With the first half of the County Championship in the books it is time for the county season to crank up a notch with the start of the Vitality Blast on Wednesday, as the 18 counties once again battle it out for the right to be the last team standing in the domestic T20 competition.
That team were Kent last September and they will be out to be the first team to ever successfully defend this crown. A number of counties have signed some seriously good talent though so whoever comes out on top this season will have earned the title.
2021 – Kent
2020 – Nottinghamshire
2019 – Essex
2018 – Worcestershire
2017 – Nottinghamshire
2016 – Northamptonshire
2015 – Lancashire
2014 – Birmingham Bears
2013 – Northamptonshire
2012 – Hampshire
We are using what is now the normal format for this competition. That means we have the two groups – North and South – with each team playing the other eight in their group once and then six of the teams once more giving 14 group matches per county. Crowds are in attendance this season too which is a positive. The top four from each group at the end of the first phase will go into the quarter finals where we have N1 vs S4 N2 vs S3 S2 vs N3 S1 vs N4. The winners of those quarter finals will head to Finals Day which once again is at Edgbaston on July 16.
If last season is anything to go by then the North Group have some catching to do as not one team from this section went to finals day. Nottinghamshire were the side who ended up winning the North Group but fell in the quarter finals. They have started the season well in the County Championship and have Dan Christian back in their ranks this term. It is no surprise the 2020 champions are the favourites for the tournament but Lancashire will certainly have something to say about that. It looks like Jos Buttler’s Test days are behind him so Lancashire could legitimately have Buttler, Liam Livingstone and Tim David in the same batting unit which will put the frighteners up anyone. Obviously the injury to Saqib Mahmood is a blow but if the rest of the bowlers can rally round and deliver the goods Lancashire should go well.
Yorkshire were another side who lost in the quarter finals last season but they have brought in Finn Allen, Shadab Khan and Haris Rauf as international players. Jonny Bairstow and Harry Brook being called into the Test squad won’t help them though. The Birmingham Bears were the other quarter finalists last term and they are always motivated to make their own party but a seriously injured seam attack isn’t going to help their chances. Worcestershire, Leicestershire, Durham, Derbyshire and Northamptonshire all have improvements to find but Dwayne Bravo and Colin Munro could be good additions for Worcestershire who will have Moeen Ali around for much more of the season while Hamish Rutherford should help Leicestershire and Australian pair Ashton Turner and Chris Lynn should boost Durham and Northants respectively.
Kent are the defending champions having come through on finals day last season and having Sam Billings around from the outset will certainly do their chances no harm, however Zak Crawley being in the Test squad isn’t as helpful. Qais Ahmad and George Linde are good overseas spinners but Kent lack a finisher unless Alex Blake comes good. Somerset were the team Kent beat in the final last season and after a slow start to the County Championship they look to be coming to the boil nicely. The exciting opening pair of Tom Banton and Will Smeed will put fear into any bowling attack in this group while the likes of Tom Abell, Tom Lammonby and Lewis Gregory can’t be far away from the England setup again. Rilee Rossouw provides good batting strength and if the likes of Marchant de Lange and Ollie Sale can go well so can Somerset.
Hampshire Hawks and Sussex Sharks were the two losing semi-finalists last term. Hampshire have strengthened with the additions of Ben McDermott and Nathan Ellis, the latter being what they need with their death bowling hit and miss but Sussex look much weaker even with Mohammad Rizwan in their ranks. Chris Jordan and Phil Salt have left for pastures new while Rashid Khan will only be available for a few matches. Jofra Archer won’t play a single game and the status of Tymal Mills’ fitness is yet to be confirmed. The big improvers are likely to be Surrey given that they have recruited Kieron Pollard and Sunil Narine with Chris Jordan having already returned but the England call ups to Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes isn’t ideal. Gloucestershire, Glamorgan, Essex and Middlesex make up the group with Daniel Sams and eye catching overseas addition for Essex while Middlesex will see much more of Eoin Morgan.
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Surrey will lose players throughout the campaign but their depth is such that I still expect them to cope with that. Even without Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes, in the batting department they have Jason Roy, Will Jacks, Kieron Pollard, Jamie Smith, Laurie Evans, Rory Burns, Sunil Narine and both Currans while with the ball they have the two West Indies players, Chris Jordan, the Currans, Dan Moriarty, Jamie Overton, Dan Worrall and Reece Topley. There is an embarrassment of riches at Surrey and while that doesn’t necessarily equate to success it is abundantly clear that international call ups are not going to sway Surrey this time around. They are in buoyant mood as a squad as they’ve been flying in the County Championship and with everyone guaranteed to be around in the knockout stages should they make it there it is going to take a serious side to beat Surrey. I think at 9/1 they are the pick of the outright market.
I’ll also take one from the North Group where although I expect Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire to qualify for the knockout stages, the fourth space is up for grabs with the Birmingham Bears suffering from a shortage of seam bowlers to use. They have the batters and spinners to be competitive but I certainly think all the other six sides will be eyeing up that fourth spot. The team I fancy could push for it is the 2018 champions Worcestershire. They recruited well when they brought Ed Pollock in and he and Colin Munro with Moeen Ali at three form a formidable top order. There is no shortage of batting in the middle order either. If there is a weakness then it is the lack of a finisher with Ross Whiteley now at Hampshire however with the exception of Yorkshire there doesn’t look like there’s a team who will be great at the death so they might get away with what they’ve got. One team who could be good at the death is Worcestershire, particularly if Dwayne Bravo has a good campaign. If he does and if Pat Brown can return to his best form then Worcestershire are going to cause problems. I expect a lot of high scoring Worcestershire matches so the skill and canniness of Bravo and Brown could be the difference for the Rapids enough to make the top four and hopefully a few steps beyond.
BetVictor have priced up a top batsman market and it would be wrong not to get stuck into it so I’ll take a couple of picks. The first of them is Daniel Bell-Drummond, the player who topped the run charts in 2020 and was third last year. Simply speaking, he understands this format and is one of the better players in county cricket never to have played for England. He is well thought of though. He had a contract in The Hundred last year and will represent the London Spirit in it later this summer. Bell-Drummond has started the season well with two tons and an average of 42.44 in the County Championship and batting half of his matches on the great pitches at Canterbury is a massive advantage. At 28/1 he looks a big price to be high up on the run charts this season.
Only 14 players scored more runs last season than Will Smeed and of those 14 one isn’t in the competition this season, two are injured and another will miss most of the campaign on England duty. Smeed spent the early part of the year in the Pakistan Super League where he smacked a couple of 90s and he looks the real deal to me. I think he could have an exception season at a Taunton ground which clearly isn’t going to be big enough to contain him. We saw his class in The Hundred last season and with a year of experience under his belt and batting against some stars out in Pakistan I expect an even better Somerset star here. The 55/1 on any opener for a side with genuine top four claims is a ridiculous price but one as talented as Smeed it is an even crazier price.
Back Surrey to win Vitality Blast (e/w) for a 2/10 stake at 10.00 with Coral (1/2 1-2)
Back Worcestershire to win Vitality Blast (e/w) for a 1/10 stake at 15.00 with Coral (1/2 1-2)
Back them here:
Back D.Bell-Drummond Top Season Batter (e/w) for a 1/10 stake at 29.00 with BetVictor (1/4 1-4)
Back W.Smeed Top Season Batter (e/w) for a 1/10 stake at 56.00 with BetVictor (1/4 1-4)
Back them here: