Essex welcome both Surrey and the Sky TV cameras to East Anglia as Chelmsford is set for a sellout to start the Natwest T20 Blast campaign.
The Eagles, now led by Ravi Bopara in the shorter formats, haven’t tasted a Finals Day appearance since 2013, and face life without Reece Topley following his high-profile Hampshire switch.
The quick bowler’s impressive displays were enough to earn him England call-ups, but four semi-final appearances in the tournament’s history marks a perennial underachievement for supposed limited-overs specialists Essex.
But the skipper is confident the squad can meet the heady expectations of a tough South group, starting against the Londoners on Friday night.
“I believe that we have the squad in place to realistically deliver a challenge for honours,” said Bopara. “We always fancy ourselves in this form of cricket and with a couple of new faces in the squad, I’m really optimistic.
“It will be a great game with Surrey. They are a strong side and will be a good test for us. The Chelmsford crowd expect us to win and we don’t want to let them down. They always give us great support and generate a terrific atmosphere and make Chelmsford a great place to play one-day cricket.”
For Surrey, you have to go back to the inaugural 2003 competition for the last time they lifted the shortest format’s trophy.
A disappointing 2015 saw Gareth Batty’s side fail to emerge from the group stages with five wins from a possible 14 having reached Finals Day a year previous.
But with Kumar Sangakkara available for large parts of the summer alongside Dwayne Bravo, Aaron Finch and Chris Morris, not to mention Curran brothers Sam and Tom, expectations are also high for Alec Stewart and co.
It was Tom who was instrumental in Surrey’s victory over the Eagles in last season’s reverse fixture, taking four wickets as the visitors won by a commanding 44 runs at Chelmsford in May.
How will Ravi Bopara handle the mantle of captaincy alongside his performances with bat and ball? A canny bowler, with a knack of taking handy wickets, it’s Bopara’s batting which is seen as the most dangerous weapon in his armoury, averaging 31 in the competition last summer. The former England all-rounder also likes facing Surrey, conceding just 15 runs for each of his T20 wickets against the Londoners.
An integral part of England’s World T20 side, Jason Roy has become an international mainstay with his range hitting, with some even calling on the opener to be part of Test plans. Roy’s man-of-the-match semi-final 78 against New Zealand was a particular highlight, although his Chelmsford best is only 36.
The Eagles have announced a 12-man squad for the visit of Surrey, with experienced head Wahab Riaz in line to face his former county. Fellow Pakistani Ashar Zaidi, formerly of Sussex, is also set to play his first game for his new county. Zaidi was the player of the tournament in the 2015 Bangladesh Premier League, and is expected to star in East Anglia.
Essex squad: Ravi Bopara (captain), Matt Dixon, James Foster (wicketkeeper), Dan Lawrence, David Masters, Graham Napier, Jamie Porter, Wahab Riaz, Jesse Ryder, Ryan ten Doeschate, Tom Westley, Ashar Zaidi
Sam Curran is available for selection as he is free from his school commitments for the game and Mathew Pillans is named in a Surrey T20 squad for the first time. Ravi Rampaul is unavailable due to the hamstring strain he sustained in the recent Championship game against Middlesex.
Surrey squad: Gareth Batty (captain), James Burke, Rory Burns, Sam Curran, Tom Curran, Steven Davies, Ben Foakes, Azhar Mahmood, Stuart Meaker, Matthew Pillans, Jason Roy, Kumar Sangakkara, Dominic Sibley, Gary Wilson
Weather and Conditions
Perhaps not quite the glorious warm evening we’d all hope for, but crucially, it looks like the game will go ahead for the full 40 overs in East Anglia, despite the threatening clouds.
With short boundaries, it could be a perfect run-fest to get the season underway.
Date: 20th May 2016
Time: 7:15pm, live on Sky Sports 2.
Ground: The Essex County Ground, Chelmsford
Umpires: Martin Saggers & Billy Taylor (Jeremy Lloyds as third umpire)
Odds (via SkyBet): Essex 4/5, Surrey Evens