612 for five declared, the 11th highest score in their history. Tom Alsop (119) started things off, but it was Vince, with 231 in just 220 balls, who destroyed the hosts’ attack. With Liam Dawson (152 not out in 139 balls) he added 194 for the fifth wicket in just under 35 overs. The hosts’ reply of 202 left them facing a massive challenge to avoid an innings defeat, and things became even more challenging after Hasan Azad was controversially stumped by Lewis McManus, who didn’t have the ball in his hand when he took off the bails. No one made the big innings they needed, and they were dismissed for 305 to lose by an innings and 105 runs.
Group 3 saw Sussex’s fixture against Lancashire moved to Old Trafford due to issues on the outfield at Hove. The visitors chose to bat and Tom Haines took full advantage, making a career-best 155. Ollie Robinson (59) gave him solid support, as the pair added 126 for the seventh wicket, and they were all out for 301. Debutant Sean Hunt scored 7. Hunt eventually followed that up with his maiden first-class wicket, removing Alex Davies for 61, but it was Lancashire skipper Dane Vilas who seized control of the tie with a fine innings of 189 as Lancashire replied with 407. Hunt ended up with three for 47 – a solid debut. With fewer than 80 overs played on the last two days, the game ended in a draw, with Sussex on 103 for two.
Across the Pennines, Yorkshire chose to field first at Headingley, and having reduced Glamorgan to 132 for seven the decision appeared to have been vindicated. A career-best 85 not out by Timm van der Gugten, combined with half-centuries for Dan Douthwaite (57) and Michael Hogan (54), saw the visitors up to 330 all out. On his debut, Jamie McIlroy made a duck, but he did pick up his maiden wicket, having Matthew Fisher caught behind for 6. Despite the presence of England captain Joe Root, Yorkshire could manage just 193 in reply. In the battle of the Root brothers, it was advantage Billy after the first innings. The third day saw play interrupted when a covering of snow coated the Headingley outfield. Glamorgan added 241 for four declared in their second innings, with Billy Root (110 not out) and Chris Cooke (102 not out) adding 212 for the fifth wicket. With a target of 379, a draw was always most likely and the home side finished on 223 for four, with Adam Lyth on 115 not out.
At Northampton, the hosts chose to field first, but Kent’s middle order of Jack Leaning (79), Ollie Robinson (84) and Darren Stevens (116 not out) saw the visitors up to 455 all out. Stevens will be 45 years old by the end of the month, and this was his 35th century first-class century, having made his first back in 1999 and making him the oldest to do so in the County Championship since 1986, when Chris Balderstone made 115 against Sussex at Grace Road. Stevens then went straight out and opened the bowling. Ricardo Vasconcelos scored 154 and Rob Keogh followed it up with 124 as Northamptonshire made 434 in reply. There was only sufficient time for Kent to make 42 for one in the second innings before the match ended in a draw.