With English cricket set to blast off this weekend, and the competition set to be the biggest in English county cricket's history – attendance wise and big star wise – let's have a look at who looks set to impress and excite crowds far and wide this year.
Huge focus has been pushed onto the signings of big stars for this year's competition, counties have pushed the boundaries of previous years and gone beyond any previous expectation in grabbing the biggest name possible and pulling in the big crowds. Regulars of English cricket have returned, and some new names are set to grace our domestic competition and it looks set to be a fantastic affair.
Overseas players: Jesse Ryder, Wahab Riaz (first seven T20s), Adam Milne (from 20th July)
Key Player: Ravi Bopara
One to watch: Tom Westley
After what may be considered a disappointing campaign last season, Essex will be looking to make it to a first finals day since 2013, losing out to Birmingham Bears at the quarter-final stage in each of the last two years. Ravi Bopara will yet again be the linchpin of the Essex squad, his medium pace often ties down opposition batsmen in the middle overs, and his explosive batting has seen he become a force in recent season. Tom Westley provides boundaries at the top of the order and also some useful off spin, boasting a more than handy economy of 7.90 to go with 384 runs last season. Ryan Ten Doeschate can add impetus at the end of an innings while Wahab Riaz, Graham Napier and David Masters are more than capable at the death.
Overseas players: Jacques Rudolph, Shaun Tait (for second half of T20 Blast), Dale Steyn (Seven matches from June)
Key Player: Dean Cosker
One to watch: Aneurin Donald
After what can be described as relatively uninspiring performances in the last few years, having not made it out of the group stage since 2008 – Glamorgan will be looking to improve on what has been their weakest suit in recent times. The addition of Shaun Tait adds pace to an attack that can struggle at times. The Welshmen may have to rely on some powerful batting – Rudolph has international experience, youngsters Aneurin Donald and David Lloyd will look to add some useful runs and Craig Meschede will look to add fire late in the innings.
Overseas players: Michael Klinger (from late May), Andrew Tye
Key Player: Michael Klinger
One to watch: David Payne
Like Glamorgan, Gloucestershire have struggled in recent times – failing to make the Quarter Finals since 2012. However, last time out Michael Klinger had an outstanding season. Three centuries and four fifties at an outstanding strike rate of 142 – Klinger will no doubt be the danger man for this Gloucestershire team. Hamish Marshall can add firepower, and his experience no doubt comes in handy while Kieran Noema-Barnett is the all-rounder option with his medium pacers. David Payne offers plenty of potential opening the bowling, but I cannot see Gloucestershire challenging the international prestige other teams can boast.
Overseas Players: Ryan McLaren, Shahid Afridi, Darren Sammy
Key Player: Michael Carberry
One to watch: Mason Crane
Hampshire's top order did a lot of the work in 2015, James Vince had an outstanding tournament while the opening pair of Michael Carberry and Jimmy Adams set the tone at the top of the innings. With James Vince set to be away with England for the majority of the summer, the onus will fall on someone else this season – and Carberry is my tip to step up. He has all the shots and likes to play them. He takes on the opening bowler and can add runs quickly. The additions of power lower order hitters in Afridi and Sammy may just be the difference this time around while Reece Topley will be a threat with the new ball. They may, however, be crowded out of qualification this season, though. With the South Group looking very tough.
Overseas Players: Kagiso Rabada (30 June – 24 July), Tom Latham
Key Player: Sam Billings
One to watch: Daniel Bell-Drummond
Kent topped the table last season – their team provides a good mix of explosive batting, lower order contributions and economical bowling. Darren Stevens is the epitome of those features, his bowling is often very crucial – as well as his big-hitting style which so often comes off. Daniel Bell-Drummond will be looking to crack on from an impressive season last time round. Sam Northeast and Sam Billings are both explosive hitters in the middle order, Billings can finish the innings off with some serious hitting – and his experience of playing in the IPL can surely only be a positive for this Kent team.
Overseas Players: Brendon McCullum, Mitchell McClenaghan
Key Player: Dawid Malan
One to watch: Ollie Rayner
Brendon McCullum is a massive coup for the Londoners who have struggled in the domestic t20 – making only one appearance at finals day since the tournament's inception. McCullum's presence at the top of the order is integral – his audacity and shot making ability will be crucial for Middlesex to stand any chance of qualifying for the Quarter Finals for the first time since 2008. Mitch McClenaghan is a useful t20 bowler, and his left-arm angle may just be the wicket taking option that has been elusive for the Londoners. Eoin Morgan's returns this season will again be crucial, having not been in the best of the form last season – when Morgan is in form, he adds so much to this side. James Fuller's limited over prowess will be another key factor is turning round the fortunes of the London-based side.
