Vitality Blast 2020 Tournament Preview

A huge question mark remains over whether this season’s Vitality Blast will take place. It is scheduled to begin on Thursday 28th May, the date the ECB have tentatively marked down as the rescheduled start day for the English domestic season amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The chances of England’s flagship domestic T20 tournament beginning as scheduled have already been written off by many. However, whilst the situation is changing every day we are still looking forward to the beginning of a competition which saw record crowds descend upon cricket grounds across the country in 2019, whether it takes place as scheduled or perhaps later in the season.

We’ve put together a full preview of the 2020 Vitality Blast, with predictions for each individual county. Whilst the status of overseas players currently signed to appear in the competition is unknown, we are writing this in the hope that all scheduled overseas signings will appear for their respective counties in the tournament.

North Group

Birmingham Bears

Last Year: Group Stage - Captain: Chris Green - Coach: Jim Troughton - Overseas Players: Chris Green (AUS), Jeetan Patel (NZ)

The Birmingham Bears have failed to make it past the group stage in three of the last four seasons. Changes have been made this season in an attempt to improve on last year’s performance which saw the Bears finish seventh in the North Group, a very poor effort from a test match County.

The big change at Edgbaston is that of the captaincy. After performing well for the Bears as a replacement for Ashton Agar in last year’s Blast, Australian off-spinner Chris Green has not only been signed on for 2020, but will also captain the side. The core of the Bears side remains with the likes of Sam Hain and Will Rhodes set to play key parts for the side again in 2020.

Much will depend on how Green takes to the captaincy at Birmingham, but the Bears do appear a side very much in transition. Both Dominic Sibley and Chris Woakes are likely to be lost to England duty and while they can call upon two very promising fast bowlers in Olly Stone and Henry Brookes, the side looks to lack proven T20 match-winners that could prove their downfall.

Prediction: Group Stage

Derbyshire Falcons

Last Year: Semi Finalists - Captain: Billy Godleman - Coach: Dominic Cork - Overseas Players: Sean Abbott (AUS), Ben McDermott (AUS)

Last season was a hugely successful Vitality Blast campaign for Derbyshire Falcons under the guidance of Dominic Cork, as they became the final county to reach Finals Day for the first time. The magnitude of the occasion perhaps got the better of them as they were beaten by Essex in the second semi-final of the day.

Boasting an underrated top order which includes the evergreen Wayne Madsen and rising star Leus Du Plooy, the counties within the North Group would be wise not to underestimate the Falcons, who have strengthened their ranks with two Australian overseas signings in pace bowler Sean Abbott and wicketkeeper batsman Ben McDermott.

Derbyshire have proven themselves as a strong T20 outfit under Cork. Their problem this campaign may be that their group opponents won’t underestimate them like they may have done last season. Dealing with an newfound expectation to win more matches than not could be the undoing of the Falcons this year, who will need last year’s leading Vitality Blast wicket taker Ravi Rampaul to replicate that form again in 2020.

Prediction: Group Stage

Durham

Last Year: Group Stage - Captain: Cameron Bancroft - Coach: James Franklin - Overseas Players: Cameron Bancroft (AUS)

Frustration was probably the best word to describe Durham’s 2019 Vitality Blast campaign. A number of frustrating defeats, including failure to chase down 117 runs at home to Worcestershire Rapids, led to the North East county bowing out in the group stage one year after reaching the quarter-finals.

In a boost for Durham, Australian International Cameron Bancroft has agreed to re-join the club as captain for the 2020 season. The Jets have also resigned all-rounder Paul Coughlin from Notts Outlaws two years after he left the club. However, they were unable to retain the services of the PCA’s 2019 Vitality Blast MVP D’Arcy Short, who has opted to join Surrey in 2020.

Durham are certain once again to be without the services of England superstar Ben Stokes for the vast majority, if not all of the competition. They have some talented players such as all-rounder Brydon Carse, who could make a big impact for them this year. However, the loss of Short will hurt Durham, who will be relying perhaps too heavily on Bancroft to contribute the bulk of their runs in 2020.

Prediction: Group Stage

Yorkshire Vikings

Last Year: Group Stage - Captain: David Willey - Coach: Andrew Gale - Overseas Players: Nicholas Pooran (WI)

Yorkshire Vikings' Vitality Blast woes continued in 2019 as they failed to make it out of the North Group for the third successive season. Their third 5th-placed finish in as many years was compounded by defeat at home to Lancashire in the one T20 Roses match of the season after the game at Emirates Old Trafford was washed out.

