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 South Group.
Last season: 7th in South Group Coach: Anthony McGrath Captain: Simon Harmer Overseas players: Harmer (South Africa), Daniel Sams (Australia)
Key man:Daniel Sams recovered from an iffy start to his IPL to end up as Mumbai Indians second-highest wicket-taker. But with his Test ambitions seemingly on hold for now, Dan Lawrence could be the player to sprinkle a bit of stardust on Essex's season (assuming he makes a swift recovery from his hamstring strain).
One to watch: There are a clutch of young batters vying for opportunities at Chelmsford, with Michael Pepper due a decent shake in T20. He quietly led Essex's run-scoring last year, with 260 at a strike rate of 131.31, and warmed up for the Blast by hammering 117 off 41 balls, with 14 fours and eight sixes, against Hampshire 2nd XI last week. Keep an eye out for Will Buttleman, too.
Verdict: Having not strengthened significantly, it's hard to see Essex as much more than an outside bet to reach the quarter-finals. But then many would have said the same in 2019, when the team clicked at the right time under Harmer to lift their first T20 title. Alan Gardner
Last season: 9th in South Group Director of cricket: Mark Wallace Coach: Matthew Maynard Captain: David Lloyd Overseas players: Marnus Labuschagne, Michael Neser (both Australia), Colin Ingram (South Africa)
Key man:Dan Douthwaite became Glamorgan's talisman in 2021, finishing the season as their leading wicket-taker - including several scalps in a new role as a death bowler - and their only frontline batter with a strike rate above 150. He will need the middle order to do a better job of shielding his weakness against spin but is a destructive hitter against seamers and will push for a Hundred wildcard gig after he was surprisingly overlooked in the draft last month.
One to watch:Kiran Carlson has shown himself to be a hugely talented attacking player in other formats but has an inexplicably poor T20 record, with a single half-century in 30 career innings and an average of just 16.55. Last year, he was initially used in the middle order then as an opener; neither worked. At 24, the time is right for a breakout season if Glamorgan can find him a clear role.
Verdict: Glamorgan have won eight T20 games in the last three seasons, the fewest of any county by far, and there are few signs that their fortunes will turn in 2022. With Marnus Labuschagne on Australia duty in Sri Lanka for much of the Blast, the onus will be on Colin Ingram and Michael Neser to step up in his absence. Matt Roller
Last season: 6th in South Group Coach: Dale Benkenstein Captain: Jack Taylor Overseas players: Naseem Shah (Pakistan), Glenn Phillips (New Zealand), Marcus Harris (Australia)
Key man:Glenn Phillips starred last year, scoring exactly 500 runs in his 12 innings while striking at 163.39, but did not find enough support and Gloucestershire's final-round defeat to Somerset saw them miss out on the quarter-finals. He returns for the full season after warming the Sunrisers Hyderabad bench at the IPL and, alongside Ian Cockbain, will be the key to their middle order's success.
One to watch:Naseem Shah has proved his fitness playing for the second XI and should be available to start the season. He is still a raw talent but was Quetta Gladiators' leading wicket-taker at the PSL earlier this year; with Tom Smith and Benny Howell operating through the middle overs he will bowl at both ends of the innings. Pakistan have resisted the temptation to pick him for their ODI series against West Indies and can instead watch him develop across a full Blast season.
Verdict: Gloucestershire ended a three-year streak of knockout qualification when they slipped up in their final group game last year and will be in the quarter-final hunt again. Their attack is set up to thrive on slower pitches but their batting line-up cannot rely so heavily on Phillips if they are to finish in the top four. MR
Last season: 4th in South Group, semi-finals Director of cricket: Giles White Coach: Adi Birrell Captain: James Vince Overseas players: Ben McDermott (Australia), Nathan Ellis (Australia)
Key man: A veteran of eight Finals Days, James Vince will likely have a big role to play if Hampshire are going back to Edgbaston once again. Only three players have scored more runs in the history of England's domestic T20 than Vince - who is still only 31 - and last year he was again a lynchpin atop the order.
One to watch:Tom Prest was already making waves down Solent way before he led England to the final of the Under-19 World Cup over the winter. An unbeaten 59 in only his third T20 innings set up victory over Gloucestershire last year and the 19-year-old looks ready to bring out his full repertoire.
Verdict:Ben McDermott, who led the 2021-22 Big Bash's run-scoring with 577 at a strike rate of 153.86, could be one of the more impressive overseas signings while Aneurin Donald's return from injury and the arrival of Ross Whiteley from Worcestershire adds further power. Throw in a varied bowling attack and they will be hoping for more knockout success on the south coast. AG
Last season: Winners Director of cricket: Paul Downton Coach: Matt Walker Captain: Sam Billings Overseas players: Qais Ahmad (Afghanistan), George Linde (South Africa)
Key man: Captain, talent scout, England man, T20 globetrotter: Sam Billings is many things to Kent cricket, but nothing less than a driving force in the shortest format. Straight back into the thick of it from the IPL, he will relish setting the tempo for Kent's title defence - as well as sticking it to his occasional critics.
One to watch: Normally this section is reserved for young talent - but how can you take your eyes off Darren Stevens? He forced his way back into Kent's T20 plans after three years on the fringes, and promptly helped them to the title, playing all but one game. Don't rule out the ever-youthful 46-year-old repeating the trick.
