Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98
CPL 2023 (1)
IND v AUS (1)
Gulf T20I (3)
Malaysia Tri (2)
County DIV1 (5)
County DIV2 (3)
Asian Games (W) (2)
ENG v IRE (1)
BAN v NZ (1)
The Kia Oval is described as 'The Home of T20 Cricket' on advertisements around South London, a strapline which nods not only to the strong crowds that the Vitality Blast attracts in Kennington but also to Surrey's status as the first county to truly embrace the format.
They were the Twenty20 Cup's inaugural champions back in 2003, and reached Finals Day in each of the first four seasons. It feels like an anomaly that they have only reached the knockout stages four times in the last 15 years, a bizarrely poor record for a club with such deep resources.
This year, in the competition's 20th season, they look set to put that right. Along with Lancashire, they are one of two unbeaten teams in the country, with four wins and a no-result from their first five games, and the depth of their squad is unrivalled. Even with Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes away on Test duty, Rory Burns and Gus Atkinson cannot get in the side while Jordan Clark and Dan Moriarty have played only once each.
Back in the early years, Ali Brown starred with the bat and Nayan Doshi with the ball, but there were contributions throughout a dynamic, versatile squad, with Adam Hollioake, Rikki Clarke and Azhar Mahmood all used as genuine allrounders. The current side bears more than a passing resemblance: in home games against Gloucestershire and Hampshire last week, their side featured eight bowling options and had so much batting depth that Jamie Smith - the talented young wicketkeeper-batter - was due to come in at No. 9.
It is a substantial turnaround from their fifth-placed finish last year which saw them miss out on the quarter-finals. They used 21 players last season with availability presenting major issues and while England's ODI series in the Netherlands will see them lose Sam Curran, Jason Roy and Reece Topley, they look significantly better-equipped to cope this time around.
Curran has been the star man to date as both their leading run-scorer and wicket-taker while filling two crucial roles in the side: he has taken the new ball, nipping the ball around in helpful early-summer conditions, and has batted at No. 3 with complete licence to go hard, evidenced by a strike rate of 170.31 when facing spin.
But the biggest impact has been the addition of three Caribbean-born players with over 1,250 T20 appearances between them: Chris Jordan, who returned to his old club over the winter as T20 captain after nine seasons with Sussex, and two undisputed legends of the shorter formats in Sunil Narine and Kieron Pollard, long-time Trinidad and West Indies team-mates.
Narine, playing county cricket for the first time, has started remarkably. His 16 overs to date have cost 76 runs including only three boundaries, with teams simply looking to play him out; in the win against Hampshire last week, he hit 52 off 23 balls from No. 6, including 22 off 5 against Mason Crane's legspin.
Pollard has been quieter, with two brief innings, one wicket and a superb catch his only contribution to the scoreboard and a minor knee injury limiting his involvement. But when he has played, his impact as a senior player has been obvious, in regular discussion with bowlers from mid-on and with his partners while batting.
Gareth Batty, who has been promoted to interim head coach after Vikram Solanki left to become Gujarat Titans' director of cricket, has encouraged his squad to soak up the experience of playing with two of the format's greats. "He's told us to get as much out of them as we can," Will Jacks told ESPNcricinfo.
"To have world-class players like those guys, who have played 400-plus T20 games, is invaluable for us. I've already learned from Polly while batting for two or three overs with him: he's obviously captained West Indies, played for over a decade in the IPL. He's got knowledge that the rest of us don't have."
Their availability owes both to their respective absences from the West Indies set-up - Pollard announced his international retirement in April, while Narine's last T20I was in 2019 - and their involvement in the Hundred later in the summer.
Both players were signed by London teams in April's draft (Narine by Oval Invincibles, Pollard by London Spirit) and as such were willing to extend their stays with rare Blast stints: Narine had never played county cricket before while Pollard's last appearance was in 2011.
It has given English crowds a rare opportunity to see them in the flesh and appreciate their skills: Pollard and Narine played only 23 internationals between them on English soil, and most of them before they were at their respective peaks. It is apt that they have fitted in so smoothly at a county looking to reconnect with the nearby Caribbean diaspora, not least through the pioneering ACE Programme.
Naturally, both players are being paid well, but Surrey's slick commercial operation helped the club return a £5.4 million profit last year; they also repaid the money they received through the government's furlough scheme. Surrey are often caricatured as county cricket's big spenders but they are financially self-sufficient: why shouldn't they invest heavily in their squad?
Jordan's own contribution should not be underplayed: he is relatively new to captaincy but despite a difficult recent run in an England shirt, he has emerged as a leader in the T20I set-up. Jamie Overton, who has thrived as a finisher since leaving Somerset and has been used as a middle-overs enforcer this season, said he feels "a lot more calm and a lot more relaxed at the end of my mark" with Jordan standing at mid-off talking to him.
Everything has changed since the first year of T20 cricket: not only the format itself and how it is played, but the global game as a whole. Surrey's hope - one that appears well-founded based on the early stages of the Blast - is that their emergence as champions will be the one constant between English domestic T20's first and 20th seasons.