After impressing in his short Vitality Blast spell with the club last season, West Indian wicketkeeper-batsman Nicholas Pooran returns to ‘the White Rose’ for a second stint. He is joined by England T20 International Dawid Malan, the opener having joined from Middlesex. Yorkshire may also be able to call upon Adil Rashid, depending on the spinner’s England commitments.

It’s a mystery how Yorkshire Vikings have struggled in this competition in recent years when you look at their squad. They boast a clutch of former England internationals such as Adam Lyth, Gary Ballance, Tim Bresnan and captain David Willey. This season, however, should be different with the signing of Malan in particular a game changer. Boasting a formidable batting line-up to complement a strong bowling attack including Kolpak player Duanne Olivier, 2020 could be the year that 'the White Rose' break out and return to finals-day for the first time since 2016.

Prediction: Semi-Finals

Lancashire Lightning

Last Year: Quarter-Finals - Captain: Dane Vilas - Coach: Glen Chapple - Overseas Players: James Faulkner (AUS), Glenn Maxwell (AUS)

Lancashire Lightning were, to all intents and purposes, the best side of last season’s Vitality Blast. Accruing the highest points total of all 18 counties in the group stage, ‘the Red Rose’ sailed into the quarter-finals as group winners. However, a fixture clash with the Ashes saw their home tie against Essex Eagles moved to Durham. In a rain affected contest, the “hosts” managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory after Essex chased down 23 runs from 12 balls following a disastrous 19th over, in which 22 runs were given away by Lancs.

Unsurprisingly, the Lightning have moved to keep the same formula that saw them perform so well for so long last season. Overseas players James Faulkner and Glenn Maxwell have been retained, whilst the North West county will be hoping not to lose fast bowler Saqib Mahmood and leg-spinner Matt Parkinson for an extended period to England. Jos Buttler, however, is certain to play a minimal part due to his international commitments.

Lancashire Lightning boast a superbly balanced team with destructive openers Alex Davies and Liam Livingstone complimented by some serious power hitting in the middle order, with Maxwell widely seen as one of the best T20 players in the world. Specialist spin is covered by Parkinson, whilst Saqib provides pace and deception. Lancs will still feel hard done by after last year and determined to prove a point in 2020. Providing they don’t lose Maxwell or any of their young bowlers to international duty, ‘the Red Rose’ have to be considered the favourites for the 2020 Vitality Blast.

Verdict: Winners

Leicestershire Foxes

Last Year: Group Stage - Captain: Colin Ackermann - Coach: Paul Nixon - Overseas Players: Janneman Malan (RSA)

Once widely regarded as the best T20 side in the country back in the tournament’s early years, those days are long gone for Leicestershire Foxes. The only side to win the Vitality Blast three times, the Foxes have qualified out of the North Group only once since they last won the competition back in 2011. Last year saw them finish rock-bottom of the group stage.

Coach Paul Nixon was renowned as a T20 specialist and he seeks to return the Foxes back to their former glories of his playing days. South African batsman Janneman Malan has been signed as the club’s overseas player, whilst the experienced Colin Ackermann will captain the side once again after setting a new T20 world record last year, registering bowling figures of 7-18 in a win over Birmingham Bears.

It’s difficult to see anything other than a group stage exit for the Foxes, although sides underestimating them could play in their favour as Derbyshire Falcons have perhaps found to their benefit in recent seasons. However, whilst the club appears to be developing a solid young core and could cause a few upsets, the side doesn’t appear to contain the tools needed to win enough games to finish top four in a demanding North group.

Prediction: Group Stage

Notts Outlaws

Last Year: Semi-Finals - Captain: Dan Christian - Coach: Peter Moores - Overseas Players: Dan Christian (AUS)

The 2019 Vitality Blast saw the Notts Outlaws make it to finals-day for the third time in four years. However, they went on to suffer semi-final disappointment at the hands of Worcestershire Rapids. After looking in control for much of their run chase, Ben Duckett failed to put bat on ball with the final delivery of the match, handing Notts a crushing one-run defeat.

Long-time overseas all-rounder and captain Dan Christian will once again return to the Outlaws in 2020. Not much has changed at Trent Bridge for 2020 although county cricket veteran Peter Trego has joined the club from Somerset. Former England opener Haseeb Hameed has also made the move to Nottinghamshire, although he is unlikely to feature in this competition.

Notts Outlaws have the luxury of calling on some proven match winning individuals such as the destructive Alex Hales with the bat and T20 specialist Harry Gurney with the ball. These two, along with the likes of Samit Patel and Christian should see Notts qualify from the North Group once again. However, with some other very strong looking sides in contention, finals-day this year could be a bridge too far for the Outlaws.

