|Dates: Group stage: 9 June to 18 July, Finals Day: 18 September Coverage: Listen to ball-by-ball commentary on BBC local radio and online, with selected games on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra; live text commentary on selected games on BBC Sport website|
When the T20 Blast – or Twenty20 Cup as it was then – made its debut back in 2003, the new short-form game was designed to spice up the lives of staid cricket fans around the country.
Now, though, as a venerable competition entering its 19th summer, the Blast, which begins on Wednesday, is facing a challenge like never before.
The long-awaited Hundred is on the horizon, with a remit to attract new, younger and more diverse followers, with flash marketing, city-based teams and just 100 balls per innings.
The Indian Premier League and Big Bash have shown, though, that there is still plenty of juice to be squeezed from the T20 format.
So, with fans, in limited numbers at first, gradually returning to cricket grounds after missing all of last year’s competition, who will be providing them with the thrills and fireworks in the Blast this summer?
Notts to retain title?
One of the quirks of English cricket’s T20 competition is that no team has ever managed to lift the trophy and repeat the feat the following summer.
Notts Outlaws are confident they have the quality to buck that trend, despite skipper Dan Christian being summoned back to Australia for an upcoming series in the Caribbean.
They won in 2017 and again last year – but face a tough start to the competition away to 2018 winners Worcestershire.
“We pride ourselves at Notts on having a good white-ball team and everyone knows each other’s role, so hopefully we can perform to the best of our abilities to try to get to Finals Day again,” said long-serving all-rounder Samit Patel.
“If we can get on a roll and win the crucial periods, I think we’ll go really well again because we have some really experienced players.”
The competition may be a chance for opener Alex Hales to re-state his case for an England recall after only managing 202 runs at an average of 18 in last year’s Blast.
“If you look at his record in England colours, it’s outstanding. I think he has been treated a little bit harshly but if he does get another chance, you will see the real Alex Hales,” added Patel.
- Lancashire Lightning v Derbyshire Falcons – starts 14:30 BST
- Worcestershire Rapids v Notts Outlaws – 17:30
- Somerset v Essex Eagles – 18:30
- Kent Spitfires v Hampshire Hawks – 19:00
Blast is a ‘big tournament’
When it comes to providing excitement, few do it better than England’s Jos Buttler and Lancashire Lightning are delighted to have him available for their first six games.
Buttler smashed 124 off 64 balls in his most recent competitive innings for Rajasthan Royals on 2 May before the IPL was postponed because of Covid.
It was his first T20 century and improved his overall strike rate to 145.06.
“It’s a shame the IPL had to finish, especially after that innings. I was feeling in great touch, but the situation in India got very bad and I think it was the right decision to call the tournament off,” Buttler told BBC Sport.
- Listen to the full Jos Buttler interview by clicking here.
He was in the Lancashire side that won the T20 Blast in 2015 and views the competition as a “bit different” to others around the world.
“It’s a big tournament. All the counties are involved. All the other T20 tournaments, there’s not as many sides,” Buttler added.
“On paper, looking at the Lancs squad, I’m really excited to be back among the team. Liam Livingstone, Matt Parkinson, Saqib Mahmood, they’re all in and around the England squad at the moment.”
Buttler isn’t the only England player available for the early matches.
“It just strengthens the competition when international players are around. I know Moeen Ali will be available, Chris Woakes, Jonny Bairstow. Seeing England stars with their home counties gives a huge pull to the tournament and is a huge boost to those teams,” he added.
New names to watch
Every year the T20 Blast introduces exciting new names who perhaps aren’t all that familiar to English fans.
Among them this year will be wicketkeeper-batsman Finn Allen, who made 512 runs in 11 innings, with a strike rate of more than 193, to help Wellington Firebirds win New Zealand’s Super Smash title.
He will turn out for Lancashire and Buttler said: “I’ve heard a lot about him from Simon Katich, about how hard he hits the ball. He was with him at Bangalore in the IPL just gone.”
Worcestershire, meanwhile, have imported left-arm pace bowler Ben Dwarshuis, whose 24 wickets spearheaded Sydney Sixers’ drive to the Big Bash title in February.
The club regard his signing as “a little bit of a coup” and his arrival is important with Pat Brown, the leading wicket-taker in their 2018 triumph, struggling with injury.
Elsewhere, Leicestershire have signed Australian Josh Inglis, who helped Perth Scorchers reach the Big Bash final, while Kent have recruited Afghan leg-spinner Qais Ahmad and Gloucestershire have brought in New Zealand’s Glenn Phillips, who made a 46-ball century against West Indies in November 2020.
One player who won’t need any introduction, though – at least not to Ben Stokes – is Carlos Brathwaite, who has thrown in his lot with Birmingham Bears after previously playing for Kent in 2018.
- 3 – Leicestershire, 2004, 2006, 2011
- 2 – Hampshire 2010, 2012
- 2 – Northants 2013, 2016
- 2 – Nottinghamshire 2017, 2020
The entire competition was staged between 27 August and 4 October last year because of Covid.
This year, though, there is time to stretch out, with the group stage taking place through June and July, then the quarter-finals from 24-27 August.
Finals Day this year will be on 18 September at the T20 Blast’s regular Edgbaston home.
Crowd sizes will be limited, at least initially, but that doesn’t mean the action out in the middle will be muted.
And even though The Hundred begins on 21 July, it’ll be a surprise if there hasn’t been a hundred or two in the T20 Blast by then.