Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98
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Samit Patel is the second-highest wicket-taker in the history of English domestic T20 cricket as the Vitality Blast approaches its 20th season, an achievement that must have seemed implausible to him in his first experience of the format.
"I was still at school at the time and I was telling everyone at school to watch me," Patel recalls. "But then my first-ever ball in T20 cricket was a no-ball. It went for six. And the free hit went for six too so I'd bowled one ball for 14." Michael Lumb, his future team-mate, went after him and took his only over for 28 runs; even in the days before 'match-ups' had entered common parlance, bowling left-arm spin to a set left-handed batter was a dangerous game.
"No-one knew how to play T20 cricket in that first year," Patel says. "We didn't know what a good score was, we didn't know which players to use. No-one knew anything: teams were trying pinch-hitters, anything they could think of. We just didn't know: it felt like a trial, really.
"It was just a case of 'try and get as many as you can, save a few wickets for the back end' and off we went. From a bowling point of view, it was 'if in doubt, bowl yorkers' - no slower balls, no bouncers. Nobody knew how to play it so there was no planning at all."
Patel's own experience was shaped by Notts' struggles: they won five of their first 18 games across the first three T20 seasons, failing to reach the knockout stages until their run to the final in 2006. "We probably prioritised red-ball cricket a little bit too much but that was just the thing to do back in the day," he reflects.
The contrast is stark with a side that has now won more T20 games (128) than any other county and reached the knockout stages in each of the last six seasons, winning the title in 2017 and 2020. Patel has been a constant, and along with Ravi Bopara will be one of only two players to appear in each of the first 20 seasons of English domestic T20 cricket, following Gareth Batty and Rikki Clarke's retirements. Last year, he became the first man in the tournament's history to play 200 games.
"Who'd have thought that I'd play 20 years of T20 cricket? It's pretty special, to be honest," he says. "To play in every year of the Blast for the same county has been unreal. I've been very fortunate. T20 has given guys a chance to fly around the world, meet new friends and make a difference: it's been great for English cricket."
Patel himself has played in just about every T20 league going - BBL, BPL, CPL, LPL, PSL and Super Smash - and is now a short-form specialist, having signed a white-ball contract in 2020. "I did the hard work of four-day cricket before that," he says. "I advise that to everybody: you need the fundamental skills of batting, bowling and fielding from four-day cricket before you go down the franchise route."
He will again be a key player for Notts in 2022 when the tournament starts in two weeks' time, bowling a large proportion of his overs in the powerplay and adding batting depth to give their top order licence to go hard against the new ball. With Dan Christian returning as captain, they are a hugely experienced squad once again and are the bookies' pre-season favourites for the title.
Last year, they won the North Group but were knocked out after a dramatic collapse against Hampshire in the quarter-finals, which took place over a month after the group stage due to the Hundred. "After playing so well in 90% of the game and then to lose, that was pretty frustrating to be honest," Patel says. "I know the boys are desperate to put that right.
"We've got big-game players and we know how to get it done. We've got a lot of experience which counts for a lot; we've got Dan Christian coming back this year who says 'old is gold' and that's absolutely right. As soon as we get on a roll, it's going to be tough for teams to come and play against us. We want to put pressure on any opposition."
Several counties are anxious about player availability for the Blast, with England's Test and ODI series against New Zealand and Netherlands respectively both clashing with group games. Ben Duckett and Joe Clarke are the Notts players most likely to be affected, but they expect to retain the core of their side for most of the tournament.
"We all want the boys to get picked for England," Patel says. "That's why we play our cricket. We've got a lot of depth so if the boys get picked we can cover for it but if they don't, they're going to have to churn them out for Notts."
And if winning a record-equalling third title is not enough, there is added personal motivation for Patel as he looks to keep up with Danny Briggs at the top of the tournament's all-time wicket-taking list. "I've been toe-to-toe with him for a number of years. Briggsy is a good bowler - he flies under the radar - but so am I… hopefully I can get to the top at some stage."
Supporters can witness Notts Outlaws in the Vitality Blast at Trent Bridge from May 27 to July 1. Tickets are available here.