We are now eleven days into the Blast and while history tells us that upsets are always possible in this format, the frontrunners for finals day are becoming clearer. This is particularly so in the South Group where Somerset are the early pace setters. They have batters with a history of fast scoring alongside an international pace attack and the canny spin of Roelof van der Merwe. At the top of their order, they have the face of modern cricket in Tom Banton and Will Smeed, both of whom have turned their back on red ball cricket to focus on T20 and the lure of franchise cricket and who can blame them. They sit at the top of the group with eight points after comprehensive wins against Hampshire and Glamorgan, while being pushed hard by Sussex and Kent. Sussex have been one of the success stories of 2023, their young side seemingly coming of age under the leadership of Cheteshwar Pujara. They sit second in Division Two of the Championship and despite the loss to Somerset, overcame another of the fancied teams for this competition, Surrey. This win was achieved without an overseas player. Ravi Bopara leads the side with Tymal Mills providing the “X” factor bowling. They have also brought in wicket-keeper/batter Michael Burgess on loan from Warwickshire. Meanwhile Surrey’s side is a who’s who of white ball talent, led by the IPL’s most expensive signing, Sam Curran. With his brother Tom back playing cricket after a break and Sunil Narine providing the mystery spin, they are looking good to be at Edgbaston in July. Of the remaining counties, Essex made a late start to the competition due to their match against Ireland but were good enough to chase down 196 against Gloucestershire. Daniel Sams has joined Simon Harmer as the overseas duo, but it was 21-year-old Robin Das who saw them home with 69 off 33 balls. Hampshire always challenge in this format and despite their collapse against Somerset, bounced back to beat Middlesex. Kent has an experienced bowling attack, bolstered by the overseas contributions from left arm spinner George Linde and the pace of Kane Richardson. They also have the experienced batting of Daniel Bell-Drummond, Joe Denly and Sam Billings alongside the exciting striking of Jordan Cox and they will be looking to make the quarter-finals. Middlesex have failed to compete in this competition for a number of years and have lost their first three games. They, like Glamorgan and Gloucestershire look likely to be occupying the lower places in the table.
In the North Group it is the Birmingham Bears and the Worcestershire Rapids that have set the early pace. The Bears have recruited Glenn Maxwell and had Paul Stirling for their first three games. Moeen Ali will be returning from the IPL, having been part of the winning Super Kings team and as the T20 captain, will be expected to want to take up the reins as soon as possible. They have plenty of bowling options in their starting eleven and Sam Hain is one of the top run scorers so far in the competition. In their first three games they have enjoyed comfortable wins against Yorkshire, Leicestershire and Lancashire, the latter having won their first three matches and also looking one of the stronger teams. They clearly had an off batting day at Edgbaston, bowled out by the Bears for just 98 in 14.5 overs, but the return of Jos Butler will help prevent a recurrence. They also have a solid bowling line-up with England internationals Luke Wood, Saqib Mahmood, Matt Parkinson and Liam Livingstone. It is slightly surprising to see the Rapids at the top of the table given their disappointing results last year, finishing bottom of the North Group with just two wins. They have already achieved more “W’s” this year and we wait to see if they can maintain this form. They have had the services of Pakistani leg-spinner Usama Mir for their first three games, and he is due to be replaced by New Zealand slow left-armer, Mitchell Santner. He is joined by fellow Kiwi, Michael Bracewell, who has been opening the batting. The victories have been against Leicestershire, Yorkshire and Northamptonshire, who have only managed two wins between them, so they are likely to find things getting tougher. Durham and the Notts Outlaws both have two wins, the Durham losing to the Outlaws in their last game by five wickets. It was no surprise to see Alex Hales leading the way with 65 not out and he made a further half century in the next game against the Yorkshire Vikings, although he ended on the losing side. Their overseas recruits are Colin Munro and Shaheen Shah Afridi, who struck the winning six against Durham. The Outlaws would be expected to be challenging for a quarter-final spot while Durham are in less familiar territory, having managed only three wins in last year’s competition. Their strong performances in Championship cricket appear to have carried over into the shorter format and this is exemplified by the Scotland batter Michael Jones, who is prospering in both. Ashton Turner has re-signed for Durham as a replacement for Tristan Stubbs, who has been called up to a South Africa ‘A’ tour, while Wayne Parnell has been drafted in to cover the unavailability of a number of the pace bowlers. Brydon Carse, Paul Coughlin and Mitchell Killeen are all sidelined through injury, while Matthew Potts, Mark Wood and Ben Stokes are involved with England. The Vikings win against the Outlaws was Yorkshire’s first since they beat Derbyshire in the Royal London cup on 21st August last year. There is no lack of talent in their side, but confidence is low. Of the remaining teams, Northamptonshire have managed one win from three, beating fellow strugglers Derbyshire Falcons in their last game. The Falcons along with the Leicestershire Foxes are winless after three games.
At this stage, the teams looking favourites to reach Finals Day are the Bears and the Lightening from the North Group and Somerset and Surrey from the South. However, as we have seen in previous years, if other counties can string some good performances together, surprises are possible.
Tables as of 10:00 on 31/5/23: