The 20th season of English domestic T20 cricket gets underway on Wednesday night as the Vitality Blast launches for 2022. Here, we take a look at the runners and riders in the North Group.
BirminghamLast season: 4th in North Group, quarter-finals
Director of cricket: Paul Farbrace
Coach: Mark Robinson
Captain: Carlos Brathwaite
Overseas players: Carlos Brathwaite (West Indies), Paul Stirling (Ireland)
Key man: Alex Davies has not set the world alight in the Champion ship since switching from Lancashire, but in the Blast, Birmingham will expect him to give them the flying starts they wanted from Ed Pollock, only more often. His top-of-the-order partnership with the vastly experienced Paul Stirling, dubbed "a transformational signing" by Farbrace, needs to fire.
One to watch: Jacob Bethell was a surprise draft pick for Wesh Fire in the Hundred this summer and he is one of the most exciting components of the England Under-19 squad that reached the World Cup final. A batter/left-arm spinner, he grew up in Barbados but a Rugby School scholarship, at 13, set him on course with England. Quite a steal.
Verdict: It's hard to work out these days if the correct terminology is Birmingham, Bears or Warwickshire, but whatever split personality they adopt, the West Midlands representatives should reach the last eight. Chris Woakes can be expected to return from injury at some point, aiming to restate his England credentials across all formats, which should address some fitness-related bowling issues. David Hopps
DerbyshireLast season: 8th in North/South Group
Coach: Mickey Arthur
Captain: Shan Masood
Overseas players: Shan Masood (Pakistan), Hayden Kerr (Australia), Dustin Melton (Zimbabwe)
Key man: Shan Masood (844 Championship runs at 93.77) has been a wonderful signing for Derbyshire, at least partly the result of a chance meeting with Mickey Arthur at Dubai airport. He now adds the captaincy to his responsibilities and, after a successful Pakistan Super League (478 runs at 39.83 but a low strike rate of 138), he will seek to anchor the innings.
One to watch: Mark Watt, the Scotland left-arm spinner, could prove to be one of the canniest signings of the season. Watt, who is available for the whole tournament, came to prominence when Scotland beat England at the Grange in 2018 and returns to Derbyshire as a more seasoned cricketer after a brief spell the following summer. He is not a big spinner, but his numbers stacked up well at the T20 World Cup last year.
Verdict: Arthur has improved Derbyshire in the Championship and has a good limited-overs pedigree, but this could be a task too far. An injury to Suranga Lakmal caused a last-minute scramble for the Australian left-arm quick, Hayden Kerr, a breakout player in the 2021-22 Big Bash; Kerr's batting ability means the side has better balance as a result. A fit Luis Reece is also essential to shore them up with bat and ball. Rank outsiders in the betting and with good reason. DH
DurhamLast season: 7th in North Group
Director of cricket: Marcus North
Coach: James Franklin
Captain: Ashton Turner
Overseas players: Ashton Turner (Australia), David Bedingham (South Africa)
Key man: Ashton Turner led Perth Scorchers to the Big Bash title in his first season in charge, scoring his runs at a 153 strike rate, and will hope to pep up an under-performing county. His offspin might come in useful, too, in his first appearance in county cricket. Overseas T20 captains have not lasted long at Durham: think Tom Latham, Nathan Rimmington and Cameron Bancroft. This time can be different.
One to watch: The other Ollie Robinson (he even shares the same birthday as Sussex's England seamer) is a shrewd on-loan signing from Kent and might well take the keeping gloves from Ned Eckersley, whose T20 batting record does not convince. Robinson is running into batting form, too, after a poor start to the Championship season.
