County cricket's return: Bob Willis Trophy explainer

Players returned to action in the wake of Covid-19 restrictions Getty Images

After a delay of four months due to Covid-19, the county season will get going on Saturday with the first round of first-class matches. Given the shortened timeframe, the County Championship will not be contested this year, with teams instead competing in a one-off red-ball competition - the Bob Willis Trophy - before moving on to T20s in late August. Here is a full rundown on what to look out for from this weekend onwards.

What is the format for the Bob Willis Trophy?
Instead of the usual two-division structure of the Championship, the Bob Willis Trophy will feature three groups of six divided on a regional basis - North, Central and South - in order to cut down on the amount of travel required. Each team will play the other five counties in their group once, either home or away. The two best-performing teams from the three groups will qualify for a five-day final at Lord's.

Bob Willis Trophy groups:
North Group Derbyshire, Durham, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire
Central Group Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire, Somerset, Warwickshire, Worcestershire
South Group Essex, Kent, Hampshire, Middlesex, Surrey, Sussex

Are there any significant changes to the playing conditions?
Several tweaks have been made, largely to reflect the fact players - and fast bowlers in particular - will be returning to first-class cricket with barely a month of preparation. The number of overs to be bowled in a day has been reduced from 96 to 90, while teams will be allowed to bat for a maximum of 120 overs in their first innings; hygiene breaks will be initiated every six overs (or at the fall of a wicket). Additionally, the second new ball will become available after 90 overs, rather than 80, and the follow-on target will be 200 runs (for games that start on either the first or second day).

What other Covid-related measures are there?
All players and staff involved have signed an opt-in as part of the government's stage three guidance for the return of sport, governing their conduct on the field and when off duty. They will be required to submit daily temperature and symptom checks, and Covid-19 replacements will be allowed - using similar guidelines to those for concussion. As in international cricket, use of saliva on the ball will not be allowed, with teams allowed two warnings before being given a 5-run penalty. There has also been a reduction in the minimum loan period to one week, to allow short-term signings.

Is the points system the same as for the Championship?
Largely it is, with 16 points for a win and the usual first-innings batting and bowling bonus points on offer (inside the first 110 overs). Points for a draw have been increased to 8, to reflect the possibility that rain-affected games could have a greater impact on a shorter season.

How will the final work?
The final will take place over five days, to try to ensure a result. In the event of a draw, the tie-breaker will be lead on completed first innings; if the game is tied, the trophy will be shared. The winners will receive a specially commissioned trophy featuring a painting by Bob Willis' wife, Lauren.

Will crowds be allowed to attend?
No, and this is looking increasingly unlikely. Warwickshire and Surrey were due to be conducting further government-approved pilots around the return of spectators at their opening Bob Willis Trophy fixtures - after successful trials during friendlies at Edgbaston and Kia Oval last week - but Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Friday that these would be cancelled due to rising level of coronavirus infections in the UK.