The Natwest T20 blast returns as domestic 20-over cricket in England ticks into its 14th year, but this time around it feels as though the competition has something to prove.
Since 2003 the format has been the glitz and the razzmatazz of English cricket, providing big hits, breathless action and thrills for fans young and old.
But now, much like a car with miles on the clock that knows the new model is about to hit the market, the T20 Blast has to prove its continued value to cricket in this country.
The ECB’s announcement of the new city-based T20 competition, which will launch in 2020, is hanging over this year’s competition like a dark cloud. The assertion from the powers that be is that the new competition can reach new audiences for cricket.
While the current competition will still remain, in making that assertion the implication is that the T20 Blast is failing. Heck, it’s a competition that ECB Chairman Colin Graves labelled as ‘mediocre’ just a couple of years ago.
And yet evidence piles up to the contrary. Advance ticket sales for this year’s competition were significantly increased on this time last year.
Next week almost 20,000 fans will pack in to Old Trafford for the Roses clash with Yorkshire and, in doing so, will set a record for a British domestic attendance outside of London. It will be a similar story at Headingley, as the cross-Pennines rivals stick two fingers up at the notion that the Blast is failing.
The reality, however, is that outside the capital, the Roses match is the exception rather than the rule. Attendances at other grounds around the country don’t reach the heights that are seen by the world’s other premier T20 competitions – namely the IPL and the Big Bash League.
Being able to attract the world’s best players has also been pinpointed as a potential plus-point for the city-based competition.
But take a glance around the T20 Blast this season and you won’t have to look to hard to see superstars.
Australia’s destructive limited-overs opener Aaron Finch will line up for Surrey, the world’s best white-ball spinner Imran Tahir takes to the field for Derbyshire, New Zealand stars Brendon McCullum and Tim Southee are in Middlesex’s ranks while Mohammad Amir lines up for Essex fresh from clinching the ICC Champions Trophy with Pakistan.
That’s to name but a few. The T20 Blast can, and does, attract the very best.
So question marks are everywhere around the 2017 T20 Blast. It will be scrutinised probably like never before, against the backdrop of the looming changes that are coming in 2020. At that point the competition will become an afterthought, a secondary competition trailing on the coattails of the new multi-million pound bells-and-whistles city-based shindig.
At least, that is, in the minds of the administrators. It will not necessarily be the case in the eyes of the cricket public who, over the next two months, will lap up some of the finest T20 cricket on show anywhere in the world.
They will witness some of the greats of the game in action, enjoy nail-biting last-ball finishes and cheer every enormous six with the same gusto they have since James Kirtley bowled the first ball of the inaugural Twenty20 Cup in June 2003.
Those fans have continued to relish the Blast, or any of its previously less marketable incarnations, ever since and they will do so again this time around. And yes, they will build inconceivably long beer-snakes.
The beauty of the format is that fans of every team, even Derbyshire, believe they can go and win it.
So question marks: yes; an uncertain future: for sure; a point to prove? Definitely.
But that buzz of excitement remains on the eve of the tournament. It needs to be a good one.