Verdict: Durham can make plenty of runs this year, but bowing wise, the absence of Matthew Potts with England will hurt them, so they badly need Brydon Carse to be fit and firing. A re-emergence of Paul Coughlin would also help. Will do enough to stay interested in the top four, but need luck to go their way. DH
LancashireLast season: 3rd in North Group, quarter-finals
Director of cricket: Mark Chilton
Coach: Glen Chapple
Captain: Dane Vilas
Overseas players: Dane Vilas (South Africa), Tim David (Australia/Singapore)
Key man: With Saqib Mahmood out for the season, Lancashire will be more intent than ever to produce pitches to suit an array of spinners such as Matt Parkinson, Steven Croft and Liam Livingstone. That gives Tom Hartley's left-arm orthodox another chance to make a big impression, consolation for his limited opportunities in the four-day game.
One to watch: More one to spot than one to watch, much in the manner of the shaggy-crested belted kingfisher which excited twitchers at the turn of the year, because sightings of Jos Buttler in Lancashire remain rare, especially as he lives in London. But Buttler lost his Test place and that gives the IPL's most eminent batter a chance to play a central part in the Blast. Hopefully, he will take it.
Verdict: A lot of good things are happening at Lancashire. The ground gets better by the year, the squad is strong and player development efforts are second to none. But a side with a good quarter-final record needs to win something, if not the Blast then the Championship. They must make this summer count. DH
LeicestershireLast season: 6th in North Group
Director of cricket: Claude Henderson
Coach: Paul Nixon
Captain: Colin Ackermann
Overseas players: Hamish Rutherford (New Zealand), Naveen-ul-Haq (Afghanistan)
Key man: Callum Parkinson, brother of Lancashire's Matt, stepped up as Championship captain this month, and although Colin Ackermann remains in charge in the Blast, it is Parkinson who bears heavy responsibility with the ball. His 18 wickets last season were second only to Naveen-ul-Haq, at a fine economy of 7.51, and if he doesn't pin down the opposition it is hard to see who does. Turning surfaces might be Leicestershire's best chance.
One to watch: Rehan Ahmed might only be 17, but he is already an exciting symbol of what Leicestershire could be - an inspirational development pathway for minority-ethnic talent. He is yet to make his T20 debut for the Foxes, but legspinners are a priceless commodity and Southern Brave have snapped him up for the Hundred after studying his 12-wicket haul in the Under-19 World Cup. - three consecutive four-fors to propel England to the final. One reason to get down to the Uptonsteel County Ground.
Verdict: Leicestershire have had a dreadful start to the Championship season and are desperate for a positive outcome in the Blast. Off the field, they talk of filling the ground, but they need England's most ethnically-diverse city to embrace the county as their own, or risk losing it for good. There is no Josh Inglis, the Blast's leading run-getter in 2021, this time around. Qualification for the last eight would be a major surprise. DH
NorthamptonshireLast season: 9th in North Group
Coach: John Sadler
Captain: Josh Cobb
Overseas players: Chris Lynn, Matthew Kelly (both Australia), James Neesham (New Zealand)
Key man: Northants were the slowest-scoring team in the country in the middle overs last season and the second-slowest when facing spin. Chris Lynn and James Neesham (once Rajasthan Royals' IPL season is over) will add power at the start and end of the innings but they will need captain Josh Cobb to hold them together from No. 3 or 4. While Cobb's batting is clearly his strongest suit, he is also an underrated offspinner: across the last three seasons he has been hit for six only twice in his 30 powerplay overs, conceding less than a run a ball in that phase of the game.
One to watch: There had not been a single England-qualified left-arm wristspinner in the Blast until Jake Lintott made his T20 debut in 2017 but his success has sparked a mini-revival of cricket's rarest bowling style, with Sam Wisniewski and Freddie Heldreich since following in his footsteps. Heldreich, a 20-year-old from Ipswich, took five wickets in as many games for Northants last year with an economy rate of just 6.50 and could be a breakout star if he is given further opportunities in 2022.