Overseas Players: Chris Gayle, Mahela Jayawardene
Key Player: Jim Allenby
One to watch: Craig Overton
The loss of Alfonso Thomas will leave a gap to fill in Somerset's death bowling, a hole that the Overton twins will be looking to fill. Craig and Jamie offer serious pace, which is put to good use at Taunton on what is often a flat wicket. Chris Gayle will no doubt enjoy the pitches in the West Country, while Sri Lanka legend Mahela Jayawardene accumulative and simple style should be the backbone of many a big score – the question will be whether the bowlers can defend these totals.
Overseas Players: Aaron Finch, Kumar Sangakkara, Dwayne Bravo (until July), Chris Morris (post-July)
Key Player: Kumar Sangakkara
One to watch: Sam Curran
Surrey look to have gone for it this year, the signing of Aaron Finch whose explosive style will mimic that of Jason Roy who will undoubtedly be away on England duty more often than not. Kumar Sangakkara is a delightful player to have on your the team and he will score runs. Surrey have plenty of runs in the team, the question will be asked of the bowling department. Brothers Sam and Tom Curran share the responsibility of the death bowling with the experienced Azhar Mahmood – and surely should go to at least the quarter-finals.
Overseas Players: Ross Taylor, Mustafizur Rahman
Key Player: Luke Wright
One to watch: Craig Cachopa
Luke Wright and Chris Nash form an outstanding duo at the top of the order, explosive hitting during the powerplay being one of their finer suits. Last season brought the quarter-finals, losing out to Northamptonshire at that stage, but they will be looking to go one better this time. Mustafizur's skill at the death will be pivotal if they are to qualify, his variations and slower balls impressed during the recent world T20 for Bangladesh, and is a signing I am very excited about. Ross Taylor has the potential to hold together if needed, or add late impetus if the situation fits – he is a player for all situations, and will be important to the cause if Sussex do qualify. Craig Cachopa looks like a young player with a great amount of a potential and having spent winter plying his trade in New Zealand's domestic competition will again be looking to showcase his talents in what looks a strong Sussex side on paper.
Overseas Players: Jeetan Patel, Luke Ronchi
Key Player: Jeetan Patel
One to watch: Laurie Evans
Birmingham boast a strong squad, greater than the sum of its parts. Having won the inaugural T20 blast in 2014, they reached a second consecutive finals day last term – losing at the semi-final stage. England quality does run through the team, Ian Bell looks set to play more of a role this year after losing his England place and Chris Woakes is looking for a place in England's limited overs squads so will be looking to perform. Laurie Evans is a powerful middle order batsman in what can be a dangerous lineup, the hitting of Rikki Clarke, Woakes and new signing Ronchi will look to set the innings alight and set up some big totals.
Overseas Players: Hamish Rutherford, Jimmy Neesham
Key Player: Jimmy Neesham
One to watch: Shiv Thakor
Derbyshire are often the whipping boys of the North Group – last season only brought four wins. However, Derbyshire do possess some potential this season. Jimmy Neesham is a useful all-rounder, with some useful medium fast overs and some destructive lower order hitting he can propel the Falcons to some big scores. Chesney Hughes and Wes Durston are key if Derbyshire are going to do any better this season, some runs will go a long way to helping this Derbyshire side be more of a threat.
Overseas Players: None.
Key player: Mark Stoneman
One to watch: Jack Burnham
With financial restraints preventing the Northerners from adding to what is largely a young squad, Durham do look set to continue their recent trend of struggling in the shorter format. Some potential is in the squad, young Jack Burnham is set for his first season of t20 and has shown early promise in his County Championship performances so far this season. The experience of Paul Collingwood can turn games, his medium pace is hard to get away and is rarely dominated by batsmen, and he possess a batting style that again can propel the Jets to big scores. Mark Stoneman is a quality batsman and will be looking at the powerplay overs as a key time to score runs, and will be looking for some big innings this season. Durham's bowling is slightly weaker in this form, their small squad doesn't allow for much chopping and changing and the pair of Graham Onions and Chris Rushworth aren't as effective in this form than in the longer forms.
Overseas Players: Neil Wagner, Martin Guptill
Key player: Karl Brown
One to watch: Jordan Clark
The reigning champions will be looking to hold on to that crown, but having lost James Faulkner will have a large gap to fill in their lower middle order. The Red Rose's youngsters are up to that task, however, Liam Livingstone has already played some great innings so far this County Championship season – and there is no doubting that Karl Brown and Jordan Clark have the ability to clear the boundary when needed. Arron Lilley and Stephen Parry offer a couple of spin options and wicket-taking options at that. Parry's left-arm spin saw him gain an England place as recently as November 2015 – and will be looking to return to the form that saw him gain that accolade. Lancashire look strong again, and with Martin Guptill at the top of the order, will be looking again to get through to a third consecutive finals day – and I would expect them to do so.
