In this bumper preview piece for 2021's Vitality Blast, you can find all the info you need ahead of the ECB's domestic t20 league. We have the structure sorted, the teams previewed, and more, in the only piece you'll need to read ahead of the 19th t20 comp here...
The first day of games in the 2021 Blast take place on Wednesday the 9th of June, with Lancashire Lightning hosting the Derbyshire Falcons at 2:30 in game one, with three more that evening, including Notts Outlaws' trip to Worcester live on Sky Sports at 5:30.
After last year's truncated tournament, the Blast returns to a full schedule this year. The 18 counties are split into the North and South groups, and each play each other twice; once at home, and once away.
From the nine team groups, the top four counties progress to the quarter-finales, with the fixtures decided by what I'm coining as the criss-cross mechanism! Simply put, top in one group will face fourth in the other, and so on.
After the completion of the quarter-finals in late August, the four winning sides will progress through to Finals Day, which will be held at Edgbaston on September the 18th, where, after two semi-finals, and then the final, your 2021 t20 Blast champions will be crowned!
After a tie in the quarter-final against the Leicestershire Foxes, and a Dan Christian rescue mission in the semi-final against the Lancashire Lightning, Notts Outlaws took the 2020 title, beating Surrey in the final.
It was a second win for the men in green and gold, leaving them level with the Northants Steelbacks and Hampshire, but behind the Leicestershire Foxes, the only three time winner.
Worcestershire Rapids have made the final on two of the last three occasions, winning in 2018, with the Essex Eagles the victor in 2019, the last tournament in front of a crowd.
Speaking of crowds, tickets are on sale! While grounds won't be at full capacity for a few weeks (likely the 21st of June, although that date could be pushed back), you can still go and cheer on your side! I'll be at Trent Bridge on Friday night, hopefully to see the Outlaws hammer the Bears...
The Bears managed a decent five wins from ten games last year, and have a squad that covers all areas, a perhaps underrated factor in t20s. However, I don't think they'll have enough to escape the difficult North group.
The key player for the Bears is Danny Briggs. His economical spin bowling sees him have an economy of just 7.22 from 183 t20s. With Chris Woakes' availability not yet confirmed, the Bears, despite having a good squad, perhaps lack the star quality to get them to to the knockout stages. If they are to, then Briggs' bowling will be key.
Carlos Brathwaite is the Bears' overseas. While he hasn't lived up to the expected heights after those sixes against England in the World t20 Final, back in 2016, he is a useful hitter, and offers a service with the ball, that may prove useful on the biggish playing area at Edgbaston. He was especially good for the Sydney Sixers in their successful title defence in the Big Bash. SAffer Pieter Malan is the other overseas.
While Derbyshire had a good run in 2019, reaching finals day for the first time, they got just one win from ten last year, in a return to their usual form. Unfortunately for them, I don't see it getting much better this year.
One wonders if this could be 24-year old Matt Critchley's break through season in the Blast. He's started the Championship in good form, and could carry that on. While yet to fully fire in the Blast, I'd expect him to have a decent time of it this time round. He plays some nice shots, and legspin has been successful for the past few years in t20.
But with overseas Billy Stanlake injured, and Ben McDermott called up to the Australia squad, Derbyshire have been stripped of two key players. All-rounder Logan van Beek is the replacement, and while a good cricketer, I think any chance the Falcons had has likely got on the plane with McDermott.
It was a mediocre nine points from ten games for Durham last year, who are still reeling from their financial difficulties of a few years back. However, with Ben Stokes available for a few games, dependent on when his return is confirmed, Durham may upset a few sides.
Electric quick Brydon Carse will be one to keep an eye on. With very good pace, if he clicks in the t20 format, Durham could have a really strong bowling option, that ought to aid their side.
However, the county will probably struggle this year. With Cam Bancroft, the sluggish Aussie, and David Bedingham, a more F/C than t20 player, the overseas options, I don't see who will deliver the wins for them.
Definitely the top order line-up to be scared of, Lancs will be hoping they can continue their good form in the Blast, having made at least the quarter-finals in the last three years. With Jos Buttler available for the first six games, fireworks are to be expected.
