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August 24, 2012
English cricket's uneasy relationship with the growing influence of domestic Twenty20 will again come to the fore on Saturday when the Friends Life t20 Finals Day is held in Cardiff. It marks ten years since the Twenty20 Cup, the original competition, began in 2003 but other countries have taken the format to new levels.
Finals Day, unsatisfyingly, is scheduled the day after a programme of Championship matches and, what is more, it takes place in Cardiff, where none of the counties could have practiced anyway on the day before the match because the ground was staging an England ODI against South Africa. A capacity crowd approaching 15,000 is assured.
At stake is not only the trophy itself - and a significant winner's cheque alongside it - but also the final two places at the Champions League Twenty20 to be held in South Africa during October. That tournament comes with the possibility of huge sums of money but both English counties have to go through pre-qualifying before reaching the main stage, after the ECB declined to be one of the founding partners alongside the BCCI, Cricket Australia and Cricket South Africa.
The county game still does not know quite how to take the Champions League, with it being a hindrance at the end of the season; this year's tournament is only pushed back due to the World Twenty20. Embrace fully or ignore completely? Within the 18 counties there are people who fall on both sides.
Last year Somerset did themselves proud by reaching the semi-finals and, but for a straight drive from Jos Buttler that crashed into Craig Kieswetter's forearm, could have reached the final. Still, they enjoyed a lucrative pay day, money which they have been able to reinvest in their team. It is not a coincidence they have one of the deeper squads in county cricket and a crop of talented young players.
Somerset are one of this year's four semi-finalists, where they will face Hampshire in a rematch of the 2010 final that Hampshire won by losing fewer wickets after scores were tied. They are still carrying the albatross around their neck of being perennial runner's up but, as ever, will be a strong outfit on Finals Day.
Last year, Kieron Pollard was one of Somerset's overseas players but this time they have the South Africa opener Richard Levi but not Albie Morkel who is injured although Kevin O'Brien is also part of the squad. Elsewhere they have Marcus Trescothick back after his ankle injury along with the striking power of Kieswetter and Buttler.
Hampshire, too, have a strong top order. James Vince is their top-scorer in the format this year, with 211 runs, but it was Neil McKenzie who guided them through the quarter-final against Nottinghamshire with a wonderful innings of deft placement. They will miss Glenn Maxwell, the allrounder, who has been called into Australia's one-day and Twenty20 squads, so Simon Katich and Jimmy Adams will have to fill the void.
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Bowling is their weaker suit, but in Danny Briggs they have an international spinner and in Dimitri Mascarenhas a wise head who has seen it all before. Liam Dawson, who takes the new-ball with his left-arm spin, is not to be underestimated.
The other semi-final, which will be the first, starting at 11am in cricket's 12-hour day, is between Sussex and Yorkshire, the latter in their first Finals Day. Yorkshire have been boosted by the availability of Jonny Bairstow following the preceding day's one-day international but, as of Friday, were still waiting on news about Tim Bresnan. It is another odd piece of scheduling to place one of the marquee days of the domestic season little more than 12 hours after an ODI will have finished on the same ground. Yorkshire, at least, have the advantage of being the only team not in Championship action on Friday.
Yorkshire also have some very exciting younger players in their ranks. Gary Ballance has caught the eye with the cleanness of his striking while Azeem Rafiq, who stood in as captain during the group stage, is developing into a very astute all-round cricketer. Then there is what appears to be a rebirth for Adil Rashid, the legspinner, who is emerging from a prolonged slump. They will not have Mitchell Starc, the Australia left-arm quick, but, like Somerset, their South Africa batsman, David Miller, is available for the day.
Sussex have long been one of the most consistent one-day sides in the country. They won this competition in 2009, Michael Yardy's first year as captain, and this time Finals Day will mark his last outing in the role for Sussex, following his decision to step down in the Championship and CB40. They reached the semi-final with victory over Gloucestershire, which was led by Scott Styris' 37-ball hundred and he will be back in the side after competing in the Sri Lanka Premier League.
Matt Prior, keen to show he should be playing one-day and Twenty20 ahead of Kieswetter, and Luke Wright bring international experience but they rarely choose to play Monty Panesar in Twenty20 cricket, preferring the combination of Yardy, Chris Nash (a consistently impressive player), legspinner Will Beer and the surprise package of 20-year-old Michael Rippon. Neither do they lack pace options with Chris Liddle, the left-armer, and Amjad Khan capable of pushing the speed gun.
After the awful weather that cut swathes through the qualifying campaign the tournament desperately needs a high-octane finals day, although it will do well to match the drama of 2011 when the two semi-finals went to Super Overs before Leicestershire clinched the trophy by beating Somerset. As rain fell during the one-day international there were plenty of fingers being crossed.
August 24 3pm BST: this story was amended to reflect Albie Morkel not being available for Somerset
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: Andrew McGlashan
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