Prediction: Quarter-Finals

Northants Steelbacks

Last Year: Group Stage - Captain: Josh Cobb - Coach: David Ripley - Overseas Players: Paul Stirling (IRL), Kieron Pollard (WI), Faheem Ashraf (PAK)

Two-time Vitality Blast winners Northants Steelbacks were thoroughly underwhelming in last year’s competition, winning just four of their 14 group games. They’ll be hoping for much better this year and have already made some big moves to try and ensure just that.

Three overseas players have been recruited, with Faheem Ashraf returning to the club and big-hitting opener Paul Stirling signing up for 2020. The big news, though, is the marquee signing of West Indies white-ball captain Kieron Pollard. The devastatingly powerful all-rounder boasts more T20 appearance than any other cricketer (501) and his signing for eight group stage matches represents somewhat of a coup for Northants.

Pollard’s signing will undoubtedly raise expectations within the support at Northants. However, question marks remain elsewhere. The bowling looks weak compared to other sides in the North Group and Ashraf will have to be on top form throughout the campaign. The batting does appear strong, with captain Josh Cobb expected to perform well again alongside former skipper Alex Wakely.

Prediction: Group Stage

Worcestershire Rapids

Last Year: Runners Up - Captain: Moeen Ali - Coach: Alex Gidman - Overseas Players: Hamish Rutherford (NZ), Ashton Turner (AUS)

Worcestershire Rapids suffered heartbreak in last year’s Vitality Blast grand final. With the opportunity to become the first side ever to win back-to-back domestic T20 competitions in England, Moeen Ali’s side were beaten by Essex Eagles in a thrilling match that went down to the final ball.

There are no superstars in the Rapids side but this perhaps suggests why they are so successful in this format. Riki Wessels has proved a fantastic signing, whilst death bowler Pat Brown was capped by England for the first time over the winter. Hamish Rutherford returns to the club as their overseas player, to be joined by Australian batsman Ashton Turner, who has IPL experience with Rajasthan Royals.

It is likely that Worcestershire's ultimate success in this year’s Vitality Blast will depend on captain Moeen Ali’s availability. The all-rounder is not only a world class cricketer, but has proven a superb leader of this Rapids side and his absence due to England commitments would be a blow. Even without him though, the Rapids have proven themselves as a strong outfit and should have enough in the tank to get through the North Group for a third year running.

Prediction: Quarter-Finals

South Group

Essex Eagles

Last Year: Winners - Captain: Simon Harmer - Coach: Anthony McGrath - Overseas Players: Adam Zampa (AUS), Moises Henriques (AUS)

After winning just two of their first ten matches last year no one gave Essex Eagles a chance of South Group qualification. However, three wins and a tie from their last four games along with results elsewhere saw the Eagles sneak through in fourth place. After shocking North Group winners Lancashire up in Durham, Essex rode a crest of momentum all the way through finals-day. Led by two MOTM performances from captain Simon Harmer, they went on to beat Derbyshire Falcons and Worcestershire Rapids to win their first ever domestic T20 trophy.

There is one big change at Chelmsford this year as the holders look to defend their title, with long serving all-rounder Ravi Bopara leaving the club to join Sussex Sharks. Essex have moved quickly to secure his replacement with Moises Henriques joining as an overseas player, fresh from captaining Sydney Sixers to the 2019/20 BBL title. Leg-spinner Adam Zampa returns to the club for a third successive year.

The post-Bopara era at Essex is set to be an intriguing one with Henriques a strong replacement. The bowling looks fragile, with Mohammad Amir not returning to the club and a number of young players still finding their feet in T20. Playing their home games at a notoriously small ground, the batting form of Cameron Delport and England Lions star Dan Lawrence will be key to the Eagles' success in 2020.

Prediction: Group Stage

Glamorgan

Last Year: Group Stage - Captain: Chris Cooke - Coach: Matthew Maynard - Overseas Players: Marnus Labuschagne (AUS)

Glamorgan suffered bad luck through their 2019 Vitality Blast season with one of their key overseas players, Shaun Marsh, suffering an injury in a group stage match which ruled him out for the rest of the campaign. Marchant De Lange missed the whole tournament due to a hamstring injury, whilst Colin Ingram suffered from a rare lack of form. It was a competition to forget for the Welsh side, who finished bottom of the South Group with just one win from 14 games.