Overseas Players: Clint McKay, Umar Akmal, Rilee Roussow
Key Player: Neil Dexter
One to watch: Jigar Naik
After a disappointing campaign last season, having failed to qualify Leicestershire have rung the changes during the post season. The incomings of Neil Dexter and Paul Horton offer some experience and Horton has had success in this tournament with previous county Lancashire. Both are talented batsmen with fighting ability and will be looking to change the fortunes of the Midlanders. Umar Akmal returns to the Foxes after an impressive first season for them, and the addition of Rilee Roussow adds to Akmal's flashy array of shots. Leicestershire's bowling may leave a little to desire but the experience of Clint McKay at the death could be key. Charlie Shreck and Ben Raine will be looking to improve on their returns last season. Leicestershire are my outside bet for the North Group – in the Northamptonshire mould of recent season I see this team as one with huge potential and could most definitely shock a few this season.
Overseas Players: Rory Kleinveldt, Seekkuge Prasanna
Key Player: Richard Levi
One to watch: Ben Duckett
Northamptonshire's fortunes look to have changed, the loss of David Willey to Yorkshire is a huge detriment to what would have otherwise been a team looking to consolidate from their final appearance last year. I can only see much lesser fortunes this season, struggling to qualify at least. Ben Duckett does however possess potential and support for the powerful South African Richard Levi who, let's not forget, holds the record for faster international t20 century. Josh Cobb is useful in the middle order and his spin can be economical but fast bowling looks weak. Azarullah can be good at the depth, but again the loss of Willey will affect wicket-taking ability in this Northamptonshire team.
Overseas Players: Dan Christian
Key Player: Samit Patel
One to watch: Harry Gurney
Nottinghamshire look set to lose out on the back of England call-ups this season, with Alex Hales, Stuart Broad and Jake Ball all in the England test set-up they look a much weaker team without those names considered. Riki Wessels and Samit Patel are always reliable performers in this format but Hales' international quality will be missed at the top of the order. Dan Christian's arrival from Australia to captain the side brings the Outlaws some experience in this format, and he brings his class as a power-hitting all-rounder. The sad retirement of James Taylor leaves a huge void in this Nottinghamshire team and his contribution was always one that was match-changing for the Outlaws. Jackson Bird and fan favourite Luke Fletcher are a more than useful opening pair, and Patel's middle over spin will be crucial if this side are to challenge.
Overseas Players: Matt Henry (until end of June), Kyle Abbott (from July), Mitchell Santner
Key Player: Ross Whiteley
One to watch: Ross Whiteley
Worcestershire qualified for the quarter-finals last season and look set to challenge again with the arrival of talented young spinner Mitchell Santer, and his fellow New Zealander Matt Henry. Both are skilled bowlers and will take up the majority of the workload in the early and middle overs. This gives a little more freedom for Jack Shantry to show off his talents as Henry's opening partner. Brett D'Oliveria has been in outstanding form so far this season, and will be looking to showcase this form in the shorter format. Ross Whiteley, too, has huge potential. Some great innings last season propelled the Rapids to that quarter-final spot. His attacking batting earned him an England Lions call up over the winter and another good campaign may even throw his name into the England set-up.
Overseas Players: Kane Williamson, Travis Head
Key Player: David Willey
One to watch: Jack Leaning
The pivotal addition of David Willey to this squad can improve this Yorkshire squad greatly, his powerful batting at the top of the order has been a great success for Northamptonshire in recent seasons and his left arm seam new-ball bowling can often break through the opening defences of opposition teams. Young talent such as newly appointed T20 captain Alex Lees, Jack Leaning and Karl Carver look to have set up a great talent pool. Carver himself will be looking to cement a spot after his breakthrough season last year at such a young age. Adil Rashid's spin will be highly useful when he is available – and how this Yorkshire side copes with England call-ups will tell the tale of how their season plays out.
It looks set to be the biggest blast yet, England's T20 competition has proved the hub for promoting young English talent and the attendances this year are proposed to be great than ever seen before at this level. Some big attendances, some big hitting and some thrilling matches will no doubt get fans across the 18 counties – hopefully showing the ECB what it would be missing should they opt for franchise based T20 in the future. My tip for this year's competition would be Surrey. A strong squad with a great brand of cricket and a good blend of youth and experience should show and come through a tough South group – and put an end to the domination of the North group through recent times. As for highest run scorer, it's hard to look past Surrey's Kumar Sangakkara – his elegance and presence alone is enough to deter a bowler. And leading wicket taker I expect Mustafizur Rahman to be high on that list, his relatively unknown variations will be difficult for batsmen to get a hold of – and I think we will see Sussex benefit from this exciting signing.
Previews by Charlie Jennings (@AVCJX)
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