It’s that time of year again. The Friends Life t20 cricket is back on the sporting menu for England and Wales as spring merges into summer and the long and -- fingers crossed -- warm nights put everyone in the outdoor party mood.
The short game still comes with a sense of fun -- Glamorgan fans, for example, are tuning up the vocal chords and hiring suitably sculpted wigs ahead of Elvis night at the Swalec Stadium -- but out in the middle the hit and giggle days are long gone. With serious prizes at stake, today’s Twenty20 cricket is every bit as serious as the battle for the Championship.
Not that tactical thinking takes anything away from the promise of explosive action that has filled grounds in all the major cricket playing nations. Bowlers may have become more crafty and captains more cunning but the surest route to success is still to put runs on the board.
Notts Outlaws are pretty well equipped in that regard. David Hussey, who attracted the biggest price ever paid for an Australian when he was signed by King’s XI Punjab in the 2011 Indian Premier League, returns to Trent Bridge needing only 151 more runs to overtake his compatriot Brad Hodge as the all-time leading run-scorer in the history of T20.
"Should Notts Outlaws make it to the last eight, however, it is there they will encounter some very serious bids to be crowned Friends Life t20 champions."
And he has a strong supporting cast. Fellow Aussie Adam Voges has a T20 strike rate of 132.20, Samit Patel and Ali Brown have fine records when it comes to multiple boundaries and Alex Hales is acquiring a similar reputation. Chris Read invariably plays a key role and new boy Riki Wessels comes with a natural inclination to put bat to ball.
There may be no Dirk Nannes this year to unnerve opposing batsmen with sheer pace but Ben Phillips has arrived from Somerset with an excellent T20 pedigree to join forces with Darren Pattinson, spinners Samit Patel and Graeme White and intelligent seamer Steven Mullaney, who shared 63 wickets between them in the run to the semi-finals in 2010.
It all adds up to a potential winning formula again -- but which teams pose the biggest threat to Nottinghamshire’s ambition to be at Edgbaston when the Friends Life-sponsored competition reaches its climax on finals day on August 27?
The bookmakers reckon the North Group will be a close-run contest, their odds suggesting little to choose between Notts, Durham, Lancashire, Yorkshire and last year’s group winners, Warwickshire.
They are not frequently wrong, yet Durham have made finals day only once and finished next to bottom in the North Group last year, while Yorkshire, for all that leg-spinner Adil Rashid has become a top performer in this form of the game, have never been further than the quarter-finals and are out of form in all cricket.
Warwickshire may have won more matches than any other side in the competition yet have not reached finals day since 2003 and New Zealand off-spinner Jeetan Patel has big shoes to fill after Imran Tahir, now with Hampshire, took 20 wickets in last season’s competition. Keith Barker’s 21 wickets made him a key performer, too, while Darren Maddy’s 456 runs showed that he remains not only a T20 specialist but an effective one. However, it may be that the fitness of all-rounder Chris Woakes is key.
On paper, Durham look to have players capable of making an impression and were reasonably optimistic for this season until the phenomenally talented Ben Stokes was ruled out, probably for the whole of the group stage, after suffering a dislocation and joint damage to his right index figure in the field during the Championship match with Lancashire. Paul Collingwood is available but he will be playing his first competitive cricket since undergoing knee surgery.
But that has been the sentiment almost every year since T20 began and their record stands at 24 wins from 74 matches, albeit with the highest proportion of washouts in the country.
Lancashire have enough all-rounders to pose a threat, with Tom Smith, Steven Croft, Luke Procter and Saj Mahmood equipped to contribute on more than one front, and a very effective T20 slower bowler in left-arm spinner Stephen Parry, but Northamptonshire, who have made their best start to a season since 1985, could be just as big a threat.
They are the only side unbeaten in all cricket so far and the signing of South African off-spinner Johan Botha, who has been very successful in the short game, to add to the talents of all-rounder Andrew Hall and veteran Sri Lankan Chaminda Vaas makes them dark horses.
It would be a surprise if Leicestershire or Worcestershire have much of a say but Derbyshire may deserve more respect than the average 50-1 outsider, particularly with the run-scoring potential of Wes Durston, Chesney Hughes and New Zealand’s Martin Gupthill in their ranks.
Pakistan all-rounder Abdul Razzaq, who has 79 T20 wickets and a batting strike rate of 143.63, will make Leicestershire more dangerous, although their successes in the format came a few years ago. It would be a surprise if Worcestershire have much of a say but Derbyshire may deserve more respect than the average 50-1 outsider, particularly with the run-scoring potential of Wes Durston, Chesney Hughes and New Zealand’s Martin Gupthill in their ranks.
