The T20 season starts this weekend with Kent Spitfires playing oldest rivals Surrey at The Oval on Friday (6 July), the first of three away fixtures to start the competition before a homecoming at The County Ground, Beckenham on Friday 13 July.
After three Friday evening home matches in a row, there are two Thursday and two Sunday family-friendly fixtures to decide who reaches Finals Day at Edgbaston Stadium on Saturday 15 September.
The ECB Reporters’ Network give us the lowdown on the players to watch and the overseas stars coming to the Garden of England this summer.
Stand tickets are limited at all fixtures so book now to secure your seat for a summer of explosive action at The Spitfire Ground and The County Ground, Beckenham.
HAMPSHIRE (Friday 13 July at 5.30pm, The County Ground, Beckenham)
T20 record: Seven Finals Day appearances, more than any other county. Winners in 2010 and 2012. Semi-finals on the other five occasions.
Last season: Third in group, lost in semi-final to Notts Outlaws.
Captain: James Vince. Overseas Players: Colin Munro (NZ, until end of July), Dale Steyn (SA, second half, if not selected for South Africa one-day series in Sri Lanka) and Mujeeb Ur Rahman (Afghanistan)
Big hitter: James Vince. Hampshire proved in the Royal London One-Day Cup how important an aggressive top order is, as they eased to the final. Rilee Rossouw and James Vince will open up and provide the power-play chaos, with Vince’s clever guile backed by the South African’s brute six hitting force. Vince is the real danger man though, with his incredible ability to form long one-day innings with high strike-rates – typified with two centuries and a strike-rate of over 110 in the One-Day Cup. The skipper has been a man on a mission since being left out of England’s Test squad earlier this summer.
Key bowler: Gareth Berg. There are doubts over the fitness of Mason Crane, so watch out for seamer Gareth Berg – he has worked hard on his one-day skills over the winter and could cause a few surprises.
Wild card: Mujeeb Ur Rahman. Taking over in the mystery overseas spinner category from Shahid Afridi this season is Afghan teenager Mujeeb Ur Rahman. No spinner, who took more than 10 wickets, had a better average at the IPL this year than the 17-year-old – with his 14 scalps taken at 20.64 for the Kings XI Punjab. His ability to bowl off and leg spin is making him one of the most justifiably hyped players in world cricket – with Virat Kohli, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler already all accounted for.
SURREY (Friday 20 July at 7pm, The Spitfire Ground)
T20 record: Winners: 2003. Runners-up: 2004 and 2013, Other Finals’ Day appearances: 2005, 2006 and 2014
Last season: 2nd in South Group; lost to Birmingham in QF at Kia Oval
Captain: Jade Dernbach. Overseas players: Aaron Finch (Aus), Nic Maddinson (Aus)
Big hitter: Left-hander Nic Maddinson can hit a long ball, as he proved while topping the Sydney Sixers’ run charts with 291 from ten innings at a strike rate of 145.50 in last winter’s Big Bash.
But Surrey’s master blaster is again likely to be either their other Australian, Aaron Finch, who returns to the Kia Oval after hitting 489 runs at 40.75 and with a remarkable strike rate of 166.89 in last year’s competition, or England’s limited-overs opener Jason Roy, whose 350 runs came at a strike rate of 159.09. Finch bludgeoned 25 sixes in 2017 while Roy, who struck 13, was also the competition’s leading run-scorer with 677 in 2014.
Key bowler: Morne Morkel has been signed by Surrey to play all formats on an initial two-year Kolpak deal, and the giant 33-year-old South African fast bowler can add a real cutting edge to an attack based on the two Curran brothers, Tom and Sam, T20-only skipper Dernbach – one of English cricket’s best and most enduring ‘death’ bowlers – and the veteran off spinner Gareth Batty. Morkel’s vast international experience included 44 T20s for South Africa in addition to his 86 Tests and 117 ODIs.
Wild card: Ollie Pope, who turned 20 earlier this year, first caught the eye at senior level when playing in white-ball cricket for Surrey last summer. He has since gone on to impress further many good judges with mature performances in both championship and 50-over matches but, alongside Finch, Dernbach and Sam Curran, Pope was Surrey’s only ever-present as they reached last year’s T20 Blast quarter-finals, scoring 253 runs from 13 knocks in the frantic late-innings’ overs with a strike rate of 124.63 and a top score of 46. Always inventive, Pope has a 360-degree ability to score quick runs.
SUSSEX SHARKS (Friday 27 July at 7pm, The Spitfire Ground)
T20 record: Winners 2009, finalists 2007, 2012. Last season (Group placing): 5th
Captain: Luke Wright Overseas Players: Rashid Khan (Afghanistan), Tom Bruce (New Zealand)
Big hitter: New Zealand middle order batsman Tom Bruce has arrived at Hove slightly under the radar to replace the injured Stiaan van Zyl but the man from Central Districts is more than capable of making a big impact. The 26-year-old has played 14 T20 internationals with a strike rate of 128.40 and has a reputation for hitting a long ball.
