Rebranded and renovated, Friday night represents the inception of the latest domestic Twenty20 model – the NatWest T20 Blast. Matt Carter previews the tournament.
Before analysing who might flourish and who might flounder it is worth highlighting exactly what has changed - in particular two fundamental modifications to this year’s competition.
The first being that the three group system has been axed in favour of counties being split equally between just two – North and South – with the top four from each progressing to the quarter-finals.
This revamped system inevitably means an increase in games, with each county now playing 14 group fixtures - in comparison to ten in 2013.
The most significant alteration though comes in the actual scheduling, where rather than being played out across a single window of the summer – as has been the case since the formation of the tournament back in 2003 - the group stage will now run throughout the season, in parallel with the County Championship.
The majority of games will primarily take place on Friday nights, the thought process being that this reworking will maximise attendances and with it bring much craved revenue to the county circuit.
Intriguingly in spite of the regulations allowing counties to recruit two players from overseas, currently only 44 per cent are set to begin the campaign with the full quota.
The lack of take up is without doubt heavily influenced by the bulk of international talent currently involved in the Indian Premier League, but at the same time the prolonged nature of the tournament is also a significant contributor.
Having reached finals day in each of the previous four tournaments – claiming victory in both 2012 and 2010 - Hampshire have been the outstanding Twenty20 side of the last five years, displaying the sort of consistency to belittle the view this is a game characterised by unpredictability.
Somerset are the only other side who can boast four finals day appearance across the last five years with last year proving the exception - although they have not lifted the trophy since 2005. Aside from those two, Essex – beaten by eventual winners Northamptonshire last year – are the only other side to have reached the semis twice in four years.
Last year represented a rare failure – albeit of catastrophic proportions - for a Sussex side who prior to that had reached the last eight four years running. Both Lancashire and Nottinghamshire can also claim records of manoeuvring their way out of the group on four occasions in the last five years – although each can only boast one finals day appearance and Notts have frustratingly fallen three consecutive times at the quarter-final hurdle.
At the other end of the scale three sides – Derbyshire, Glamorgan and Middlesex – have all failed to escape the group in each of the previous five tournaments, whilst another four – Durham, Gloucestershire, Birmingham and Worcestershire - have not made finals day during this period.
Nonetheless Surrey – who before last year had not made the knockout stages since 2006 - and Northamptonshire were both eyebrow-raising finalists in 2013, highlighting in this format of the game fortunes can change at a rapid rate.
No other side scored their runs at a better rate than the 8.52 runs per over Nottinghamshire achieved in 2013, with Alex Hales and Michael Lumb significant contributors to that statistic. That formidable batting means Notts are amongst the favourites and although it is hard to see them not progressing at a canter, their bowling attack – which was only ranked 15th in regards to average runs conceded – could again prove costly.
Lancashire could only be bettered by Notts in regards to average runs and the acquisition of Jos Buttler – provided they see enough of him – brings an added x-factor although 2013’s leading scorer Stephen Moore has moved on whilst Simon Katitch has retired. The bowling was the stumbling block in 2013 – only Notts in the revamped North division conceded more runs – however Junaid Khan bolsters that resource somewhat and the Red Rose to possess a handy spin attack.
Defending champions Northamptonshire enjoyed a fairytale 2013; however for a variety of differing reasons repeating it looks a huge task. Captain Alex Wakely is out for the campaign, whilst Cameron White - third on last year’s run list - will not return, at the same time there will be concerns their stuttering Championship form could affect morale. Nonetheless they can still call on three of last year’s leading six wicket-takers and a plethora of handy all-rounders.
At the other end of the run-rate scale Yorkshire – hindered by England calls – were the only side to score their runs at less than 7 and much of the responsibility to change that will fall on the shoulders of Aaron Finch when he arrives from the IPL. The bowling attack proved solid enough but if England raid again it is difficult to see them featuring in the final furlongs.
No side has lifted the trophy on more occasions than Leicestershire and although they have only once negotiated the group stage in five years, there is a renewed sense of togetherness to suggest a brighter 2014. The bowling was miserly enough last year – conceding just 7.55 per over – and they will hope improved championship batting returns can reflect in this format, whilst Scott Styris adds a wealth of experience to their vibrant young squad.
Worcestershire will hope a superb championship start can transfer to the shorter format, just as it did for Northants last year. The Rapids bowlers were the most expensive in the country in 2013 – going at 8.39 per over - and the batting despite the efforts of Moeen Ali failed to counter that flaw. Nonetheless momentum can do strange things and Worcestershire are a side riding high on it.