Should Notts Outlaws make it to the last eight, however, it is there they will encounter some very serious bids to be crowned Friends Life t20 champions.
Glamorgan and Kent can probably be ruled out and Gloucestershire, despite the box-office signing of the brilliant spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, have a lot to do to improve on finishing last in their group three years in a row, but Middlesex’s signing of Ryan McLaren, the South African all-rounder, means they cannot be discounted.
Holders Hampshire have been hit by injuries to their bowlers in particular this year while star signing Shahid Afridi’s participation is in doubt after the outspoken comments that accompanied his retirement from international cricket prompted the Pakistan Cricket Board to revoke the ’no objection’ certificate that is a requirement for him to play. They still have plenty of runs in their side but whether it is enough to reach the final is open to debate.
Somerset would have won last year had they realised they could have run out Hampshire’s Dan Christian when the Australian forgot he was batting with a runner and ran a leg-bye off the final delivery of the match. They will not make the same mistake again this time and have just as strong a squad.
Marcus Trescothick, in blistering form this season, will lead a team loaded with run-scoring batsmen and a T20 specialist bowler in Alfonso Thomas, backed up by arguably the strongest overseas hand, with Indian left-arm spinner Murali Kartik backed up by big-hitting West Indian all-rounder Keiron Pollard for the second half of the group stages and Roelof van der Merve, a South African all-rounder who bowls left-arm spin, for the first half.
Sussex, traditionally strong in T20, winners in 2009 and finalists for three years in a row, can be expected to be a difficult opponent, although their plans to field Pakistan pace man Umar Gul from the outset have been hit by visa problems.
And Surrey, who landed Dirk Nannes in the face of strong competition, have assembled potentially the most dangerous attack in the competition. Nannes, the all-time leading wicket-taker in T20 with 134 victims, is supported by the fifth on that list in Pakistan’s Yasir Arafat, who has 112.
Add to that the signing of the excellent all-rounder Zander de Bruyn, late of Somerset, and the former Glamorgan batsman Tom Maynard, and a squad containing such talented performers as Rory Hamilton-Brown, Jade Dernbach and the explosive young South African batsman Jason Roy, who hit a T20 century off 57 balls last year, and Surrey can probably be classed as live outsiders.
Yet the real challenge to Somerset is likely to come from Essex, who have a squad that looks particularly well equipped in this form of cricket. New Zealanders Scott Styris, who has a hundred and nine 50s among his 2,261 career T20 runs, and Tim Southee, a swing bowler who can be destructive with the bat, look sound choices as overseas players, while Dutch all-rounder Ryan ten Doeschate is a brilliant T20 player. And there should be runs-aplenty too from the likes of Ravi Bopara, world record six-hitter Graham Napier and former Middlesex and England batsman Owais Shah.
My quartet for finals day (with only a little bias): Notts Outlaws, Somerset Sabres, Surrey Lions and Essex Eagles.
Jon Culley writes for The Independent and edits http://www.thesportsbookshelf.com/
Friends Life t20 ticket information
Notts Outlaws face Derbyshire Falcons at Trent Bridge on Friday in the opening match of their Friends Life t20 campaign. Click here to buy tickets for this fixture.
Buy in advance* and save:
Under 16s £7
Over 65s £7
Family (2 adults, 2 under 16s) £31
Groups of 10 or more adults £9.60 per ticket
Groups of 8 or more juniors and two adults £68
Under 16 season ticket £21
Under 21 season ticket £29
On the day:
Under 16s £8
Over 65s £15
Family (2 adults, 2 under 16s) £38
*Advanced tickets must be purchased by 4pm on the day before the game (Ticket office closes at 1pm on Saturdays).
Click here to buy online or call 0844 8118711
Notts Outlaws Friends Life t20 fixtures at Trent Bridge
Friday 3 June 6pm v Derbyshire Falcons
Sunday 5 June 2.30pm v Yorkshire Carnegie
Saturday 11 June 2.40pm v Warwickshire Bears
Thursday 16 June 7pm v Durham Dynamos
Saturday 18 June 6pm v Northants Steelbacks
Friday 24 June 6.10pm v Leicestershire Foxes
Sunday 26 June 2.30pm v Lancashire Lightning
Friday 15 July 7.10pm v Worcestershire Royals