A smashing time!
Ian Ward gives his views on this year's big-hitters as the new Twenty20 Cup season explodes into life.
Last Updated: 27/05/09 12:13pm
The Twenty20 Cup explodes back into life on Bank Holiday Monday with an eight-game extravaganza!
This year the high-octane tournament is split into four stages and will culminate with Finals Day on August 15 at Edgbaston, where four teams will strive to succeed Middlesex Panthers as champions.
Before then the group phase of the competition sandwiches the ICC World Twenty20 and, as ever, Sky Sports will bring you the best of all of the action.
To kick things off, here are the thoughts of former Surrey, Sussex and England batsman Ian Ward on who'll hit it out the park and which teams could be on the receiving end.
Durham will not have a problem taking wickets. Their seam bowling line-up is ferocious. Now that they've added the spin of Ian Blackwell, they have the potential to take wickets early on and squeeze the middle period as well - much as Shaun Udal and Murali Kartik did last year for Middlesex. If they play two spinners in Blackwell and Gareth Breese, they have as strong a bowling line-up as there is in county cricket. Neil Killeen will chip in with wickets at the end of the innings as well. But can they get totals on the board? Blackwell's dynamic hitting will help but scoring runs could well hold them back.
Derbyshire have had a solid start to the County Championship season but I cannot see them challenging in Twenty20 cricket and Chris Rogers will have his work cut out as skipper. That said, captaincy is often over-rated in this format of the game because you are so limited in terms of what you can do tactically on the field. Wavell Hinds is a very talented cricketer and perhaps he can kick-start the side; he's yet to hit three figures for Derbyshire against another county so perhaps a Twenty20 hundred would be the way to start!
Lancashire have a reasonably solid record in Twenty20 - they pushed Durham hard last year - but it's normally a case of close but no cigar for them. Peter Moores has done great things with them so far this season. I was very impressed with them the way they beat Derbyshire in the FP Trophy. They looked a well-drilled unit. But Moores never really had a run of Twenty20 success with Sussex, so he has got to put his thinking cap on this year with a different set of players and come up with a formula to get them into shape. Their progress in the competition might depend of whether they can get Andrew Flintoff involved somewhere down the line. He told me the other day he'd be very lucky to play in the ICC World Twenty20 but didn't dismiss the idea of turning out for Lancashire ahead of the Ashes.
Leicestershire used to be the kings of Twenty20 with Darren Maddy at the helm but those times have long since gone. They only won twice last year which is a remarkable turnaround. They still have people in their squad like captain Paul Nixon who are capable of leading the way and can recall how they won in previous years but can the senior guys pass that knowledge onto the younger guys in the squad? They must work out who is going to replace Maddy and Jeremy Snape and although Claude Henderson's spin will be very important, I think this will be another tough year for them.
Nottinghamshire are always competitive in all cricket and yet have no real track record in Twenty20. I know they have been planning for the absences of Graeme Swann, Stuart Broad and Ryan Sidebottom in all forms of cricket but they are still huge losses, in particular Swann. But Samit Patel will be desperate to prove to the selectors that he has lost weight and is fit. If you put him in England's Twenty20 squad, it looks a much more balanced unit all of a sudden. He will now have to earn his place again. I hope he watches the World Twenty20 and thinks 'that's where I should be' and that it inspires him to perform for Notts. Slow bowlers in this country are always a handy asset plus he can bat brilliantly as well.
Yorkshire have got some very good one-day players, Anthony McGrath to name but one. Rana Naved-ul-Hasan might go for a few but he will also take wickets and if you can knock over two, three or four at the top you are always in the game. It will be interesting to see how Adil Rashid goes as well. In years gone by a talented, young leg-spinner would probably have been held back for County Championship stuff so if he did get whacked it wouldn't matter because it's a long four-day game but the way cricket has evolved there is no longer any place to hide.
Glamorgan have included Robert Croft in their squad for their opening match which interests me because by and large he hasn't played a great deal in the FP Trophy. Croft and Dean Cosker have always been effective bowling in tandem but perhaps the emphasis has now shifted to a Dalrymple-Cosker partnership. We shall see. Big-hitting Australian Mark Cosgrove is well-suited to Twenty20 but it won't make any difference unless Glamorgan improve their fielding and their disciplines. I watched them last week and they were poor in the field; if they repeat that performance in Twenty20, they are going to get panned.
Gloucestershire won just once last year so there's definitely a challenge for John Bracewell at Bristol! He's done brilliantly since he's returned and the county's one-day form in the FP Trophy has been good. At times over the last couple of years Gloucestershire have looked confused in Twenty20 cricket in terms of how they are going about it. I'm sure Bracewell will clarify how things should be done and give his players some good tactics to go and implement. This is a side that works particularly well when they are given a clear game-plan so I'm looking for a vast improvement from them on last year. Signing Stuart Clark will help their cause no end if the deal goes through although I must admit I am torn on the issue. I had no problem with him signing for Kent at the start of the season because the amount of cricket he would have played would have benefitted the younger players. But I'm not sure how much he can offer the Gloucestershire dressing room over the course of just a few games.
Northamptonshire have just signed Ian Harvey, who is still very fit and not so long ago was named as the ICL's Man of the Tournament. He's proved more than capable in the past of scoring hundreds in Twenty20 cricket and players who can do that don't come around very often. If he can stay fit and find his rhythm with bat and ball then he should prove quite a handy acquisition. But they have lost spinner Jason Brown, which I can't help but feel will hurt their Twenty20 aspirations and add to Nicky Boje's workload. Brownie used to bowl at the death, which is unusual for a slow bowler, but he did it well. Johan van der Wath can bowl quickly when his mind and body are right; he's a good death bowler but also properly whacks it. He's cut from the same sort of cloth as Azhar Mahmood. So they have got match-winners but can they put it together as a team? I felt their heads dropped when we saw them in the FP Trophy on Sky down at Essex and you cannot afford to do that in Twenty20.