Birmingham missed out on the knockout stages for the third successive year in 2013, with a lack of firepower – only Yorkshire scored at a lower rate and the Bears could not claim a single player in the leading 20 strike rates – proving their main issue. Shoaib Malik is unlikely to significantly change that and in spite of one of the better bowling attacks –Jeetan Patel a particularly wily customer - another campaign squabbling over the final qualification positions beckons.
Solid was the best description for a Durham side who ranked eighth and ninth respectively in regards to batting and bowling last season. Even with the developments of several young batsmen Ben Stokes’ limited availability could be a huge body blow – the all-rounder was the only Durham player listed in the leading ten strike rates – at the same time a bowling attack perhaps not best suited to this format is another limiting factor.
After threatening to escape the group for only the second time in their history Derbyshire fell away badly in 2013. Scoring runs quickly was an issue, although the signings of Moore and Marcus North should boost them in that regard, whilst of further concern is that Derbyshire could not claim one bowler with an economy rate of less than seven.
© Cricket World 2014
Hampshire look well positioned to prosper once more, with the acquisition of Glenn Maxwell – arguably currently the best Twenty20 batsman in the world – adding an incomparable star quality to an already imposing batting unit that contains destructive duo Michael Carberry and James Vince.
Only five counties conceded runs at a lower rate than Hampshire and James Adams’ side look an extremely well-oiled unit that are well worth their group favourites tag.
Another side with few obvious weaknesses are Essex, with Jesse Ryder joining the likes of Ravi Bopara, Ryan ten Doeschate and Owais Shah to form a vastly experienced batting compilation. The bowling wasn’t quite so prosperous in 2013, with only four counties shipping runs at a more expensive rate although Reece Topley was the second highest wicket taker and in regards to seam options Essex look well stocked – arguably the only major issue is the absence of a reliable spinner.
Only Nottinghamshire scored quicker than a Somerset batting line-up who were as formidable as ever in 2013, with Craig Kieswetter notably finishing as the tournament’s leading run-scorer - however losing Jos Buttler represents a substantial loss.
In Dirk Nannes and Alfonso Thomas they now boast two excellent death bowlers and the emergence of several young players – such as Lewis Gregory – coupled with a glut of all-rounders and their batting strength mean the knockout stages should beckon again.
Surrey’s surprise run to last year’s final was built around the country’s most miserly attack, with the Oval side conceding just 7.3 runs per over with the bulk of that bowling unit – Jon Lewis aside – remaining. Kevin Pietersen – when available – adds a missing x-factor to a solid if unspectacular batting unit and Graeme Smith’s young side will be confident of again negating the group.
Largely through some excellent bowling and fielding returns – only Northants and Surrey boasted a better bowling run rate – Glamorgan came within a whisker of escaping the group stage for the first time since 2004. That bowling attack should again prosper – Michael Hogan vaunting the best economy rate in 2013 – while the Championship has indicated a strong sense of character, however a lack of hitting power remains a significant hindrance.
Sussex will hope 2013 was a mere flash in the pan, given nobody won fewer games. Batting was a huge issue as no Sussex batsman ranked in either the leading 30 run-scorers or 20 highest strike rates, whilst in regards to bowling a run rate ranking of 12 couldn’t mask that limitation.
Yasir Arafat - the fourth highest wicket-taker of 2013 - should improve the bowling and the batting is undoubtedly better than last year showed, yet whether than can improve enough to escape a difficult group is questionable.
Another side to endure an arduous 2013 were Gloucestershire, who finished bottom of their group and were very much middle of the road with both disciplines. In terms of individual performances only Michael Klinger was in the leading 30 run-scorers and nobody was in the top 20 wicket-takers. Strides forward are not inconceivable but progress from a difficult group looks incredibly tough.
Under the leadership of Eoin Morgan hopes will be high Middlesex can end a sequence of five successive failure to negate the group stage. Runs were not a problem in 2013 with Middlesex the only side in the top eight for batting run rates not to reach the quarter finals, bowling though was a different story with only Worcestershire more expensive and the Lord’s side not able to vaunt one bowler in the top 20 wicket takers.
Similar to Kent’s overall season 2013 was a Twenty20 year to forget, with the Canterbury side in the bottom four for both batting and bowling run rate. The emergence of Adam Riley means together with James Tredwell Kent possess an excellent spin duo, however the batting is hugely reliant on Darren Stevens for explosive batting strength – the evergreen all-rounder being the only Kent player in the top 20 for either runs scored or strike rate.
© Cricket World 2014