2018 Vitality Blast preview: Mark Butcher and Rob Key pick out their ones to watch
Watch Notts versus Birmingham in the first match of the Vitality Blast, live on Sky Sports Cricket from 6pm on Wednesday
Last Updated: 04/07/18 5:53pm
Who is in contention for the 2018 Vitality Blast?
Will Nottinghamshire defend their title? Can Jos Buttler blast Lancashire to the crown? Will Sussex's star-studded bowling attack fire them to victory?
We have tasked Sky Sports Cricket's Mark Butcher and Rob Key to answer all of this, and pick out their players to watch from the North and South groups...
Mark Butcher's North Group preview
Four teams to qualify - Birmingham, Lancashire, Northamptonshire and Nottinghamshire
Notts and Birmingham open up the tournament, live on Sky Sports on Wednesday, and they are among the favourites, having been champions and runners-up respectively last year.
The Bears have a new captain in former New Zealand all-rounder Grant Elliott and an exciting side brimming with a mix of youth and experience.
It gets a little less straightforward thereafter. It's very difficult to write off Northants, given the way they have performed in the competition in the last few years, and although Lancashire will not have Jos Buttler available until the back end of the competition, they are an exciting team with Liam Livingstone as captain.
With Lancs, James Faulkner is a player with a lot to prove. He lost his Australia contract after being a superstar of the world T20 game and will be absolutely desperate to make it again, while young leg-spinner Matt Parkinson is a really promising prospect.
Batsman to watch - Kane Williamson (Yorkshire)
Williamson is the batsman to watch anywhere, any time, any day. He is one of the names in the overseas ranks that is a superstar in the world game. A fabulous player!
I've watched him in the Indian Premier League for the last two or three years and last year, because David Warner was unable to play for Sunrisers Hyderabad, Kane got to play a whole season, as opposed to just a few games - and did a great job as captain.
Williamson is consistent and classical, but he also hits a lot of boundaries and a lot of sixes, playing in a manner that many people might not associate with him. He has the ability to have strike-rates of 150, 200, doing that throughout the IPL.
Bowler to watch - Imran Tahir (Durham)
He has been ranked the best T20 bowler in the world in the past, but strangely the South African leg-spinner falls in and out of favour with club T20 sides.
Some years he is the most sought-after player, other times he is the last man to be picked up. At the same time, in the middle overs of a match, Tahir can be a real match-winner and his celebrations are worth the entrance fees alone.
Young guns to watch - Henry Brookes (Birmingham) and Matt Critchley (Derbyshire)
Brookes is a teenage quick bowler for the Bears and I was really impressed with what I saw of him from the 50-over Royal London One-Day Cup competition. He bowled reverse-swing and yorkers at the death.
Critchley is a good all-rounder that I expect to have an impact on the competition with Derbyshire.
Fantasy team dream pick - Samit Patel (Notts)
I'd pick Patel. He is consistently one of the best white-ball performers in the country, and chips in with his left-arm spin as well as scoring runs for fun.
Rob Key's South Group preview
Four teams to qualify - Essex, Hampshire, Kent and Sussex
I would go for the two 50-over finalists, Hampshire and Kent. Just like Nottinghamshire dominated all white-ball cricket last year, I think those two teams are better equipped.
Hampshire have got Mujeeb Ur Rahman, the Afghanistan mystery spinner who lit up the IPL and will do well. The other team who I think have the best bowling attack in the country for T20, if everyone is fit - Tymal Mills, Jofra Archer, Chris Jordan, Rashid Khan - is Sussex.
Essex will be the final team to qualify. They always seem to be there or thereabouts in T20s.
Batsman to watch - Sam Northeast (Hampshire)
Northeast is definitely the one to watch. After his horrific finger injury, he's done well to get back as quickly as he has after an operation and will have a massive point to prove.
He is in good form for Hampshire and I am sure he will be one of the top run-scorers in the Blast. He plays the situation so well, has got a power game but also every facet needed. He is someone that reminds me a bit of Neil Mackenzie.
He will come in in the middle order and will play the situation well - play the right kind of knock whether it's batting first or chasing; if you need 10 an over or need to dig in on a bad pitch. That is what sets him apart.
Bowler to watch - Rashid Khan (Sussex)
The Afghanistan leg-spinner is arguably the most sought-after T20 player in the world as, wherever he goes, his teams do well. He won the Big Bash with Adelaide Strikers and got to the final of the IPL with Sunrisers.
He was that good in the final that the Chennai Super Kings' entire plan was to smash every other bowler except from him.
Shane Watson, who scored a hundred for Chennai, had a clear plan just to block Rashid's four overs and take everyone else at 10 an over. You could not have more of a compliment as a bowler.
Young gun to watch - Ollie Pope (Surrey)
Pope is an exciting prospect, and has been exceptional for Surrey in the County Championship so far this season. If a spot came up in the England team I wouldn't be afraid of chucking him in, he is that good.
We shouldn't be far off seeing him playing international cricket. He reminds me a little bit of Joe Root - he pulls, cuts and has everything you need for the international game.
As a batsman in T20s, it depends a little what role he will have for Surrey, but he is one of the most exciting players in the country.
Fantasy team dream pick - Rashid and Joe Denly (Kent)
Rashid of course, he is so good and is such an amazing story. He deals with the pressure in the biggest games, playing in the biggest grounds, the pressure of being an overseas player, and just takes it in his stride - like Muttiah Muralitharan did back in the day, or Shane Warne.
Denly too, he has come of age since his move back to Kent and is one of the best batsmen in the country. At any other time he would be playing for England but at the moment that white-ball team is so good that he can't get in it.
Watch Notts Outlaws take on Birmingham Bears in the first match of the Vitality Blast, live on Sky Sports Cricket and Main Event from 6pm on Wednesday.
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