Can a Division Two side win the Blast?

Can a Division Two side win the Blast?

This will be the 22nd edition of the Blast, having been first played back in 2003. Over that time it has had the beauty of seeing the so-called minnows of county cricket triumph over the big guys, Leicestershire being the exemplar. They along with Hampshire are the only teams to have won the competition three times. However their last success was back in 2011 and since then have only reached the quarter finals twice, losing on both occasions. Over the first 11 tournaments a second division side won seven times, while over the last 10 years they have won just three and been runners up in two. (These numbers are calculated using the Championship divisions that counties were in, in 2023, for the 2021 and 2022 competitions). Over the last two years a Division Two side has not made finals day and there was just one in each of the preceding two years, Nottinghamshire taking the trophy in 2020. In fact, there have only been two appearances of Division Two sides in the quarter finals in the last two years.

One only has to watch some Championship cricket to witness the growing divide between the counties at the top of Division One and those in Division Two, certainly the counties in the lower part of the second division. This is most evident in the strength of bowling attacks and the depth of resources, making it more and more difficult for these lesser teams to compete when it comes to the Blast. There has been a drift of better players to the stronger clubs as they realise that their ambitions for higher honours are not going to be achieved if they remain where they are. Undoubtedly T20 can bring some surprise results, but with the group stages comprising 14 matches, the stronger squads will prevail.

This year the competition has the added confusion of taking place during the T20 World Cup and while most of the England players traditionally only have limited availability, the overseas players we would normally be seeing are otherwise engaged during June, with some arriving for the second block of games in July.

Finals day was dominated by teams from the South Group last year and the northern counties will be keen to reassert themselves. Nottinghamshire were the last winner from the North Group back in 2020, but the side that also saw them victorious in 2017, as well as semi-finalists in 2016 and 2019 is now gone, although they can still call on Alex Hales.

Warwickshire Bears were the dominant side in the North Group last year and have a strong looking squad to select from, with plenty of pace bowling options, including the Pakistan duo of Hassan Ali and Aamir Jamal. If they can put some runs on the board they will do well and for this they will be looking to Sam Hain and Alex Davies.

Lancashire Lightning will be looking to put their poor Championship performances behind them and have replaced Nathan Lyon with fellow Australian Chris Green, who will bowl his off spin alongside Tom Hartley. The problem is their batting has not been productive and they will need to quickly find some form.

Worcestershire Rapids have also been having problems in recent weeks in the Championship and will struggle to make the knock out stages again this year. They do not have much in the way of spin options in their squad and have brought in Pakistan leg-spinner Usama Mir alongside New Zealander all-rounder Nathan Smith.

The other quarter finalist from the North Group in 2023 was Notts Outlaws and they have New Zealander batter Will Young alongside two left arm seamers, fellow Kiwi Ben Lister for the first block of games and Afghanistan’s Fazalhaq Farooqi for the latter half of the competition. The question is whether their batting is strong enough?

Of the remaining sides in the North Group, Durham have not made finals day since 2016 and have not got out of the group stages since 2018. However they have been putting in strong performances in the Championship and have brought in the experienced Australian pair of Ashton Turner and Ben Dwarshuis. We expect them to put in a strong showing. Northamptonshire Steelbacks have recruited experienced Zimbabwe all-rounder Sikandar Raza and T20 veteran, Ravi Bopara and have a chance of going through while Yorkshire Rapids, Leicestershire Foxes and Derbyshire Falcons are outside bets. The Falcons have struggled in the Championship, but will be hoping Samit Patel can turn around their fortunes in white ball cricket. Mohammad Amir will also be arriving for the final six games having previously intended to be with Derbyshire for the whole season before resurrecting his international career.

The competition looks like being dominated by counties from the South Group again this year, particularly given that last year’s four semi-finalists currently occupy the top four places in Division One of the Championship. It would not be a surprise to see all these four teams back at Edgbaston again.

Last year’s winners Somerset have just one overseas signing, Australian quick Riley Meredith, but they have plenty of talent in their squad, with the hard hitting of Will Smeed, Tom Banton and Tom Kohler-Cadmore and the experience of Lewis Gregory and Craig Overton.

Last year’s runners-up Essex Eagles also have a strong squad with Daniel Sams returning for his third stint with the club. He is available for the first eight games. Otherwise they have the same players as last year, with the exception of Dan Lawrence. They will be relieved to have Adam Rossington back, having recovered from his broken finger and scoring 106 in 53 balls in a second eleven T20 game this week.

Surrey will always be competitive and despite the loss of players to the England World Cup squad, will be able to put out a strong side. Jamie Overton is ruled out, but they have brought in Australian left arm quick Spencer Johnson, who comes fresh from the IPL.

Hampshire Hawks are always strong in the Blast, having reached finals day the last three years, winning in 2022. They have a number of overseas players coming in for the competition, with Australian wicketkeeper-batter Ben McDermott returning for the third year. Michael Neser will also play along with South African quick Ottniel Baartman, who is due to play in the last six group games, having been selected for the World Cup. Liam Dawson provides the main spin threat while a lot will rest on James Vince with the bat, as this may be their weakness.

These four sides look a class above the rest in the South Group. Kent Spitfires came fifth last year and they have signed Australian pace bowler Xavier Bartlett for the first eight games. They have a number of other overseas pace options in Wes Agar, Beyers Swanepoel and Charlie Stobo and with Sam Billings returning as the Blast captain, they will be hoping to challenge for a quarter final spot. Daniel Hughes has now replaced Cheteshwar Pujara in the Sussex Sharks team and Jayden Seales is available for the first few Blast matches so they could also be in contention. Gloucestershire have some useful bowling options with David Payne, Marchant de Lange and the spin of Zafar Gohar, but like Glamorgan and Middlesex are more of an outside bet, although they could still spring a surprise.

The bottom line is that the Division One clubs are now playing a different game to most of those in Division Two and they look like dominating this competition unless something changes. It is difficult to look past the four teams who competed in finals day last year for a winner, but we always love an upset.


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