The domestic cricket scene is set to burst into life as the glitz and glamour of the T20 Blast gets under way on Friday.
Following England’s run to the World Twenty20 final in India, ticket sales for this year’s tournament are up by a third on 2015.
And, with an array of big-hitting international stars including Chris Gayle, Darren Sammy, Brendon McCullum and Shahid Afridi returning, it is easy to see why interest has been so high.
Couple that with all the homegrown talent on show – Ben Stokes, James Vince, Jason Roy and Alex Hales to name just a few – and the 2016 competition has the potential to be the best in its 13-year history.
Excitement over Gayle’s second stint with Somerset has seen their home games against Essex, Surrey, Hampshire and Gloucestershire sell out.
‘Boom Boom’ Afridi will join Sammy at last year’s semi-finalists Hampshire, while Australia’s Aaron Finch will feature in July and August for Surrey.
And Dale Steyn fuelled speculation that he could be joining Glamorgan after asking his Twitter followers if there were any good fishing spots in the Welsh county.
“You learn a lot from the international players, whether you play with them or against them,” said England and Yorkshire batsman Joe Root, who helped launch the 2016 competition.
“You look at the young lads who are getting to share a dressing room and speak to international stars and learn how they approach T20 cricket.
“I am sure in a couple of years’ time England will reap the rewards with young lads coming into the team having learned from the valuable information passed on to them.”
International players to look out for:
- Birmingham: Jeeten Patel Luke Ronchi (New Zealand)
- Derbyshire: Hamish Marshall Jimmy Neesham (New Zealand)
- Essex: Adam Milne, Jesse Ryder (New Zealand) Wahab Riaz (Pakistan)
- Middlesex: McCullum, Mitchell McClenaghan (New Zealand), Adam Voges George Bailey (Australia)
- Nottinghamshire: Dan Christian (Australia)
- Somerset: Gayle (West Indies) Mahela Jayawardene (Sri Lanka)
- Sussex: Mustafizur Rahman (Bangladesh) Ross Taylor (New Zealand)
‘Champions Lancashire boast the best spin attack’
Lancashire are the defending T20 Blast champions, winning the title for the first time after beating Northants in last year’s final at Edgbaston.
And BBC Radio Lancashire’s Scott Read believes Ashley Giles’ side could be the team to beat again in 2016.
“Even though Lancashire have only won the competition once, they’ve consistently progressed to the knockout stages and are looking to reach a third successive finals day,” he said.
“Steven Croft seems to have grown and developed as a captain and he leads the side superbly in this format. And, when margins are tight, a captain with good instincts for bowling, fielding and batting changes can sometimes hold the key.
“Lancashire have actually won more T20 games than any other county since the first tournament in 2003. That alone would suggest they have a formula that works.
“I think it also shows just how hard it is to win the competition and how slim the margins are for success in T20 cricket. Games are frequently won or lost in just a handful of deliveries. Lancashire’s previous success of winning the competition and success in consistently getting out the of group stages will help in their attempts to retain the title, it but it’s going to be tough.
“However, they do boast arguably the best spin attack in the competition with Stephen Parry, Arron Lilley and Steven Croft. Throw into the mix Jos Buttler and Martin Guptill and they look a formidable side once again.”
Can the Blast be as good as the IPL and Big Bash?
In 2008, the Indian Premier League became the first franchise-based domestic Twenty20 competition to be played by international stars and since then countries across the world have followed suit.
With the brand value of the IPL estimated to be $3.2 billion (£2.2 billion) in 2014 and the 2015 Australia competition, the Big Bash, drawing a record crowd of 80,833 for the Melbourne derby at the MCG, can the T20 Blast really match that success?
Somerset and Essex have sold 94% and 79% of their tickets respectively, while the first Roses game at Old Trafford on 3 June is on the brink of selling out.
However, England remains the only country to resist the temptation of a franchise format and instead stay with the 18 county sides split into two North and South groups.
With no free-to-air coverage available, the competition running over three months and having to compete against the Euros and Olympics, it seems unlikely that the Blast will be able to replicate the same success that is enjoyed abroad.
Success in the Blast could lead to an England call-up
England’s successful World Twenty20 campaign, which saw them come up just short in the final against West Indies, showed the first signs of the national side benefitting from picking specialist T20 players.
“It’s one of the reasons why we did so well [in the World T20], because those players forced their way into the team through good performances in the competition,” said Root.
Six of the top-10 batsman with the most runs in the 2015 Blast were English, with James Vince topping the list.
Reece Topley’s 16 wickets led the Essex Eagles to the quarter-finals and earned him an England call-up.
“There are a lot of players who, throughout the summer, spend a lot of time playing in the T20 Blast,” continued 25-year-old Root.
“If you’re consistently banging out runs and taking wickets in the domestic tournaments you should be given recognition and potentially a go if there are spots available.”
Will 2016 match the 2015 runfest?
- 610 – The number of sixes scored during the 2015 competition, with Gayle, Ross Whiteley and Luke Wright crunching 29 a piece
- 211 – South Africa’s Rory Kleinveldt was the only batsman with a strike-rate of over 200
- 710 – The highest number of runs scored by England’s James Vince
- 148 – Warwickshire seamer Rikki Clarke bowled the most dot balls
- 25 – James Faulkner claimed the highest number of wickets as he bowled Lancashire Lightning to victory