The general consensus is that 2014 is a big year for t20 cricket in England and Wales. Despite inventing the format in 2003 we’ve had to look on enviously as more glamorous tournaments in India and Australia have stolen the limelight.
That’s not to say that we don’t still have an excellent competition which remains highly popular, but in t20 both on and off the pitch you must evolve constantly or risk being left behind. The ECB’s solution is the revamped t20 Blast.
Bucking the trend to play t20 tournaments in short, sharp windows the t20 Blast will run through most of the season from May 16 to August 23. The obvious worry is that counties wouldn’t be able to attract the same calibre of overseas player that they had in the past but a brief glance at the squads shows that this won’t be the case.
Aaron Finch (Yorks), Glenn Maxwell (Hants), Saeed Ajmal (Worcs), Jesse Ryder (Essex) and Graeme Smith (Surrey) will all add star quality and excitement. Arguably, though, it’s the return of two English players that could pull in the most punters.
Kevin Pietersen is to juggle his IPL, t20 Blast and Caribbean PL commitments, even flying between the Caribbean and London while the CPL takes place. I for one can’t wait to see how he responds to his axing by England – don’t be surprised if you see a hungry and motivated KP near the top of the run scoring charts.
Even more intriguing is the potential return of Freddie. Yes that’s right, Andrew Flintoff may be thrilling crowds around the world for the first time since he retired in 2009. Come on, who saw that coming?! We wait with baited breath to hear what comes of his discussions with Lancashire but whether it happens or not, it can not be argued that the t20 Blast is short on star dust.
The other notable scheduling difference is the shift to a Friday night dominated fixture list – 87 of the 126 group games will be on that day. The benefits should be obvious with more families coming through the gates and, hopefully, consistently big attendances. Somewhere like Chelmsford should be particularly lively as fans warm up for a night on the tiles – might need two ear-pieces when I’m there!
Structure of a tournament is clearly important but there are other vital factors to overall success, some of which can’t be controlled. Nothing can be more pivotal than the weather. It’s impossible to underestimate the effect a hot, dry summer will have on this year’s t20 Blast and this is surely the one thing the organisers will be praying for the most. Last year attendances went up 70 per cent thanks largely to the regular sunshine.
Something that can be controlled, however, is the quality of pitches. In the past some counties have doctored conditions to suit their own teams but this doesn’t always produce an enjoyable spectacle and surely that is the whole point of t20? Not everyone will agree with me but the shortest format needs to be about the ball flying out the park and fairly big scores.
Often low scoring Test matches are thrilling to watch but I’m not sure the same applies to t20. Imagine you’re watching a game for the first time – would you prefer to see 110-9 v 95-8 or 160-6 v 155-7? I’m not saying the scales should always be tilted firmly in favour of the batsmen but the days of producing slow, hard-to-score-on pitches should be cast aside if we want to keep t20 entertaining in this country.
Predictions in t20 are a mug’s game but here goes. Most pundits will say the South Group is usually stronger than the North and that could well be the case again, although as Northants showed last year never write off the underdog in the shortest format.
Having said that, it would be a huge achievement for them to become the first side to successfully defend the title. The hugely influential Cameron White has so far not been re-signed, England all- round prospect David Willey has not bowled yet this year and captain Alex Wakeley is likely to miss the entire season through injury.
Elsewhere in the North Group it will be interesting to see what the Jos Buttler effect can do for Lancashire and Notts should, as usual, be big contenders to make the knockout stages. With a batting line-up featuring Alex Hales, Michael Lumb, Samit Patel and James Taylor they should put plenty of runs on the board and they have a decent seam attack to worry the opposition, too.
For me, though, Yorkshire could be the team to beat up North. They may have come bottom of the group last season but Finch is a huge presence at the top of the order and if they see enough of the likes of Gary Ballance, Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Tim Bresnan I think they have a chance of repeating their form of 2012 when they made it to the final.
There are only two groups this year, with the Midlands/Wales/West Group ditched in favour of just North and South. In the South it’s hard to look beyond Hampshire. The most successful t20 side of recent times were surprisingly knocked out by Surrey in the semi-finals last year but with a similar squad and Glenn Maxwell back to add massive fire-power expect them to be a force again.
Sussex surely can’t be as bad as last year while Essex will hope big Jesse Ryder can give them the impetus to go one better than last year when they went out in the semis.
Perennial bridesmaids Somerset are always strong on paper, the big question is have all the near misses knocked the belief out of the current squad? I’ll go with Yorkshire, Notts, Essex and Hampshire to make the semis with Yorkshire to win it – if I’m completely wrong, just call me a mug!