|Vitality T20 Blast|
|Dates: 19 July – 21 September|
|BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra commentary, in-play video Highlights and live text coverage of selected matches, including all four quarter-finals and Finals Day.|
Caught your breath yet after England’s thrilling World Cup victory? It’s time for Twenty20 fever to take hold once again.
While The Hundred is set to take centre stage in short-form domestic Cricket from next season, the T20 Blast still promises to pull in the crowds and the big names.
A host of stars from the World Cup will feature for county sides as Worcestershire Rapids try to retain the trophy they won for the first time at Edgbaston last August.
But T20 can be anyone’s game on their day and from Thursday, all 18 teams will start the competition believing this could be their year.
World Cup faces sign up
Having toured the grounds of England and Wales since mid-May in their national colours, a host of overseas stars who featured in the World Cup have decided to stick around for the T20 Blast.
But how much the public will get to see of England’s victorious World Cup squad is unclear, with the majority likely to be either rested or playing in the Ashes Tests until 15 September.
Here’s a snapshot of who to look out for in the coming weeks:
Birmingham Bears: England all-rounder Chris Woakes.
Durham: England all-rounder Ben Stokes and fast bowler Mark Wood.
Essex Eagles: Australia leg-spinner Adam Zampa and Pakistan seamer Mohammad Amir.
Glamorgan: Australia all-rounder Mitchell Marsh and Pakistan opener Fakhar Zaman.
Hampshire: England batsman James Vince, all-rounder Liam Dawson and South Africa all-rounder Chris Morris.
Kent Spitfires: Afghanistan all-rounder Mohammad Nabi.
Lancashire Lightning: England wicketkeeper Jos Buttler and Australia all-rounder Glenn Maxwell.
Middlesex: England captain Eoin Morgan and Afghanistan leg-spinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman.
Northamptonshire Steelbacks: South Africa bowler Dwayne Pretorious.
Somerset: Pakistan batsman Babar Azam.
Sussex Sharks: England bowler Jofra Archer, Australia wicketkeeper-batsman Alex Carey and Afghanistan leg-spinner Rashid Khan.
Worcestershire Rapids: England all-rounder Moeen Ali and New Zealand opener Martin Guptill.
Yorkshire Vikings: England batsman Joe Root, opener Jonny Bairstow, leg-spinner Adil Rashid and West Indies wicketkeeper-batsman Nicholas Pooran.
And there’s room for one more big name…
If that international roll call isn’t enough to get you off your sofa and down to a game, there’s also another big name lining up for Middlesex this season.
Depending on what you read and who you believe, South Africa batsman AB de Villiers was willing to come out of international retirement at the last minute to help his country’s cause at the World Cup.
But the Proteas rejected that apparent offer and De Villiers could only sit back and watch their poor showing.
The 35-year-old, who for years has been a star attraction in T20 leagues around the world, will be available for Middlesex’s first seven games, starting against Essex Eagles at Lord’s on Thursday.
But he could also return for the knockout stages should Middlesex qualify.
“All the guys are looking forward to having him as a team-mate rather than having to bowl at him,” Middlesex and England bowler Toby Roland-Jones told BBC Radio London.
“We’ve got a couple of really exciting signings to add to a really strong squad, plus a World Cup-winning captain in Eoin Morgan.
“Hopefully those little things will lift the team and we’ll hope to start well on Thursday in front of a packed crowd at Lord’s.”
Rapids hope to repeat home-grown success
Worcestershire gained many admirers when they won the T20 title for the first time last season, beating Sussex in the Edgbaston final.
The Rapids have been boosted by the news England all-rounder Moeen Ali is available for their first two matches against Notts Outlaws and Birmingham Bears on Thursday and Friday.
Moeen’s calm captaincy led the county to their first domestic trophy since 1994 with a crop of home-grown names producing stellar performances at the business end.
But seamer Pat Brown, who was dubbed “the find of the tournament” by James Anderson last season, is currently sidelined through injury.
Brown, 20, took 31 wickets at a measly 13.35 last season, which included 4-21 in the semi-final against Lancashire and an economical four overs costing just 15 runs in the final.
Fellow seamers Josh Tongue and Wayne Parnell have also been injury concerns for Worcestershire, who may have to wait a few games before New Zealand opener Martin Guptill recovers from his World Cup final disappointment.
No team has successfully defended the T20 title – and Rapids coach Alex Gidman hopes the holders tag will not weigh heavily on his squad.
“We have to enjoy being champions and try our utmost to get there again. We shouldn’t be scared to talk about it.
“We’re a very good white ball team and our confidence is high even though we haven’t played a game yet. Having Moeen back and around the changing room will give us some confidence and lift the guys.”
‘Make a fast start and who knows?’
So how do the players feel going into the competition? Looking around the counties, it sounds as if everyone knows that a strong start can put you in contention to reach the knockout stages.
Two groups of nine, the North and the South Group, will see old rivals go head-to-head once more and maybe a few scores settled from previous encounters.
One player keen to make his mark after missing out on England’s World Cup squad will be Yorkshire all-rounder David Willey.
“We’ve always gone all right in my time at Yorkshire,” he told BBC Radio Leeds.
“But we need to be at Finals Day with the size of the club and the quality of the players. Sending 11 players out on the field and thinking that’s going to be good enough hasn’t been good enough.
“I’d like to see a bit more of a formula to the way we play in the format and if we do that, we’ll be really close.”
Willey, who recently extended his contract at Yorkshire, feels a strong T20 Blast will put him back in the England frame.
The 29-year-old added: “There are five T20s in New Zealand in October – that’s England’s next white-ball Cricket.
“Hopefully I go well and they can’t leave me out, and then you look further ahead and there’s a World T20 around the corner.
“I know it’s in the background, but for the time being I’ll play my Cricket week-in, week-out here and if I get the rewards for doing well then great. If I don’t, life goes on.”
Another side who will hope to put a disappointing 2018 behind them is Hampshire. The two-time winners finished second from bottom in the South Group last season.
Batsman Sam Northeast is excited to face south coast neighbours Sussex in their first game.
“We’re going to have to start well,” he told BBC South Today. “T20 is a game of confidence and if you start well, you can keep the momentum and the confidence going.
“It’s a great distraction from the four-day game and everyone is buzzing to get started.
“The South Group is such a competitive one and there are so many match-ups that you look forward to each year and there’s no better way to start than against our neighbours Sussex at home.”
Captaining Sussex will be Luke Wright, who will hope his side can overcome last season’s disappointment in the final against Worcestershire.
“We had a great season last year but as ever, we all start on nought with the same chance as everyone else,” he said.
“I think it’s always an exciting time for the club and the fans, we get to play in front of a packed-house at Hove. The standard of Cricket is very, very high as well so we know you have to be at your best.
“We’ve got huge hopes and we’d love to go one better, but we have to get out of a very tough group.
“We’ve signed Alex Carey, who had a great World Cup with Australia, and Rashid Khan is back so fingers crossed we get some of our injured players back quickly too and get momentum going early.”