Verdict: Stevens and Joe Denly aside, Kent largely bucked the "old blokes win stuff" mantra - meaning a squad powered by the dynamism of Billings, Daniel Bell-Drummond, Jordan Cox and Matt Milnes should produce another energetic campaign. But the fact no county has ever won back-to-back T20 titles could be a worry. AG
Last season: 8th in South Group Head of men's performance: Alan Coleman Coach: Richard Johnson Captain: Stephen Eskinazi Overseas players: Jason Behrendorff (Australia), Mujeeb Ur Rahman (Afghanistan), Chris Green (Australia)
Key man:Stephen Eskinazi has been Middlesex's best T20 batter over the last couple of seasons, scoring more than 800 runs at a strike rate in the 140s. He has added power to an otherwise classical technique and should be a banker for consistent returns at the top of the order. He also takes over as captain.
One to watch: The emergence of Blake Cullen was one of the reasons that Middlesex were happy to let Steven Finn leave for Sussex at the end of last season. A tall, rangy seamer, he took 20 wickets (one more than Finn) in his maiden Blast season as a 19-year-old, earning himself a wildcard pick for the Hundred.
Verdict: The club's marquee signing, Shaheen Shah Afridi, pulled out days before the start of the competition and fear is that with him will go the wind in their sails. Jason Behrendorff is a solid replacement but Eoin Morgan has long struggled to get a tune out of Middlesex in the way he has done with England; he has given up the captaincy and will not play every game. Their unequalled run of 13 seasons without a trip to Finals Day seems unlikely to end this year. AG
Last season: 2nd in South Group, runners-up Director of cricket: Andy Hurry Coach: Jason Kerr Captain: Tom Abell Overseas players: Rilee Rossouw, Marchant de Lange (both South Africa), Peter Siddle (Australia)
Key man:Tom Abell has been club captain since 2017 but is only now taking the T20 reins after replacing Lewis Gregory in the role over the winter. Abell is among the best player of spin in the competition - only Ben Duckett has scored more runs against spin at a faster strike rate than Abell's 149.59 over the past three seasons - and his background as a youth hockey player is evident in his scoops and deflections against the quicks. With four half-centuries in six innings last season (he missed most of the Blast through injury) he will be the lynchpin of Somerset's destructive batting line-up.
One to watch: A single wicket would take Max Waller clear of Alfonso Thomas as Somerset's all-time leading T20 wicket-taker this season but he comes into the Blast uncertain of his future. An uncharacteristically poor 2021 saw him left out of the final four games, including the knockout stages and he has not been included in their squad for the opening night against Kent and is in the final year of his white-ball contract at 34; if selected, he has a point to prove.
Verdict: Somerset's talented homegrown batting core will put them in contention for the knockout stages but with Craig Overton - who has made significant improvements as a T20 bowler - missing on England duty their attack looks light. Expect high-scoring games - especially at Taunton, billed by the club as the world's highest-scoring T20 venue. MR
Last season: 5th in South Group Director of cricket: Alec Stewart Coach: Gareth Batty Captain: Chris Jordan Overseas players: Sunil Narine, Kieron Pollard (both West Indies)
Key man: Having pulled out of the IPL and opted to take an "indefinite break" from cricket, Jason Roy looks likely to return in time for the start of Surrey's Blast campaign. If he is refreshed and ready to contribute in as many as ten group games, his presence will be a significant boost.
One to watch: He was compared to Moeen Ali earlier in the season, and it is in the shortest format where Will Jacks comes closest to such premium allrounder status. Surrey's leading run-scorer last season, with 393 at a strike rate of 170.12, Jacks also plays a vital role balancing the side with his offbreaks and a strong season would propel him towards England contention.
Verdict: Surrey were beaten finalists in 2020, under the captaincy of Batty; now in charge as interim head coach, he has an enviable squad with which to try and go one better. As ever, they might suffer from England call-ups, but two top-tier overseas signings in Kieron Pollard and Sunil Narine will enhance their status as contenders. AG
Last season: Semi-finalists Coach: James Kirtley Captain: Ravi Bopara Overseas players: Mohammad Rizwan (Pakistan), Josh Philippe (Australia), Tim Seifert (NZ), Rashid Khan (Afghanistan)
Key man: Any one of Sussex's four overseas signings for the competition could turn out to be pivotal, though complications around availability make that hard to predict. Mohammad Rizwan is the ICC's No. 3-ranked T20 batter, Rashid Khan the No. 5-ranked bowler, although they will only play a maximum of five games together.
One to watch: Few outside of Sussex knew anything about Archie Lenham this time last year. But the then 16-year-old - the first player to debut in England's T20 competition having been born since it started - produced any number of memorable moments to go with raw figures of 11 wickets at 17.63, making him the club's joint-second most-successful bowler.
Verdict: Among the favourites, but there are a number of question marks. Phil Salt and Chris Jordan have gone from the squad that reached Finals Day last year, and several bowlers - Tymal Mills, Finn, George Garton, Ollie Robinson - have either been ill or injured recently. Much may depend on Ravi Bopara juggling the captaincy with his all-round commitments. AG