Key bowler: Sussex have an embarrassment of riches in their seam attack with Jofra Archer, Chris Jordan and Tymal Mills as good as anything in the Blast this year, but all eyes will be on Rashid Khan, the world’s top-ranked T20 bowler and second in ODIs. His mesmerising variations of leg spin should win Sussex a couple of games on their own and, as one of 11 children, he will be able to count on plenty of family support back home as he experiences the Blast for the first time.
Wild card: Laurie Evans is likely to take over the top-order role Chris Nash performed so successfully for many years. Evans scored 243 runs in the Royal London One-Day Cup and his ability to dovetail as successfully as Nash did with Luke Wright will be crucial to Sussex’s chances. There are question marks over Sussex’s batting depth but Evans has the ability to answer them.
ESSEX EAGLES (The Spitfire Ground, Thursday 2 August at 7pm)
T20 record: Finals day appearances 2006, 2008, 2010 & 2013 (beaten semi-finalists on each occasion). Last season: South Group – 8th
Captain: Ryan ten Doeschate. Overseas Players: Adam Zampa (Australia); Neil Wagner (New Zealand, available for first six group games); Peter Siddle (Australia, available for last eight group games and quarter-final, if applicable)
Big Hitter: Varun Chopra. Only Colin Ingram and Riki Wessels hit more Blast sixes than Varun Chopra’s 26 last year – and they had at least one more innings in which to do so. Chopra’s cleanly-struck, towering maximums mean captains visiting Chelmsford would be advised to position fielders wearing waders in the River Can – patrolling the ‘v’ between long-off and long-on – or else standing at the Pavilion bar at deep, deep midwicket. Indeed, pint in hand on a balmy Friday night is probably the best way to admire a Chopra knock, packed with beautifully-timed, orthodox cricket shots rather than brutish strength.
Key bowler: Adam Zampa. The addition of Adam Zampa for the Blast provides Essex with the ‘mystery spinner’ they have craved. The Australian leggie arrives with the brief to reduce the runs leaked in the middle overs, not least by snapping up wickets. Zampa brings T20 experience from the IPL, Big Bash, Caribbean Premier League and from representing his country 13 times to date, and has the variations in flight and movement to merit his reputation. So keen was the 26-year-old for his first taste of English conditions that he flew in a month early to play weekend club cricket for Brentwood.
Wild card: Paul Walter. Paul Walter is an awkward customer; awkward to opposition batsmen and bowlers alike. It’s down to his height: at 6ft 7in, he comes out of the floodlights on T20 nights like a fast-paced spectre. Last year the beanpole was Essex’s top Blast wicket-taker – with one more than Mohammad Amir – and ended Kevin Pietersen’s assault at the Oval when taking career-best bowling figures. The full force of his batting has yet to be felt. But the left-hander has been warming up in the 2nd XI: he smashed 103 from 50 balls in a T20 game against Glamorgan last month.
GLOUCESTERSHIRE (Sunday 5 August at 3pm, The Spitfire Ground)
T20 record: Finalists 2007. Last season: Bottom of South Group. Captain: Michael Klinger. Overseas Players: Michael Klinger (Aus), Andrew Tye (Aus)
Big hitter: Residents of the flats at the Ashley Down Road End of the Brightside Ground have become used to ducking on their balconies when Michael Klinger is facing bowling from that end.
The hugely popular Aussie has proved himself one of the most outstanding overseas signings in county cricket during his years of service with Gloucestershire and arrived for his latest stint this week. Klinger loves targeting the flats because of the relatively short boundary when hitting straight and can be counted upon to test the strength of the glass windows again.
Key bowler: Andrew Tye misses the opening two South Group fixtures against Somerset and Middlesex because of commitments with Australia, but the 31-year-old seamer can still be a major figure in Gloucestershire’s attempt to win the competition for the first time.
A member of Australia’s T20 squad since 2016, having not made his debut in State cricket until the age of 26, Tye is renowned for his death bowling and the ability to produce devastating yorkers under pressure.
His bag of tricks includes many variations and his career has hit new heights since he last played T20 cricket for Gloucestershire two seasons ago.
Wild card: Ryan Higgins drew himself to Gloucestershire’s attention by smashing 68 not out off 28 balls to earn Middlesex a tie against them at Cheltenham in last season’s competition. While the College Ground is relatively small, the now 23-year-old all-rounder’s six sixes and four fours turned a game the hosts appeared to have under control when reducing their opponents to 119 for eight in reply to 182.
Since switching clubs, Higgins has been a success with bat and ball. Now comes the opportunity to produce the fireworks Gloucestershire supporters who watched him at Cheltenham have been anticipating.
