The start of the NatWest T20 Blast might have slipped under the radars of some. The competition begins under something of a shadow, speaking both literally and figuratively; it risks being mired by the changeable weather and eclipsed by the First Test of the summer.
That said, it feels like a time of the year ripe to shake off the morbid existentiality that can plague the county game, as talks of franchising abounds. On the opening night of the biggest Blast yet, the St Lawrence Ground – that fine one-day venue – will host a battle between two teams with points to prove this year.
Kent will look to show that they are the men for the big occasion. The Spitfires got off to a flying start in the group stage, signposted by thrilling away victories at Hampshire – a thrilling chase led by Alex Blake – and at the Taunton home of tonight’s opponents, where some superb bowling from Mitch Claydon ensured that Chris Gayle’s 151 came in a losing cause.
Having emerged from the qualifying stages as one of the outstanding teams in the competition, using that word advisedly, they crashed out in agonising circumstances; losing their quarter-final against Lancashire with the scores level and the Red Rose having lost fewer wickets.
Consistency in selection was a big reason for their success last year- six players played all of their games in the Blast. Blake, who went at a strike rate of 167, is one of the most underrated finishers in the county game and Claydon was the most effective death bowler in the whole competition with 15 wickets at the back end. With the addition of overseas talent Tom Latham and Kagiso Rabada, Kent will hope to go one better and turn plaudits into silverware this season.
In contrast, Somerset set out to revive their fortunes in the shortest form of the game after a shocking outing in 2015. They won just four matches in the group stage and a six-game losing run in the heart of the competition, at the end of June and the beginning of July, significantly derailed their challenge. Gayle’s contribution was brutal when it lasted, but he only stuck around for three games; encapsulate of his approach to batting and life as a whole.
Matthew Maynard’s side have installed Jim Allenby as their one-day captain. The 33 year-old is setting the bar high, already stating that he would be ‘hugely disappointed’ were his team to fail to make the quarter-finals at least. Somerset’s backbone isn’t getting any younger though, with key players Tim Myburgh, James Hildreth and Pete Trego, as well as skipper Allenby and overseas player van de Merwe, all well over 30. Improving their bowling, with Max Waller to the fore, will be top of Allenby’s to-do list but above all giving their fans, who look to be turning out in their hordes again for the Twenty20 at Taunton, something to cheer about will take priority.
Expect the returning Matt Coles to be a crucial player in the Kent side. The Maidstone-born all rounder had a terrific season on his return to Canterbury and is back on the straight and narrow, with his recent ECB ban an unwanted intervention into a burgeoning career. Coles is a fearless cricketer, never out of the game for long, and had a good Blast in 2015 which ended with 17 wickets to his name, coming every 16 balls he bowled. If he can hit his straps on his return from suspension, the Spitfires could well prosper.
It will be an odd evening for Somerset keeper Ryan Davies. The 19 year-old England age-group gloveman jumped at the chance of regular Division One cricket and will be given the chance to acclimatise at that level despite some remedial work needed on his batting. His first outing in pyjamas comes against the club he left to head to the South-West; Davies is expecting ‘more cheering than jeering’. He’ll be at the mercy of a boisterous Canterbury crowd, either way.
Despite Sam Billings staying out in India as the Delhi Daredevils try to snatch an unlikely IPL play-off spot, Sam Northeast has a full complement to choose from. Coles returns and Scott Griffiths, Fabian Cowdrey and James Tredwell – remember him – could come in for their first appearances this summer.
Kent: Sam Northeast (captain), Adam Ball, Daniel Bell-Drummond, Alex Blake, Mitch Claydon, Matt Coles, Fabian Cowdrey, Joe Denly, Sean Dickson, David Griffiths, Matt Hunn, Tom Latham, Imran Qayyum, Adam Rouse, Darren Stevens, Ivan Thomas, James Tredwell.
Allenby’s first team selection in charge doesn’t hold too many demons, with overseas players Mahela Jayawardene and Chris Gayle otherwise engaged.
Somerset: Jim Allenby (c), Yasir Arafat, Ryan Davies (wk), Lewis Gregory, Tim Groenewald, James Hildreth, Michael Leask, Johann Myburgh, Craig Overton, Jamie Overton, Peter Trego, Roelof van der Merwe, Max Waller.
Weather and Conditions
Canterbury is a great place to play limited-overs cricket and with a first-innings par of 177, should provide a competitive game on Friday night for both the target setting and the chasing side. The weather forecast is very changeable at the moment, but it looks like the opening night of the Blast will be a dry one in Canterbury.
Date: 20th May 2016
Ground: St Lawrence Ground, Canterbury
Umpires: Neil Bainton, Nigel Llong
Odds: Kent 11/10, Somerset 8/11