Flt20 Finals Day: The Contenders
A fine white ball team who completed the 40-over, 20-over double last season. They are on course to repeat the feat in 2013 and are capable of creating a period of dominance that Gloucestershire enjoyed at the turn of the century.
In Twenty20, Hampshire have all the elements covered: top-order trailblazers, middle-order accumulators, power hitters, new-ball bowlers, crafty spinners and very effective death bowlers. Crucially too, they have got the job done before; an underestimated factor that has let the likes of Lancashire and Nottinghamshire down in the past. This is their fourth Finals Day in succession.
Hampshire have a settled side who know their roles and it will take a very special performance to stop them. A fitting send off for retiring captain Dimitri Mascarenhas is a fair bet.
Michael Carberry is a big, mean hitting machine and pummelled Lancashire in the quarter-final with his first T20 century. His 496 runs in this year's competition have many calling for him to selected for England. Mascarenhas has denied his side are depending on Carberry but it will be interesting to see how Hampshire react should he fail.
How they reached Finals Day
Hampshire were untouchable in the group stage, save for a wild aberration against Kent at the Ageas Bowl - their first T20 defeat in 17 matches - but were given the shock of their lives as Lancashire dared to chase down 202 in the quarter-finals.
Ah Surrey, remember them? They won the inaugural T20 competition in 2003 and appeared at the first four Finals Days but have been AWOL ever since. Surrey, and their large chequebook, have always been feared on paper but none of their signings in the past six years, Nayan Doshi, Pedro Collins, Andrew Symonds and Yasir Arafat among them, have been able to help them out of the group stage. Even the 2011 side that won the Clydesdale Bank 40 failed to crack T20. And this year, Surrey's success was in spite of Ricky Ponting. He made one-half century and only 38 runs in another four innings.
They're back at Finals Day but have struggled for runs. Their strength lies in a bowling attack featuring the slower-ball maestro Jade Dernbach and canny old-heads Azhar Mahood and Jon Lewis. But the absence of offspinner and captain Gareth Batty, banned following his altercation with Peter Trego in the quarter-final, will hurt them.
Jade Dernbach was laughed out of the England side after becoming the most expensive bowler in ODI history against New Zealand earlier this season but he has gathered himself and is bowling supremely well in county cricket. Genuine pace matched to a variety of outrageous change-ups make him the next-best thing to Lasith Malinga on the market. 16 wickets and an economy rate of under six is a big reason why Surrey have defended scores so well.
How they reached Finals Day
With Hampshire in the group, the rest of the Southern teams were competing for second place. Surrey comfortably achieved the runners-up spot with only three defeats - two of them to Hampshire - and their record would have been good enough to win the Midlands/Wales/West Group. They overcame a dangerous Somerset in the quarter-final largely by keeping Craig Kieswetter's impact to a manageable level.
Everyone was just as surprised when they reached Finals Day in 2009 - their only previous appearance - but entering this year with three wins from their previous 26 T20s, their success is as unexpected as Joe Johnson winning the world snooker title in 1986. Northants got themselves going early in their campaign with victories over less fancied Gloucestershire and Warwickshire and, like Johnson's campaign burgeoning with confidence after an epic victory over Terry Girffiths, so Northants walked a foot taller by beating Somerset at Wantage Road. It was their first win over Somerset in T20s for five years and set them on their way to topping the group.
The club has been turned around in the past 18 months with a new coach, captain and chief executive. They are an unlikely bunch but very unified and confident. They have also received good value from their overseas player, Cameron White.
Their best performer has come not from overseas but down the M1. Azharullah was plucked out of league cricket in Yorkshire and, 24 wickets later, Northants are striving to secure his signature for next season. Azharullah has good pace, a smart change-up and a mean Yorker - attributes that could see him fulfil his ambition of a county career having moved to Britain from Pakistan. His number of dismissals bowled, 10 - the most of any bowler in the competition - demonstrates his modus operandi.
How they reached Finals Day
Northants quickly established themselves as the front-runners in the group and never relented. The crunch game came in the penultimate match in Cardiff but Glamorgan were hammered and a home quarter-final secured. They received a favourable draw against Durham but White's hitting would have been too good for many sides.
That Essex find themselves at Finals Day is a rather confusing situation to come to terms with. They were bowled out for 20 in the Championship, 74 in the Flt20, booed off by their home crowd, publicly criticised by their coach, and yet find themselves two matches away from a first piece of silverware since 2008. It can only be admired how they have advertised themselves as a laughing stock and still found enough performances to qualify. Maybe it was all part of the plan.
Essex have already bettered their showing from their last Final Day appearance, 2010, by not shipping in a mercenary for the event. The decision to fly in Dwayne Bravo that year chalked up another point in the laughing stock column. Bravo was run-out after just eight balls and his four overs conceded 46. They would be hard-pressed to wave in a better replacement for Shaun Tait anyway. His 16 wickets at 15.73 and economy rate of 6.73 have been excellent value for money; and his quarter-final hat-trick.
You have always got a chance when Ryan ten Doeschate is at the wicket. He can single-handedly win matches but had sold himself short with 193 runs in the group stage. But, like Essex generally, chose his moment to perform. Trent Bridge is perhaps the third-toughest ground to visit for a T20; ten Doeschate drank in the occasion and slammed 82 in 44 balls.
How they reached Final Day
Beginning with two wins and two defeats, Essex were struck with bipolar disorder but a fine win at The Oval was the second of three wins on the spin that secured a best third-place spot despite losing the final two matches, including a revenge mission by Surrey in a thumping at Chelmsford. They defied the second-worst quarter-final draw in some style thanks to ten Doeschate and Tait.
Alex Winter is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here.