My beloved Somerset’s quest for their elusive first-ever County Championship title has been put on hold for the moment, making way, for this year only (thank you ECB and your continued tinkering with the schedule) for the first phase of the T20 Blast which starts this evening.
Divided into two groups, North and South the 9 teams in each division will play 10 games before the Championship resumes on 18thAugust and then a further 4 to decide who fills the top four places and heads for the quarter finals.
Those quarter finals follow the same format as last year with first in the South group being home to fourth in the North group, etc. The winning quarter finalists head to Birmingham for finals day.
Somerset, winners of the other one-day trophy earlier this season, will be one of the favourites and have signed one of the world’s top one-day batsmen, Pakistan’s Babar Azam for this year’s competition. It will be a major surprise if they fail to qualify for the knockout phase and a disappointment if they don’t secure a home tie.
But T20 is more of a lottery than the 50-over format so drawing a form line from that competition is not easy. Ashes call ups will also have an impact, Somerset could be without their talismanic T20 leader Lewis Gregory who is in England’s 13 man test squad for a significant part of the competition. But there is young talent in abundance in Taunton. It will be fascinating to see who steps up in Lewis’ absence.
Alongside Somerset I expect Sussex and Hampshire reach the quarter finals. Both have one-day pedigree in the recent past and both have a group of potential matchwinners. The other place is more open, you’d expect Surrey, given the depth of their resources, to be strong but they were woeful in the earlier white-ball competition.
Don’t be surprised if Middlesex come from nowhere.
In the north, despite the pasting they have just handed out to my boys in the Championship Yorkshire will be outsiders in the group. From a purely parochial point of view I’d like to see Somerset loanee Dom Bess help the White Rose turn things around in Leeds. Notts, perennially the strongest one-day team in the country have been having a dreadful time of it in the longer form so may be vulnerable if they don’t get off to a good start.
Last year’s surprise winners Worcestershire look a good bet to qualify and I’ll go for Lancashire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire (a bit left field I know) to join them.
My picks for finals day are:
Somerset, Hampshire, Lancashire and Worcestershire
Beyond that it’s anyone’s guess.