From Jon Culley, ECB Reporters’ Network
Samit Patel’s memories of his first Twenty20 match for Nottinghamshire are understandably a little hazy.
After all, the veteran Nottinghamshire all-rounder is about to embark on his 20th consecutive season in what is now the Vitality Blast - one of only four participants from the inaugural season back in 2003 who are still playing, the others being Tim Murtagh, Darren Stevens and Ravi Bopara.
“My first-ever T20 was against Yorkshire at Headingley,” he says, forgetting that he’d actually made his debut in the competition against Leicestershire at Trent Bridge three days earlier.
In fact, the Yorkshire match was the first in which he had been asked to bowl his left-arm spin, so he was half right. Given what happened, it is hardly surprising that it sticks in the memory.
“The first ball was a no-ball and got hit for six,” he recalls, ruefully. “The second one went for six too. So I had gone for 14 from one ball. It didn’t go down too well.
“I was still at school and it was on Sky, so everyone was watching - and that happens. On the basis of that, who would have thought I’d still be playing now?”
Yet Nottinghamshire didn’t hold it against him.
The opening match of the 2022 Vitality Blast programme against Worcestershire at Trent Bridge on 27 May is set to be Patel’s 207th in an Outlaws shirt.
It took him until his fifth match to claim a first wicket, but since then there has been no looking back and he goes into the new campaign with 181 wickets for the county at a highly respectable 26.30.
He won 18 England caps in the format as well, in addition to his 36 one-day internationals and six Test match appearances.
Now a T20 specialist playing tournaments around the world, last season he became the first English player to complete the double of 250 wickets and 5000 runs in domestic matches in the format.
Offering elegant yet powerful batting in the middle order and economical, canny bowling of the kind that has proved so effective in the short game, he is almost the ideal T20 player.
“I’m hugely proud of my record,” Patel said.
“If there is a slight disappointment it is that I’ve never scored a T20 hundred.
“It’s a bit of a regret but it is pretty difficult batting at five. The best I’ve had is 90 not out at Headingley. But I pride myself in batting in that middle order and holding the innings together so not getting a hundred doesn’t bother me that much.
“Getting the team into a winning position is the main thing, making a contribution. Getting a quick 40 in the middle order can be just as important as a hundred at the top.”
In his bowling, moreover, he can boast of an achievement unparalleled in Blast history, his 4-1-4-3 against Worcestershire at Trent Bridge entering the record books as the most economical four-over spell the competition has seen.
Not that the chance to make that elusive century might not still lie ahead.
At 37 years and five months, the second youngest of the aforementioned evergreen quartet - of which Darren Stevens, at 46, is the unchallenged daddy of them all - he isn’t through yet.
“At present I’m looking at another three seasons,” he says. “Giving up red-ball cricket a couple of years ago was the best thing I’ve done.
“It means I can keep myself fresh and hopefully at my best for the T20 tournaments and it has definitely lengthened my career.
“I’m looking at getting another couple of trophies in the bank as well.”
Patel has won two Blast titles with Nottinghamshire, in 2017 and in front of an empty stadium in 2020. Not surprisingly, the 2017 final before a packed house at Edgbaston is the stand-out occasion.
“You can’t forget 2017,” he said. “A fantastic season for us with winning the Royal London as well as the Blast and getting promoted in the Championship.
“We played some great cricket on Finals Day and the partnership between me and Brendan Taylor that put on 132 in the final against Birmingham is a real highlight for me.”
The evolution of Twenty20 cricket in Patel’s time has been startling.
“When it came in 2003 it was just a bit of a laugh and a giggle really,” he recalls.
“We had what on paper would look a good T20 team but it took us a couple of years to work things out.
“But since then we’ve seen the game get better year on year in ways we couldn’t have predicted. Who would have thought that spinners would be the most effective bowlers?
“Logically, you would think that the spinners should go out of the park but it’s the other way around. Pace on goes out of the park, pace off doesn’t.”
The other big change has been in the stands, with the crowds attracted to the spectacle of rapid-fire cricket dwarfing anything the county game had seen before, aside perhaps from the biggest knock-out matches.
Trent Bridge now regularly pulls in 12,000 and above on Blast nights and the noise level at times can rival the City Ground across the road.
“We love that, and that’s why we always set out to play entertaining cricket and that’s the way all teams should look at it because that’s what the crowds want to see,” Patel said.
“From a personal point of view it’s why I play. I play for the crowd and I play off the crowd a little bit too.
“The atmosphere here on big nights here at Trent Bridge is up there with the best grounds in the world, in my opinion. To have been able to call it home for 25 years is a really special thing.”
This summer is the 20th anniversary of professional domestic T20 cricket in England and Wales. To join in the celebrations and enjoy the thrilling atmosphere of a Vitality Blast match you can book tickets for your local county now, via this link.