Amid all the talk of reducing the number of counties that play domestic cricket in England and Wales, the two sides that will square up at Grace Road on Friday appear to be among the most vulnerable if and when the cull occurs. Leicestershire only broke their two-year run without an LV County Championship win earlier this month, and Northamptonshire endured a miserable run in the first division in 2014 that saw them end up with fewer points than they would have done had the entire season been a wash-out.
The greatest driving force behind the idea of having fewer counties has been the clamour for a franchise T20 tournament with just a handful of star-studded teams. Leicestershire and Northamptonshire would almost certainly lose out on hosting a franchise. On the evidence of recent times, this would be unfair in the extreme: Northamptonshire won the domestic T20 the year before last thanks to the exceptional all-round skills of home-grown David Willey, and Leicestershire remain the only team to have won the domestic Twenty20 competition on three separate occasions.
This year, Leicestershire are third in the North Group with two games in hand over leaders Durham. A match-winning 76* off 49 balls from Pakistan’s Umar Akmal sank a strong Nottinghamshire side in the local derby, and there is every reason to suspect they might triumph again to move closer to the knockout stages. Northamptonshire will be playing their second game in consecutive days after beating Derbyshire in a televised match, having entered the double-header with no points, and on the back of a six-match losing streak.
Kevin O’Brien joined Leicestershire this season on a T20-only contract, and scores of 47, 31 and 48* with good strike rates in his first three games shows that he is a capable and exciting number three batsman in Twenty20 cricket. His effectiveness with the ball is more questionable, but the Ireland star provides Foxes captain Mark Cosgrove with a useful option in the middle overs. He will always be remembered for his match-winning century against England in the 2011 World Cup, but if he could bring T20 Blast glory to Grace Road, his reputation there will be close to hero status.
Former Leicestershire overseas player Shahid Afridi has not made the kind of contributions he would have liked in this year’s T20 Blast: 34 runs and three wickets from three games. He is, however, an irresistible cricketer to watch and no team can ever be counted out while he remains at the crease. His duels with countryman Umar Akmal promise to make fascinating viewing, and if he feels in the mood, Leicestershire could be blown away with bat or ball.
Leicestershire are boosted by the return of the O’Brien brothers, Niall and Kevin, from Intercontinental Cup duty with Ireland. Umar Akmal will be facing his Pakistan colleague Shahid Afridi in his last game for the club before flying to the West Indies to compete in the Caribbean Premier League for the Guyana Amazon Warriors. New signing Andrea Agathangelou is also available to make his second Twenty20 appearance for the club.
Star all-rounder David Willey has been released by England to play for Northamptonshire in the Blast. He was instrumental in their victory in the Friends Life T20 in 2013, and earned his England call-up through excellent limited-overs performances for the Wantage Road club.
Leicestershire squad: Mark Cosgrove (c), Andrea Agathangelou, Umar Akmal, Matthew Boyce, Ned Eckersley, Clint McKay, Jigar Naik, Kevin O’Brien, Niall O’Brien, Ben Raine, Atif Sheikh, Charlie Shreck, James Sykes, Rob Taylor, Tom Wells
Weather and conditions
A 30% chance of light showers around 7:00pm may delay the match slightly, but with warm temperatures and an otherwise dry though cloudy forecast, there should be a full match, or at least a result.
Date: 12th June 2015
Ground: Grace Road
Umpires: Nick Cook & Jeff Evans
Odds (SkyBet): Leicestershire 4/5, Northamptonshire 1/1