Verdict: Northants' glory years of 2012-16 are long gone and reaching the quarter-finals would represent significant progress for a side in transition. They have enough power in their batting line-up to challenge but their bowling attack looks too light in terms of both quality and depth to close out many games. Matt Roller
NottinghamshireLast season: 1st in North Group, quarter-finals
Director of cricket: Mick Newell Coach: Peter Moores
Captain: Dan Christian
Overseas players: Christian, James Pattinson (both Australia), Dane Paterson (South Africa)
Key man: Alex Hales and Joe Clarke were the Blast's most destructive opening pair in 2021 with an average stand of 34.72 at 10.91 runs an over but Ben Duckett is the most important batter in Nottinghamshire's line-up. Duckett tends to play second fiddle to whichever opener is still in at the start of his innings before taking on the spinners, often sweeping and reserve-sweeping. If England decide to take another look at him in their ODI series against the Netherlands in mid-June, it would be a major dent to Notts' hopes.
One to watch: The legspinning allrounder Calvin Harrison was handed a first-team chance when Dan Christian won a surprise, last-minute recall to Australia's T20I squad last year and finished the season as Notts' leading wicket-taker while conceding 6.78 runs an over. With offspinner Matt Carter and the evergreen Samit Patel both in the squad and Christian back for 2022, Harrison is not guaranteed a place this season unless Notts opt for a spin-heavy strategy again but it would be a brave call to leave him out.
Verdict: Notts won the North Group at a canter last year before self-destructing in the quarter-finals and therefore have something to prove despite their impressive recent run in the Blast. They have been the best team in the country over the past five seasons and would be fitting, record-equalling champions in T20's 20th season. MR
WorcestershireLast season: 5th in North Group
Coach: Alex Gidman
Captain: Moeen Ali
Overseas players: Colin Munro (New Zealand), Dwayne Bravo (West Indies)
Key man: Moeen Ali has only played four Blast games across the past two years due to his international commitments but is available to captain Worcestershire for the vast majority of this season following his retirement from Tests. He had a relatively quiet IPL before hitting 93 off 57 balls in Chennai Super Kings' final game and is bringing Dwayne Bravo to New Road with him; Worcestershire expect both to be available from June 1.
One to watch: Ed Pollock's T20 career has been enigmatic: his career strike rate is an eye-catching 160.96 but he has never managed 300 runs in a season and was surprisingly dropped by Birmingham in last year's quarter-finals. He has been playing Championship cricket for the first time since moving from Warwickshire to Worcestershire over the winter and will hope that the move can shift his stalling career back into gear.
Verdict: Winners in 2018, finalists in 2019, Worcestershire have only won eight games across the last two T20 seasons but are dark horses this year. They have recruited well, covering the losses of Riki Wessels, Daryl Mitchell and Ross Whiteley, and Bravo is the ideal mentor for young seamers Pat Brown, Dillon Pennington and Josh Tongue. Starting with four consecutive away games is a tough ask. But if everything clicks, they will be a difficult side to beat. MR
YorkshireLast season: 2nd in North Group, quarter-finals
Director of cricket: Darren Gough
Coach: Ottis Gibson
Captain: David Willey
Overseas players: Haris Rauf (Pakistan), Shadab Khan (Pakistan), Finn Allen (New Zealand)
Key man: Jordan Thompson offers belligerent runs in the middle-order, wicket-taking ability with his aggressive fast-medium and relishes a challenge. His economy rate could be better, but he can go big with the bat and his will to win is priceless for Yorkshire as they seek yet again to put right a dismal T20 record.
One to watch: Tom Kohler-Cadmore has not played all season after he suffered delayed concussion while batting in the nets on a pre-season tour of South Africa, but he is back in 2nd XI cricket and Yorkshire badly need his presence in their T20 top order. Kohler-Cadmore's dad worked as a Headingley dressing room attendant but left in protest at last winter's mass sackings which gives TKC's season extra interest.
Verdict: Can Ottis Gibson inspire Yorkshire to embrace T20? The fact his captain, David Willey, is still bench sitting at IPL, and Harry Brook is a likely absentee with England is hardly favourable, but Dawid Malan should have England points to prove. The overseas signings are strong and, if Kohler-Cadmore returns, they should reach the last eight. Six home matches in the first seven, partly caused by the Headingley Test, is financially disastrous. DH