NatWest Blast T20 countdown June 2, 2014

Flintoff and the art of daring

Andrew Flintoff's impending return leads ESPNcricinfo's countdown on the things that mattered in the latest round of matches in the NatWest T20 Blast

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NatWest T20 Blast round-up


A welcome sprinkling of razzmatazz

Fighting against middling weather, the looming Test summer and the football World Cup, the Blast will take all the razzmatazz that is going.

Enter Andrew Flintoff. On Friday his much-anticipated T20 return was confirmed. A day later he made his return to club cricket. Playing for St Anne's, he took 3 for 26 from 12 overs - getting faster the more he bowled - before he "blocked one" to long-off.

When Flintoff reappears in the Roses match at Old Trafford on Friday - potentially the best atmosphere the county game can offer - it will be 1748 days since his last professional game. In T20, it seems, you can never say never.

As an unconventional route in to this year's Blast, Richard Oliver's is scarcely more orthodox. At 24, it has taken him a fortnight to leap from Minor Counties player to an integral part of Worcestershire's T20 side: 77 in Friday's win over Northants took his tally to 158 runs in four innings in the professional game. Rarely have so many people been able to name the captain of Shropshire.

English cricket has invariably seemed unhealthily distrustful of late-blooming talent. Bryce McGain's tale - he went from IT worker aged 35 to Australian Test cricketer aged 36 - would be unimaginable here.

The Blast may be an important way of nurturing late developers: by encouraging sides to look for alternative sources of talent to reduce the strain on their squads; it provides hope that they will not be lost to the game. Especially now that the Unicorns (a side of amateurs) no longer play against English counties in one-day cricket, there is copious undiscovered talent available.

Not that Oliver is about to attract as much attention as Flintoff. There will be those willing him to fail, while cynics decry that, having won four of their first five games, Lancashire's use for him is for ticket sales alone.

So why is he doing it? By his own calculation, he is a man who "if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither knew victory nor defeat"; Flintoff quoted the words of Theodore Roosevelt, the former US president, on Twitter.

For all the doubts, Flintoff's return should be lauded as an unfettered good news story for county cricket; the same is true of Kevin Pietersen's Surrey comeback on Friday. We might even get the Flintoff v Pietersen showdown the Blast craves.


Pitch imperfect

High scores are the lifeblood of English T20 cricket. Few come in the hope of seeing cunning medium-pacers thrive on turgid pitches. That outcome was too common a sight last Friday.

Only in Cardiff, where Sussex posted 178 (and still lost), did a side score more than 145 in their first innings. Outside Wales, the average first innings total was 131. If the lack of searing heat provides some mitigation, it is a reminder that counties need to be more proactive in preparing the sort of pitches to produce the exciting cricket that spectators want.

Can the ECB, so conscious of the importance of the Blast succeeding, do more to help counties prepare wickets with pace and bounce - and even reprimand those who are unwilling to do so?


Ray of light in Yorkshire's financial gloom

Headingley has finally been granted planning permission to install permanent floodlights, with Yorkshire hopeful they will be completed for next season. For delighted fans the upshot will be later starting times on a Friday night.

At its worst, it can take the best part of an hour to get to Headingley from the city centre at rush hour, especially with so few parking options, so 5.30 Friday starts act as a roadblock to many attending. If this boosts attendance by an average of 3,000 per game then, when booze sales are added, Yorkshire could conceivably gain close to £500,000 a season.


Darren's delight

Darren Sammy enjoyed a winning start to county cricket against Sussex. His contribution was useful rather than decisive - three overs for 18 runs; and an unbeaten run-a-ball 9 to take Glamorgan to victory, but there is the definite sense of more to come. Much is made of the destructive capability of his batting, but his nagging cutters may be rather better suited to English pitches than those in the IPL, when he leaked 157 runs from 14 overs.

The optimism at Glamorgan transcends even Sammy's effusive smile. They achieved the rare feat of beating Hampshire at the Ageas Bowl on the Blast's launch night. Their chase of 178 against Sussex was set up by Jacques Rudolph, belying championship struggles for his second consecutive T20 half-century, before Chris Cooke celebrated his 28th birthday with a demonstration of power.

Add in the all-round nous of Jim Allenby, and a crafty pace-bowling pair in Graeme Wagg and Michael Hogan, and Glamorgan can have justifiable hope of replicating their effort in last season's CB40, when they reached the final.


The T20 specialist England forgot

Eyes are firmly fixed on higher-profile comebacks, but Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen would do well to match Owais Shah's return to English cricket. It was a considerable surprise when no county signed Shah in his new guise as an itinerant T20 specialist. But Hampshire gave him a short-term deal, initially as cover for Michael Carberry, and have been rewarded with 116 runs without dismissal from Shah's three innings.

The visit of his last county, Essex, brought out Shah's old swagger: his unbeaten 50 contained three sixes as Hampshire cruised home. Not that it would have been any surprise to those familiar with his formidable T20 record: he averages 34 and needs just 21 more runs to be the sixth man to 5000 T20 runs. If only his fielding was a little less shoddy, Shah could yet be England's answer to Brad Hodge.