This season's NatWest T20 Blast looks likely to be most entertaining so far
By Mark Crellin
Last Updated: 20/05/16 7:29pm
The international season got underway on Thursday, but lovers of the shortest form of the game are also well catered for on Sky Sports this summer, because the NatWest T20 Blast starts on Friday night.
The tournament is set to play out in front of packed crowds with ticket sales up a third on last year, as fans eagerly book in advance to make sure they can watch some of the biggest names in world cricket.
And England's vibrant performances at the World T20 in India, where they reached the final before losing a thriller to West Indies, have really whetted the appetite for this year's Blast.
Six matches get the tournament going on Thursday night and the Sky Sports 2 cameras will be at Chelmsford to watch Essex Eagles take on Surrey under the floodlights.
Essex are looking to reach finals day (Edgbaston, August 20) for the first time since 2013 and they have a squad packed with quality T20 performers.
Former England man Ravi Bopara has taken over as one-day skipper and he will be joined in the side by other crowd pleasers such as Jesse Ryder, Ryan ten Doeschate, Graham Napier and experienced wicket-keeper James Foster.
Most intriguingly of all, top-notch Pakistan international paceman Wahab Riaz is set to make his debut for the Eagles, having previously played for Kent and Surrey.
Essex may also give a debut to another Pakistani in the shape of Ashar Zaidi, an all-rounder who was player of the tournament in the 2015 Bangladesh Premier League.
However, the Eagles will have their work cut out on Friday against a Surrey side who can name one of the greatest batsmen of all time in their T20 squad.
Sri Lankan legend Kumar Sangakkara has been in prolific form in the County Championship this summer but is also an excellent white ball performer, winning the man-of-the-match award in the World T20 final of 2014 after making an unbeaten half-century to steer his country to glory.
Big-hitting Jason Roy played some superb innings for England in this year's World T20 and is also a reliable source of runs at the top of the Surrey order.
The duo will be key figures in a side which could also include Steven Davies, Azhar Mahmood and a pair of hugely exciting prospects in the shape of the Curran brothers, Sam and Tom.
Once the Indian Premier League has finished, some of the game's biggest hitters will be heading around the other counties, headed by master blaster Chris Gayle, who will be back for a second spell with Somerset.
The West Indian smashed 29 sixes in the tournament last year and several of Somerset's home games have already sold out, with punters eager to watch Gayle - and the Sri Lankan great Mahela Jaywardene.
Other household names who will be in action at various times during the Blast will be Brendon McCullum (Middlesex), Shahid Afridi and Darren Sammy (both Hampshire), Ross Taylor (Sussex) and Dale Steyn (Glamorgan).
Top-class New Zealand opener Martin Guptill will be at Lancashire Lightning, and it is easy to argue that last year's winners go into the tournament as the team to beat once again.
Guptil will be joined in the batting line-up by England's Jos Buttler, one of the most destructive T20 players on the planet on his day, and the Lightning also have an array of spinners well-versed in keeping things tight under pressure.
Don't miss Essex Eagles v Surrey in the T20 Blast, live on Sky Sports 2 HD from 7pm on Friday.