Picking a key player is difficult, especially given the likelihood of international selection. So, watch out for leggie genius Matt Parkinson, reverse-swinging quick Saqib Mahmood and, of course, big hitter Liam Livingstone. There's also pocket hitter Alex Davies, who will hurt a few sides, and captain Dane Vilas is an experienced leader. It's fair to say Lancs have some good players!
The Lightning's overseas is young, totally aggressive New Zealand batter Finn Allen. He is just 22, but has a boundary percentage of 29% from his 16 t20s so far!!! This is phenomenal (Andre Russell, the best t20 bat in the world, has 25%), and while Allen's stats are helped by the small boundaries in New Zealand, and the small sample size, I think the hype is real.
The Foxes suffered a heart-breaking elimination last year, having tied the quarter-final (due to a misfield), to local rivals Notts, but losing having scored less in the powerplay. It was a very good year for them, and they could go further this time round.
Left-arm spinner Callum Parkinson has a good t20 record, able to bowl economically and pick up wickets. Twin to Lancs' Matt, he'll prove a valuable asset for the Foxes, should they want to try and go one step further, and make finals day.
Star Josh Inglis has not been selected for the Aussie squad, which is a) poor from them, but also b) great news for the Foxes. He'll add some real firepower to their top order, but he could also slot into the middle order to get their rate up there. Afghani bowler Naveen-ul-Haq is also signed on, and at just 21, he's highly rated, and I'd expect to see him trouble batters.
What the Steelbacks lack in big names, they make up for with consistency. They were second in their group last year, and have won the tournament twice, in 2013 and 2015, finishing second in 2016.
The experienced Graeme White is the key man. He constantly takes wickets for the Steelbacks, with the joint most for them last year. He can also prove handy with the bat, and it's players like him that make Northants such an impressive side. No huge names, but consistent performers.
Mohammed Nabi is the big overseas signing, able to bowl some cheap overs. And while inconsistent with the bat, when he gets going, he hits it very very far. Given how difficult mid-lower order hitting is in t20, a good performance from him would prove massive or Northants. Wayne Parnell is the other overseas player, and his death bowling is decent.
The defending champs, Notts are one of the best white-ball sides in the UK. Since 2010, they've made at least the quarter-finals every year bar 2015, where they missed out on the final knockout stage position on net run rate. A lot of that success has been down to Dan Christian, but, for the first time since 2015, he will not be leading Notts, having been called up by the Aussies.
As with Lancs, there are too many key players to choose from. But in Joe Clarke, Notts have an elite spin hitter, Alex Hales is a very powerful opener, and Ben Duckett packs a powerful punch. Jake Ball was the leading wicket taker last year. At just 20, and yet to make his debut, Sol Budinger is one to watch. This leftie hits a very big ball, and ought to light up Trent Bridge, if he gets a game this campaign.
But, the bowling is left weakened by Harry Gurney's retirement, with youngsters Zak Chappell and Lyndon James unexperienced in this format. Dane Paterson is the overseas player, and while a good death bowler, whether he has enough to aid the Outlaws' bowling remains to be seen.
After wining in 2018, and being runners-up in 2019, the Rapids would have been horrified by finishing bottom of their group in 2020. They'll be hoping that Moeen Ali's availability gives them a much needed boost to return to winning ways.
T20 skipper Ed Barnard has looked in useful form in the Championship so far, and is one of many solid Rapids players. He can hit well, and bowls some good stuff. Like most of the side, he's a decent player, and if he, and the rest perform, then Worcestershire ought to be able to regain form.
Aussie left-armer Ben Dwarshuis will be playing as the Rapids' overseas. He's a useful bowler, as he proved for the Sixers in the Bash, and can give it the long handle with the bat as well, which could help Worcs get to some big totals. Recent signing Ish Sodhi is a massive boost as well, with his legspin often underrated. While Sandeep Lamichane's absence due to visa issues is a blow, Sodhi is a good replacement.
For one of the counties synonymous with cricket, the Vikings have consistently been a poor t20 side. But, with England stars Jonny Bairstow and Adil Rashid set to start the first few games, they may be able to build some momentum toward a decent finish this year.
David Willey captains the White Rose county, and with his limited overs experience, ought to lead the Yorkies well. He offers them some quality batting, and some badly needed hitting power. If he is able to perform consistently, as he once did for Northants, it would go a long way toward getting the Vikings further forward.