Wicketkeeper batsman Chris Cooke has taken over the captaincy from Ingram for this year’s Blast, whilst Marcus Labuschagne returns to the club as an overseas player following his excellent performances in the County Championship last summer, which saw him called up to the Australian Ashes side.

In what looks like a very strong South Group this year, Glamorgan perhaps don’t boast the firepower with bat or ball that other sides have. Much will depend on Ingram finding form with the bat, whilst it will be intriguing to see whether Labuschagne can adapt his batting game to the T20 format following his scintillating red ball form for both Glamorgan and Australia.

Prediction: Group Stage

Gloucestershire

Last Year: Quarter-Finals - Captain: Chris Dent - Coach: Richard Dawson - Overseas Players: Qais Ahmad (AFG)

After a successful 2019 group stage campaign that saw them earn a home quarter final. Gloucestershire missed out on finals-day after a surprise defeat to Derbyshire Falcons, with the visitors taking full advantage of conditions after winning the toss. Having been knocked out in such a frustrating manner, Gloucestershire will be determined to rectify that in this year’s Vitality Blast.

It remains to be seen whether bowler Andrew Tye will rejoin the side as an overseas player, but leg-spinner Qais Ahmad has been brought in. Fast bowler Jerome Taylor also joins the club but there is no big-hitting Michael Klinger as the Gloucestershire captain finally brought the curtain down on his magnificent career following seven years with the South West county.

Gloucestershire boast a very exciting side with plenty of young English talent ready to light up the Bristol County Ground. Batsmen James Bracey alongside all-rounder Ryan Higgins stand out in particular. The experience of Benny Howell will also prove crucial. However, the loss of Klinger’s leadership alongside his batting could stunt the side and in such a tight South Group, it could prove to be the difference between qualification and elimination.

Verdict: Group Stage

Hampshire

Last Year: Group Stages - Captain: James Vince - Coach: Adrian Birrell - Overseas Players: Shaheen Afridi (PAK)

Hampshire won’t want reminding of their fate in last season’s Vitality Blast. Needing victory against Glamorgan to qualify from the South Group, Hampshire suffered a shock defeat in Cardiff - handing the Welsh county their first and only win of the 2019 Blast campaign. Elsewhere, Essex Eagles beat Kent Spitfires at Chelmsford to knock Hampshire out of the top four and confine them to elimination.

As per usual, the Southampton based side boast an array of talent with both bat and ball, led by proven county cricket star James Vince. The signing of Pakistan bowler Shaheen Afridi as an overseas player looks a brilliant one, with the left-armer having established himself as one of the best young T20 fast bowlers in the world.

Hampshire always look a good bet to at least make it to the quarter-finals and this year looks no different. Vince, Sam Northeast and Rilee Roussow should guarantee runs with perhaps an overseas batsman still to be signed. Afridi is a match-winner with the ball and he, alongside Chris Wood and young leg-spinner Mason Crane, provides Hampshire with the good balance which should see them qualify for the knockout stages this year.

Prediction: Quarter-Finals

Kent Spitfires

Last Year: Group Stages - Captain: Sam Billings - Coach: Matt Walker - Overseas Players: Mohammad Nabi (AFG)

Kent Spitfires threw away certain knockout qualification in 2019 after losing their final three fixtures when winning just one of those games would have been enough to go through. It was an astonishing collapse considering the Spitfires had won six of their first seven group matches.

Their collapse seemed to coincide with the loss of overseas player Mohammad Nabi to international duty. With the all-rounder returning to Kent in 2020 to play through the entire group stage, the Spitfires will be hoping to avoid a repeat performance. Captain Sam Billings has been on the periphery of the England squad for a long time now and he’ll be hoping to enjoy a full Blast campaign to make his case for another international opportunity.

Kent are another side that look solid on paper but in such a strong group that may not be enough. Their batting line-up could prove to be their trump card, with the likes of Daniel Bell-Drummond, Zak Crawley and Heino Kuhn complementing Billings. Whether the Spitfires can finish in the top four could come down to whether their bowling attack can step up to support Nabi adequately enough.

Prediction: Group Stage

Middlesex

Last Year: Quarter-Finals - Captain: Eoin Morgan - Coach: Stuart Law - Overseas Players: Peter Handscomb (AUS), Mitchell Marsh (AUS)

Under new coach Stuart Law, Middlesex enjoyed a fruitful 2019 Vitality Blast which saw them make it to the quarter-finals before being knockout out by Notts Outlaws at Trent Bridge. A below-par score and awful fielding performance saw them stand no chance against the Outlaws as Alex Hales and Chris Nash flayed their bowling to all parts of the ground, chasing down their target of 161 without losing a wicket.

