Notts Outlaws launch their defence of the Royal London One-Day Cup on Thursday with a heavyweight showdown against Lancashire Lightning at Emirates Old Trafford, in the first televised domestic match of the season.
The day-night match is one of five that mark the start of the second phase of the summer, with a total of 72 games to be played in the space of 22 days before the six teams who qualify for the knockout stages are finalised.
As last year, the winners of the North and South Groups will earn home semi-finals, to be played on 17 and 18 June 17.
Their opponents will be determined by play-offs on 14 June with the second-placed team in the North Group at home to third in the South, and vice versa.
The final will be at Lord’s on Saturday 30 June.
Steven Mullaney’s Outlaws beat Surrey in last year’s final thanks mainly to a stunning innings by Alex Hales, the third time in as many years that Alec Stewart’s team have lost at Lord’s following previous defeats by Gloucestershire and Warwickshire.
Surrey begin their 2018 campaign against Somerset at the Kia Oval on Friday, when Sky’s cameras will stay in the north for the game between Durham and Yorkshire Vikings at the Emirates Riverside.
That game is set to feature the first appearance of the season by Adil Rashid, following his decision to play only white-ball cricket for Yorkshire this summer.
Reece Topley is also relishing the prospect of making his 2018 bow when Hampshire join the action against Sussex Sharks at the 1st Central County Ground in Hove on Saturday – when he may be joined by Mason Crane, the young leg-spinner who has been working his way back to fitness since being diagnosed with a stress fracture in his back early in England’s tour of New Zealand in March.
Later in the group stage there is the prospect of England white-ball stars currently in the Indian Premier League, such as Hales, Moeen Ali, Sam Billings, Jason Roy and Tom Curran, joining the fray – not to mention Sussex’s rising star Jofra Archer.
And although there will be no direct reward for placings in the Professional Cricketers Association’s MVP Rankings this season, with no North-South Series in 2019, the new National Selector Ed Smith and the Lions head coach Andy Flower will be keeping a close eye on performances ahead of a Tri-Series against India A and West Indies A starting on June 22.
Another feature of the group stages will be the range of outgrounds being used.
That will start with Middlesex’s first home game against Essex Eagles on Thursday, which will be played at Radlett. Middlesex, who are set to include England’s one-day captain Eoin Morgan but will be skippered by Steven Finn with Dawid Malan away on Test duty, also face Kent Spitfires in Radlett on Sunday, and then play Hampshire at Merchant Taylors in Northwood on 30 May – before concluding their campaign against Surrey at Lord’s on 3 June.
That game is also due to feature a certain Virat Kohli, following Surrey’s coup in signing the Indian superstar for a short-term stint ahead of India’s tour of England later in the summer.
As things stand, Kohli will make his Surrey debut against Kent Spitfires on 1 June at another outground – Beckenham, where the Spitfires will also host Gloucestershire two days later.
The Royal London One-Day Cup outground tour also takes in Welbeck, where Notts Outlaws face Northamptonshire Steelbacks on Sunday; Blackpool, where Lancashire host Warwickshire next Friday (25 May); South Northumberland CC, where Durham play Worcestershire on the same day; Oakham School, the venue for Leicestershire’s home game against Lancashire on 31 May; Eastbourne, where Sussex play Essex on 3 June; and Swansea, where Glamorgan play Hampshire, again on 3 June.