Overseas bowler Lockie Ferguson is a huge signing. He can offer an important enforcer style role throughout the middle overs, which will be of aid to Yorkshire, as they look to contain sides.
Two wins from ten was a poor performance in 2020 by the defending champs. They should be much improved this time round, with a good core to their squad still in place.
Skipper Simon Harmer is undoubtedly the key man. He is a reliable lower order bat, even if not the biggest hitter. But his cricketing brain, and his spin ability is massive, especially given the tiny nature of Chelmsford. If, along with Ryan ten Doeschate, Harmer clicks, Essex should have the lower order to allow their top order to cut loose.
Jimmy Neesham, the New Zealand international with the best Twitter game in cricket, is the other overseas. While never the most consistent performer, Neesham can hammer a big ball, and offers a few useful overs, that Essex will hope only add to their hitting power.
Yet to fully establish themselves in t20, Glamorgan will be hoping to build on their four wins from last year, and push for the top four in the South group.
The main man down in Wales is Colin Ingram. The experienced leftie hits them hard, and having been a consistent Blast performer that has helped Glamorgan push for the knockouts, his quick runs will prove crucial once again. Despite his struggles in the Bash, I'd expect him to perform in the UK.
The over overseas pro to watch out for is Marnus Labuschagne. While he is best known for his runs in the longer format, he is on a mission to make the Aussie squad for the World t20, and doing so will mean making runs for Glamorgan. Another Australian, Michael Neser, is also available, and he could offer some good new ball spells.
Shock toppers of the central group last year, Gloucestershire will be hoping to dominate in the South group this year, and prove their 2020 form was no fluke.
While runs for Ian Cockbain will be vital, most important is the form of Benny Howell. The experienced all-rounder offers some big hits with the ball, but his bowling often proves troubling, and should he keep taking wickets, then Gloucestershire will keep winning games.
New Zealander Glenn Phillips is the big signing here. His t20 career has spanned over 100 matches, which makes him highly experienced at 24. With a boundary percentage of 19, expect him to light up some games. Aussie quick Dan Worrall could provide some good new ball spells, with Dutchman Graeme van Buuren the other overseas option.
Sporting some new branding, Hampshire will be hoping this spurs them on to finals day, and some better white-ball from. Despite success in the early 2010s, they haven't reached finals day since their semi-final defeat in 2017, and won just two games last year.
In leggie Mason Crane and stylish batter James Vince, the Hawks have two players who have been on the fringes with England, but remain county stalwarts. If both find form, they can be the backbone the Hawks [I quite like writing this new name!] need to push to make the knockouts this year.
D'Arcy Short and Colin de Grandhomme are the two t20 overseas players. While Short has had a few good years in the Big Bash, he scores too slowly for me. de Grandhomme is a good addition though, even if he will be unavailable until after the Test Championship Final.
Zak Crawley and Daniel Bell-Drummond were the main highlight for the Spitfires' 2020 campaign, with their batting proving good. Always a decent side in t20s, Kent ought to push for the knockouts this year in the weaker South group, despite the worrying Championship form.
Darren Stevens has made the Kent squad for the first game, and I'd love to see him do well. Sadly, he isn't my key player. That's Bell-Drummond, who, if he manages to keep up his 2020 form, will give Kent the high-scoring powerplays that often make a key difference in this format. Oh, and Joe Denly tends to do well for them as well!
Overseas wise, Afghanistan's Qais Ahmed is a good pick-up, with his legspin likely to prove exciting. Expect good things from Adam Milne, with his pace likely to see him used as an enforcer in the middle, or with his yorkers at the death.
Another "big" county who underperform in t20, it's weird to think that they won the comp back in 2008! They have some good names for 2021, but I don't think it'll be enough to stop the constant poor performance.
Eoin Morgan is set to be available for the first round of games, and after struggling for form in India, he'll be looking forward to smashing some balls to all parts. In a mediocre squad, his power could win them a few games, but I doubt it'll be enough to get them into the top four.
It's chaotic overseas wise, with Paul Stirling available for a few games, with Daryl Mitchell, Mujeeb ur Rahman also there, offering contrasting skills. Chris Green is also signed, although despite being a regular in the t20 leagues, he has not made many big contributions, and is a bit overrated in my view.
