Northamptonshire Steelbacks will launch their defence of the NatWest T20 Blast title on Friday 7 July against Derbyshire Falcons – a team determined to follow their example in showing that you don’t need a Test Match ground to succeed in the shortest form of the game.
The Falcons are one of two clubs, with Worcestershire, who have yet to reach Finals Day since county cricket introduced the world’s first Twenty20 Cup in 2003 – whereas a few junctions down the M1, the Steelbacks have made it to Edgbaston three times in the last four years, and last August were crowned champions for the second time after victory over Durham Jets.
Derbyshire’s chairman Chris Grant made a major T20 improvement a major priority for Kim Barnett, the county’s former captain and England batsman, when he appointed him director of cricket at the end of a disappointing 2016 season – and Barnett has responded by recruiting John Wright, the former New Zealand batsman who enjoyed huge success as India’s coach, as county cricket’s first specialist T20 guru.
Barnett confirms the move was only possible because of the Blast’s new place in the summer, with each county playing 14 qualifying matches in a six-week period between 7 July and 18 August, and Finals Day following two weeks later on 2 September – whereas last year, the Steelbacks started out on their odyssey to Edgbaston at Leicester on 20 May, more than 13 weeks earlier.
And with Wright’s first game in charge coming under the Friday night lights at Northampton, the laconic Kiwi should at least receive an early indication of his team’s prospects.
“Northants have proved what you can do in the Blast if you get a good thing going,” said Barnett. “We’re bringing in John Wright to try something new – new over here, anyway. As well as all his experience in international cricket with New Zealand and India, he knows the IPL – he won it with Mumbai Indians in his first year with them. We’re hoping he can have the same sort of impact with us.
“Obviously I played with him at Derbyshire so I know him very well, so he came to mind when we decided to go for this sort of appointment. And he fancied doing it. He’s going to come over in June, two or three weeks before the start of the competition. We’re already talking about overseas players – and I think there are going to be some very good ones available, considering the change in structure means the Blast comes straight after the end of the Champions Trophy.
“It was because the competition is segregated that gave us the opportunity to bring in John – it’s a definite period for his contract, hopefully ending on 2 September if things go very well and we get to Finals Day for the first time.”
That segregation, as Barnett describes it, has already helped to deliver a couple of exciting overseas names to the 2017 Blast – with the promise of plenty more to come.
James Faulkner, the Aussie allrounder who played such a key part in Lancashire Lightning’s first T20 title in 2015, will return for NatWest T20 Blast cricket only in 2017 – and is set to hit the ground running on the opening weekend, as Lightning start with a Friday night trip to Durham Jets before their home opener against Leicestershire Foxes on Sunday 9 July.
Essex have also snapped up a world-class left-arm quick in Mohammad Amir, the 24-year-old Pakistani who will also be available for Championship cricket when he joins them at the end of the Champions Trophy – but is set to be the centre of attention when the Eagles launch their Blast campaign at home to Surrey for the second consecutive year.
Other highlights of that opening Friday night round on July 7 are a West Midlands derby between Worcestershire Rapids and Birmingham Bears, which seems certain to generate a capacity crowd at New Road; and Gloucestershire launching their campaign in the stunning surroundings of the Cheltenham College ground as they face Middlesex in one of county cricket’s great Festivals, with Kent Spitfires and Sussex Sharks also due for Blast fixtures there against Richard Dawson’s team the following week.
Back in the North Group, John Wright’s Derbyshire Falcons have the chance to get off to a flier, as less than 24 hours after their Friday night opener at Northampton, they face Yorkshire Vikings the following afternoon at another of the game’s loveliest outgrounds, Queen’s Park in Chesterfield.
“That’s always a great occasion,” added Barnett. “It sometimes feels more like a home match for Yorkshire because the ground is so close to the border and all their supporters in Sheffield and South Yorkshire. But that means we get big crowds, usually capacity. And on a sunny afternoon, it’s a great place to play.”
The outground theme continues as the busy opening weekend concludes on Sunday afternoon with Sussex Sharks hosting Glamorgan in Arundel, and Kent Spitfires resuming their local rivalry with Essex Eagles at the County Ground, Beckenham.
Then the two biggest derbies of the lot, at least judging from crowd figures, should ensure a bumper second weekend, as Middlesex face Surrey at Lord’s on Thursday 13 July, and the following night Yorkshire Vikings cross the Pennines for their usual warm Lancashire welcome at Emirates Old Trafford.
The hectic pace continues until 18 August, and the last eight of the 126 group matches that will be played in just 43 days. The top four in each group, North and South, will qualify for quarter finals that are played over four consecutive evenings starting the following Tuesday (22 August), with the top two earning home advantage. And the winners of those four games will book their places for Finals Day, which is being staged at Edgbaston for the fifth year running.
Will the Steelbacks be there yet again? Or can the Falcons finally break their Finals Day duck?