MIDDLESEX (Sunday 12 August, 3pm, The County Ground, Beckenham)
T20 record: Winners 2008. Last season: Seventh
Captain: Dawid Malan. Overseas Players: Ashton Agar (Aus), Dwayne Bravo (WI)
Big hitter: Few batsmen strike the ball with as much raw power as Paul Stirling and the Irishman’s explosive potential at the top of the order will be crucial to Middlesex’s prospects.
Stirling proved in the Royal London Cup that he has added greater discipline to his natural ability and now looks capable of batting deeper into an innings.
While his main brief is to inflict damage in the powerplay, the longer Stirling can occupy the crease the better his side’s chances of putting a challenging total on the board.
Key bowler: Middlesex’s overseas recruits for the Blast have been a mixed bag over the years, but the signing of Dwayne Bravo for the first half of the tournament looks an inspired move.
The former West Indies star brings a wealth of white-ball experience and his ability to mix it up with the ball will sprinkle Middlesex’s attack with a little more variety.
Effective bowling at the death is an area where the Lord’s side have frequently been found out in the past – but Bravo should be able to remedy that.
Wild card: Leg-spinners can be worth their weight in gold in this format and, in the shape of Nathan Sowter, Middlesex possess one who might make a real difference.
The Australian-born leggie burst onto scene with figures of 2-2 on his T20 debut three years ago and has since established himself as a key wicket-taking bowler.
Having also improved with the bat, Sowter is not afraid to attempt unorthodox but effective shots, which could bring Middlesex valuable runs in the closing stages of their innings.
SOMERSET (Thursday 16 August, 7pm, The Spitfire Ground)
T20 record: Winners 2005. Last season: Fourth in South Group. Lost to Notts Outlaws at Trent Bridge in quarter-finals
Captain: Lewis Gregory. Overseas Players; Corey Anderson (NZ)
Big hitter: Corey Anderson’s contribution to Somerset’s 2017 T20 campaign was restricted to four matches by a back problem.
But the opening South Group game against Surrey at The Oval showed the New Zealander’s capabilities as he blasted 81 off 45 balls, despite having been injured bowling the opening over of the match.
Anderson later hit 41 off 17 deliveries against Sussex at Taunton and will relish the plum one-day batting tracks at the Cooper Associates County Ground.
Key bowler: Leg-spinner Max Waller has developed into a T20 specialist over the years, targeting batsmen’s pads with googlies delivered with a flat trajectory and maintaining an increasingly impressive economy rate.
There is enough variation in his bowling to make key breakthroughs and he was Somerset’s leading wicket taker in the shortest format last season with 16.
A brilliant fielder, Waller comes into his own at this time of year and can be counted upon to keep things relatively tight in the middle overs.
Wild card: After a brilliant start to the summer in the second XI, 19-year-old Tom Banton did not make the most of his opportunities in the Royal London One-Day Cup, with a top score of 40 in six innings.
But that is unlikely to deter Somerset from offering the exciting youngster a top-order position in T20 as he has shown an ability to take apart bowling attacks in white ball cricket, along with the intelligence to adapt his game to the match situation.
GLAMORGAN (No home match, away at Cardiff on Sunday 29 July)
T20 Record: Reached Finals Day twice. Beaten by Birmingham Bears in 2017 semi. Last Season: Top of South Group
Captain: Colin Ingram. Overseas Players: Shaun Marsh and Usman Khawaja (Australia)
Big Hitter: Colin Ingram. Described by Hugh Morris, the club’s Chief Executive, as “the best limited overs batsman in Glamorgan’s history”, Ingram was the PCA Player of the Year in the 2017, T20 Blast Competition, when he struck 59 sixes.
A destructive batsman, Ingram struck two centuries last season, the first against Sussex, with his century coming from only 50 balls, before repeating the feat two weeks later against Essex, where he reached a career best 114, as Glamorgan chased 220 to win.
He played in the Australian Big Bash, and also in Pakistan last winter, and it came as no surprise that Ingram decided to play only white ball cricket for the remainder of his career He was appointed Glamorgan’s white ball captain this season.
Key Bowler: Michael Hogan. The Glamorgan four- day captain has been the club’s most consistent and successful T20 bowler in recent years, and although he is now 37, he has not lost any of his skills. His career average for Glamorgan of 80 wickets at 19.23 is testimony to his accuracy, especially at the end of the innings where his variations limit the batsmen’s progress.
Wild Card: Kiran Carlson. The 20-year-old middle-order batsman is only in his second full season with the club but has already shown that he is a destructive player in one day cricket.
He even outscored Colin Ingram in a recent game, when they shared a partnership of 98 in 10 overs, with Carlson scoring an unbeaten 59 from only 40 balls. He is also one of the best outfielders in the game, as befits a former rugby and hockey player.