Fourth was not good enough for Somerset last year, who have some very good options, in Lewis Gregory, and Tom Abell's birth as a t20 power hitter.
After a phenomenal breakthrough year in 2019, Tom Banton struggled in 2020, with the bat and the mental health challenges of Covid bubbles. Here's to hoping he finds form with the bat, and is in a good place mentally. A star of the future, his form would drag Somerset up in the weaker South group.
Fans at Taunton can look forward to seeing Devon Conway continue to build on his career, when he becomes available after the World Test Championship final. Marchant de Lange's bowling could be of great import, with Taunton a tiny ground.
Amazingly, Surrey, having won the first t20 comp in 2003, have not won the title since, despite their big names and being a near constant fixture in the knockouts. They ought to challenge again this year though, given their squad depth.
Jason Roy will be available for the start of the Blast, which could prove big. Sam and Tom Curran will also play at the start; welcome additions to any XI in the Blast. Watch out for Jaime Overton as well, who proved a surprisingly great lower order hitter last year. However, Laurie Evans is the Surrey man in my fantasy team, especially as he'll play all the games.
Weirdly, Surrey's only overseas is Hashim Amla. While a great player, he scores too slowly in t20s for me, but he could prove useful on difficult batting tracks, as a stabilising batter.
The Sharks have had a bowling focus in recent years, and expect Chris Jordan to be available for the first few rounds, in a boost to them. They should cruise out the South group with ease.
Delray Rawlins is my man to watch. His boundary percentage is an impressive 19 after 43 games, suggesting it's pretty stable there. Keep it going in this year's comp, and I'd expect him to make the headlines a few times with some big scores.
Rashid Khan is at the PSL for the start of the Blast, which is a massive loss for the Sharks. When he gets here, he'll be huge. David Weise is a useful hitter, and Travis Head can play great t20 innings, but a lot rests on Khan's form on arrival.
I would have, partially out of loyalty, but also because they have a good squad, have backed Notts Outlaws for the win, until the Dan Christian news broke. His absence throughout the groups will be a massive loss, that will likely hinder Notts. With the bowling weaker as well, they could be the surprisingly struggling side.
The Lancashire Lightning should go well, but Liam Livingstone and Finn Allen could be vulnerable to international call-ups, or may venture off to the IPL during finals day.
I'd also expect the Leicestershire Foxes to do well. They have a good squad, and the helpful expertise of Paul Nixon and Dan Weston, with a good team being built.
Surrey and Sussex are the two sides to watch in the South group, and they ought to qualify for the quarters easily.
However, my overall winner is Gloucestershire!
Shock, right? But, they were very very good last year, and have the type of squad that often does well in the Blast. Of course, last year could be a fluke, and they could collapse and burn, but I'm willing to put it out there and predict they win it!
From the North Group, I'd expect the Lightning, Foxes and Outlaws to take the top three, with Northants a guess at fourth.
In the South, Surrey, Sussex and Gloucestershire are the easy picks, and Hampshire could join them.
For highest run scorer, I go with Alex Hales. With England unlikely to call for him, and given he's not going back to the PSL, he should face enough balls to outscore all, especially as he's opening the innings, with Trent Bridge not exactly a big ground.
My punt on leading wicket taker is Danny Briggs. This is a bit risky, as he tends to be more economical than wicket-taking. But, he has the advantage of likely playing the whole tournament, which other candidates, such as Matt Parkinson, do not have. He normally takes one a game, but if it spins (please be sunny!), then he may up that ratio
My bet for MVP is Finn Allen. This is another risky one, especially given he is so inexperienced, and has a lot of hype on him. But I could see him winning games for Lancs if he bats 10 overs. That is such a rare ability in t20, limited to guys like Andre Russell and Kieron Pollard, so here's to hoping Allen can smash it to all parts and light up the Blast.
So, there you have it!
Everything you need to know about the t20 Blast in 2021.
Let's hope we see some good games, and get to watch some in person as well.
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We expect the Blast games that are not on Sky Sports to be shown on the home county's YouTube, and you can see all the fixtures here. To buy tickets, head to each county's website.