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The Bob Willis Trophy is the County Championship in all but name and represents a chance to re-establish Middlesex among the elite of the first-class game.

That’s the view opener Nick Gubbins ahead of the start of the one-off red-ball format instigated by the ECB in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Middlesex’s four-day fortunes have plummeted since their dramatic final-day championship win in 2016 with their eighth-place finish in Division Two last season among the worst in the club’s history.

However, the Bob Willis Trophy in honour of the late England fast-bowling legend, with its regional qualifying groups and promise of a five-day final, affords head coach Stuart Law’s side the chance to rub shoulders again with current champions Essex and London rivals Surrey, the 2018 winners.

“I think the Bob Willis Trophy is a chance to try and win the County Championship again,” said Gubbins. “There’s certainly no less pressure because there’s no promotion and relegation.

“It’s great we’ve got this opportunity because earlier in the year it didn’t look like we were going to have a chance to compete for any trophies.”

Fixtures for the competition released on Friday confirm Middlesex begin against Surrey at the Kia Oval (August 1-4), before home games with Hampshire (8-11) and Sussex (22-25) at Radlett, interspersed with visits to Kent (15-18) and Essex (September 6-9). The two highest point-scoring group winners will advance to a final.

Stevie Eskinazi was named this week as Middlesex’s red-ball skipper in the absence of Aussie Peter Handscomb, who’s still under Covid-19 restrictions in Melbourne. Right-hander Eskinazi temporarily held the role last season when former skipper Dawid Malan was injured.

Aside from winning the County Championship, close friends Gubbins and Eskinazi have shared other milestones together, the former making his only double century to date and the latter his maiden championship ton in a 208-run stand against Lancashire in 2016.

“Stevie is a very relaxed, level-headed character,” continued Gubbins.

“He’ll be the sort of skipper who takes the pressure off the younger guys and gets the team to really enjoy itself.

“I can’t imagine Stevie being captain will change our relationship. It depends how many runs I score I guess.”

On the subject of run scoring, much has been made of the challenges facing bowlers post-Covid, such as workloads and not being able to apply saliva to the ball, but less about how batsmen find form following their enforced hiatus from the crease.

Gubbins, 26, is hoping his 44 for club side Teddington in the first round of Middlesex County League fixtures last Saturday has helped get his eye in, ready to respond to Law’s recent call for his senior players to display what he termed ‘more intestinal fortitude.’

“Absolutely, I’m one of those senior players now,” he added.

“The likes of ‘Eski,’ (Eskinazi) Tom Helm, ‘Sowts’ (Nathan Sowter) and me are moving into that period of our career where we’ve played a good number of games for the club and we need to set the standards.

“Batting is all about finding rhythm and different batsmen hit different amounts of balls to find that.”

“I can only speak for me personally and batting for an hour in a club game serves me far better than an hour spent in the nets.

“Teddington are a really good bunch of lads. We’ve got a new pavilion which is awesome and it’s a lovely place to play cricket in Bushy Park.”

Middlesex warm up for their season opener with a two-day dress-rehearsal against Surrey at the Oval this Sunday and Monday.

The match is one of the government’s test cases for admitting spectators back into sports venues, but those not able to attend can follow a livestream via the Surrey CCC website

Article by Jon Batham.

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