Somerset's strength is obviously their batting - principally James Hildreth, Marcus Trescothick, Justin Langer, Arul Suppiah and the wicketkeeper Craig Kieswetter. Perhaps Trescothick will show us what we are all missing at international level. Peter Trego is a very good all-rounder and will help the Sabres rack up some big scores as well as chase down some daunting totals, particularly at Taunton. But the question with Somerset in all forms of the game is can they take enough wickets? Containment simply isn't the best way to slow the run-rate anymore - you have to dismiss batsmen or you will get hit out of the game.
Warwickshire will be hugely disappointed to just miss out on a spot in the FP Trophy quarter-finals so I'll be looking to see how quickly they can bounce back from that. They had a decent run last year, winning six games out of 10 before losing in the quarter-finals. Darren Maddy is Mr Twenty20 so his cruciate ligament injury is a massive blow to the county. I'm expecting big things from Chris Woakes while Jeetan Patel is a very talented off-spinner, so there is enough quality in the squad. There is something about Warwickshire that I like when I watch them play one-day cricket but I just wonder if this is another year which may pass them by. Ashley Giles is doing a great job but will need some more time to get his ideas across, while as a new captain in the fastest form of the game Ian Westwood will need as much luck as he can get. It's a big competition for him and I wish him well.Worcestershire endured a poor year last year, winning only three times, which is remarkable when you consider the talent they've got at their disposal. Vikram Solanki is one of the most talented batsmen in England and, as a side, they tend to play well at New Road. They have two decent one-day spinners in Gareth Batty and Ian Fisher, who has made the switch from Gloucestershire, and hopefully Matt Mason will be available too. Perhaps the most important factor for the Royals will be the fitness and form of Kabir Ali. When you put all of those names together it's tough to see how Worcestershire cannot progress past the group stages but I'm not sure they have enough to win it.
Essex should do well again, however, they will have to do so without Ravi Bopara, James Foster and Graham Napier who are all with England. . To put it bluntly, the Eagles are victims of their own success. If, like me, you believe Twenty20 is about whacking it over the boundary then Napier and Bopara are both big losses, but for me Foster is the key absentee because he makes that side tick. He gets up to the stumps, a la Jack Russell, and keeps well to the seamers and the world-class Danish Kaneria. Whoever replaces has got massive shoes to fill. Covering him is going to be Essex's biggest problem.
Hampshire are an interesting case because I've heard only good things about them from Dominic Cork, who gives a lot of credit to coach Giles White. He says White is very calm, very thoughtful and runs a very relaxed side and that approach could be key in Twenty20. If there is bedlam on the field, the last thing you want is bedlam off it. Cork will obviously make a big impact because he's a very good one-day cricketer but their problem will be losing their captain to England. Dimitri Mascarenhas is a massive player for them, particularly in the one-day arena. But they have a very decent squad. Nic Pothas is a very able wicketkeeper-batsman and I have high hopes for Liam Dawson, both with bat and ball.
Kent are a good one-day side who will do well again despite Yasir Arafat's departure to Sussex and Robert Key's England call-up. That very impressive partnership between Key and Joe Denly is now broken, so perhaps Geraint Jones will go up to fill the void. He's been batting at four and I think he'll do a very good job at the top of the order. Kent still have the cricketers to do really well and perhaps go on and win it - I'm thinking of the likes of Justin Kemp, Darren Stevens and Azhar Mahmood, all of whom are potential match-winners.
Defending champions Middlesex could start the Twenty20 season without at least six of their winning side from last year. Owais Shah and Eoin Morgan are on England duty, Murali Kartik is playing in the IPL, Ed Joyce has gone to Sussex, Tim Murtagh's injured and Dirk Nannes is no longer around. Much of their success last year was based on Nannes' early wickets, followed by Shaun Udal and Kartik bowling in tandem leaving Joyce, Morgan and Malan to score the runs. Those tactics have gone out the window now, so a lot will depend on whether Steve Finn can take wickets with the new ball. As defending champions they will still have a feel for the game but I think they are going to struggle more this year because of the players who are absent.
Surrey are unlikely to do much until next year. They have a reasonable Twenty20 pedigree and they have a good spinner in Chris Schofield but I don't think they have enough firepower with the ball. Andre Nel was obviously brought in to get wickets but at some point Chris Adams will have to rest him because it is a hell of a long season; Surrey won't want to blast him out too early in the year. Much will depend on whether Grant Elliott can repay the faith that Surrey have shown in him; he has got a very good one-day record for New Zealand.
Everything Adams is doing at the Oval is great. The players are enjoying it but it will take time for his ideas to bed in. There hasn't been much consistency in selection because Chris is trying to find out who his best players are plus they've had injuries. To make matters worse, there's no question that this is the toughest group of the three to get out of.
Sussex are an odd Twenty20 side. Sometimes players have a feel for a certain format of the game. When I was winning Championships at Surrey, the ship ran itself when it came to four-day cricket and that became the mode at Sussex. But I never got that impression at Hove in Twenty20. That's the key for them. Can they begin to understand Twenty20 cricket? They've lost Luke Wright to England but have regained Matt Prior plus they have a new captain in Michael Yardy and a change of attitude and direction in terms of Twenty20 cricket might turn out to be to their advantage. With the players they have had at their disposal over the last few years, they really should be performing better in that format of the game. James Kirtley is still a very, very good one-day cricketer, as is Robin Martin-Jenkins, while Murray Goodwin is a lynch-pin. The challenge for Mark Robinson and Yardy is to find the right formula.