2020 is a year of change at Lords as Vitality Blast captain Dawid Malan has departed for Yorkshire, whilst South African legend AB de Villiers will not return for a second stint with the club. Paul Stirling has also left, leaving Middlesex desperately short of quality batting. They have plugged those gaps with two overseas signings as Australian internationals Peter Handscomb and Mitchell Marsh both join the club.

Middlesex appear a side very much in transition following so many departures from last year. However, with England World Cup winning captain Eoin Morgan currently set to skipper the side, they can never be written off. Whether they have him available or not, this year looks a big ask for Middlesex to be successful in T20, such is the dramatic change in personnel.

Prediction: Group Stage

Somerset

Last Year: Group Stages - Captain: Lewis Gregory - Coach: Jason Kerr - Overseas Players: Babar Azam (PAK), Corey Anderson (NZ)

Somerset were denied a place in last year’s Vitality Blast quarter-finals by a record run chase from Middlesex at Taunton. Chasing 227 to win, Eoin Morgan blasted 83 from 29 balls to see the visitors home, shocking Somerset in what was a must-win match for them, thus ending their hopes of qualification.

The emergence of Tom Banton at the top of the order was a huge plus point for Somerset in 2019 and their fans will be looking forward to seeing the newly England T20I capped youngster reunited with opening partner Babar Azam, after the Pakistani superstar resigned for 2020 as an overseas player. Also joining back up with the club for the first time since 2018 is New Zealand all-rounder Corey Anderson. This will be his third stint with the club.

Somerset really do look set for an assault on the Vitality Blast trophy this year, with all bases seemingly covered. Anderson and captain Lewis Gregory will prove key in the middle order should Banton and Babar not get them off to a flying start, whilst spin bowler Max Waller will again play a big part for the side. With the Overton brothers providing pace, all signs look like Somerset have what it takes to reach the knockout stages.

Prediction: Quarter-Finals

Surrey

Last Year: Group Stages - Captain: Jade Dernbach - Coach: Michael Di Venuto - Overseas Players: D’Arcy Short (AUS), Shadab Khan (PAK)

For all the resources Surrey have at their disposal they, like Yorkshire in the North Group, have perennially under-achieved in this format of the game. To have not won this competition since 2003 is a surprise for a county of their stature and after a fourth Group Stage elimination in five seasons last year, changes appear to have been made.

Surrey have recruited smartly this year in the overseas department, making up for the loss of Australian international Aaron Finch by signing D’Arcy Short following his terrific Vitality Blast campaign for Durham last year. ‘The Three Feathers’ have also moved to bring in Pakistan all-rounder Shadab Khan, giving them a mystery spin option to complement the evergreen Gareth Batty.

As usual with Surrey, England availability will dictate how strong a side they can field with Ollie Pope, Jason Roy, Ben Foakes and both Curran brothers under the international radar. Reece Topley has joined from Sussex and could prove a shrewd fast bowling acquisition and in Will Jacks, Surrey have one of the most exciting young batsmen in the country. Providing they don’t lose the core of their side to England duty, there is no excuse for Surrey not to at least make it to finals-day this year.

Prediction: Semi-Finals

Sussex Sharks

Last Year: Quarter-Finals - Captain: Luke Wright - Coach: Jason Gillespie - Overseas Players: Rashid Khan (AFG), Travis Head (AUS)

Sussex Sharks came into the 2019 Vitality Blast as the bookies' favourites to win the competition. They lived up to that billing early on, establishing themselves at the top of the South Group. However, the loss of key players to injury and international duty saw them start to lose games. That lack of momentum proved costly, as despite finishing as South Group winners the Sharks were beaten by a Moeen Ali-inspired Worcestershire Rapids in their home quarter-final.

Afghanistani spinner Rashid Khan was one of those players lost to international duty and Sussex will be delighted to have him back for the group stages. He will be joined by his Adelaide Strikers teammate Travis Head. Reece Topley refused a new contract with the club to join Surrey, but the big news at Hove is the incoming of Essex Eagles legend Ravi Bopara.

Despite the disappointing nature of last season’s Vitality Blast elimination, there’s plenty of reasons to be excited about the Sharks in 2020. The signing of Bopara is a real coup and will complement both the batting and bowling superbly. Luke Wright and Phil Salt provide power at the top of the order, whilst Chris Jordan and Tymal Mills will spearhead the bowling with Jofra Archer likely to be on England duty. With the world-class Khan also within their ranks, Sussex look set for another serious tilt at the title this year.

Prediction: Runners-Up

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