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Vitality Blast South Group preview: Are defending champions Somerset the team to beat this summer? | Cricket News

Ahead of the 2024 Vitality Blast, which begins on Thursday, here is a preview of the South Group, which includes defending champions Somerset and last year’s runners-up Essex.

Who are the players to look out for and which cricketers could put themselves in the mix for a Hundred call-up later this summer?

Watch games from the Vitality Blast live on Sky Sports this summer, including a double-header on Saturday as Derbyshire Falcons play Leicestershire Foxes and Birmingham Bears meet Notts Outlaws.

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Watch the funniest moments from Vitality Blast Finals Day 2023

ESSEX

  • Captain: Simon Harmer
  • Overseas players: Simon Harmer (South Africa), Daniel Sams (Australia).
  • Finals Day appearances: Six (2006, 2008, 2010, 2013, 2019, 2023)
  • Titles: One (2019)
  • 2023 finish: Finalists
  • 2023 leading run-scorer: Daniel Sams (419)
  • 2023 leading wicket-taker: Daniel Sams (25)

Key winter moves: Essex reacted cannily to the loss of Dan Lawrence. They replaced him with Kent’s livewire Jordan Cox, who outperformed the Oval-bound defector in the Blast last season (averaging 52.50 against 29.69 with a superior strike-rate of 165.78 compared to 153.17).

The big question: Will Essex make their passage through the group stage a little less stressful for all concerned? They were rightly being written off when losing their penultimate group match to last season’s whipping boys Middlesex only to pull off a shock win against Surrey two days later and qualify.

Wildcard watch: The Hundred selectors have swept up the majority of those eligible from the Essex camp. However, Feroze Khushi has been Bazballing in the Championship and will forever be remembered for the last-ball six at the Kia Oval that carried Essex to a quarter-final place en route to last season’s final.

Final thought: The return of Australian all-rounder Daniel Sams for a third successive overseas stint could be key. Sams won the tournament’s MVP last year after topping both Essex’s batting and bowling lists with 419 runs and 25 wickets (he also held 13 catches). A whole heap of expectation rests on his shoulders.

Simon Harmer, Essex (PA Images)
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Simon Harmer will hope Essex can go one better than in 2023

GLAMORGAN

  • Captain: Kiran Carlson
  • Overseas players: Marnus Labuschagne (Australia), Colin Ingram (South Africa).
  • Finals Day appearances: Two (2008, 2017)
  • Titles: None
  • 2023 finish: Eighth (South Group)
  • 2023 leading run-scorer: Chris Cooke (419)
  • 2023 leading wicket-taker: Jamie McIlroy (19)

Key winter moves: The arrival of Mason Crane over the winter is the big signing for Glamorgan’s white-ball hopes. An attacking spinner with a proven track record in the Blast, Crane adds some firepower to the Glamorgan attack.

The big question: Last year Glamorgan started with four wins out of their first five matches before a long injury list meant they fell away, winning just one more match before the end of the group stage. The question for 2024 will be whether they can perform consistently throughout the tournament.

Wildcard watch: Mason Crane is thriving on the back of playing every game for his new county, and with leg-spinners being a-much-sought-after commodity there is a good chance of him using his Championship form as a springboard to success in the Blast and into one of The Hundred squads.

Final thought: With a strong batting line-up and a tidy white-ball bowling attack Glamorgan should be targeting a quarter-finals place. From there three good games would see them claim their maiden T20 title.

Mason Crane (PA Images)
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Leg-spinner Mason Crane is on a season-long loan at Glamorgan from Hampshire

GLOUCESTERSHIRE

  • Captain: Jack Taylor
  • Overseas players: Beau Webster (Australia), Cameron Bancroft (Australia), Zafar Gohar (Pakistan)
  • Finals Day appearances: Three (2003, 2007, 2020)
  • Titles: None
  • 2023 finish: Seventh (South Group)
  • 2023 leading run-scorer: Ben Charlesworth (299)
  • 2023 leading wicket-taker: Tom Smith (17)

Key winter moves: Aussie seamer Beau Webster has been recruited to boost the bowling attack and will hope to use his 6ft 7ins frame to make scoring difficult against him, while fellow countryman Cameron Bancroft is back for a second spell in the batting ranks and has been playing regularly in the Championship.

The big question: Can Gloucestershire translate their improvement in red-ball cricket under new head coach Mark Alleyne this season, winning a first Championship game since 2022 and running up their highest-ever first-class score, to the shortest format of the game?

Wildcard watch: David Payne claimed 15 Blast wickets last summer, having not played any red ball cricket leading up to the tournament because of injury. The experienced left-arm seamer has again missed the first half of the Championship season to be fit and fresh for T20 and will be keen to make an impact.

Final thought: Mark Alleyne proved himself a shrewd leader in one-day cricket as captain during Gloucestershire’s glory years of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Now he has the opportunity to influence the side tactically from within the dressing room as a head coach with a shrewd cricketing brain for the shorter formats of the game.

HAMPSHIRE HAWKS

  • Captain: James Vince
  • Overseas players: Ben McDermott (Australia), Michael Neser (Australia, first eight matches), Ottniel Baartman (South African, last six matches and knockouts)
  • Finals Day appearances: Ten (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2021, 2022, 2023)
  • Titles: Three (2010, 2012, 2022)
  • 2023 finish: Semi-finals
  • 2023 leading run-scorer: James Vince (670)
  • 2023 leading wicket taker: Nathan Ellis (23)

Key winter moves: Nathan Ellis has not been retained despite two glorious seasons, instead seamers Michael Neser and Ottniel Baartman – a two-time SA20 champion under Adi Birrell – share his place. Domestically, Ali Orr is in, Ross Whiteley and Aneurin Donald are out, while Scott Currie and Mason Crane are away on loan for now.

The big question: Can John Turner hit the same heights as last season? The uber-quick bowler began with a double wicket maiden, took 21 wickets at an average of 11.76 and an economy of 6.67, and ended with an England contract. Injuries have restricted him to three first-team matches since Finals Day though.

Wildcard watch: Joe Weatherley has more middle-order Blast runs than anyone since 2021, but has not been kept on by the Southern Brave after two years of mostly carrying drinks. He could be a shrewd Vitality Wildcard pick, as could Chris Wood’s experience and Brad Wheal’s pace.

Final thought: The Hawks know how to get to Finals Day, and an 11th appearance, which would be a fourth in a row, is certainly the minimum requirement. There are deep depths to the batting – a run of Dawson, Howell, Fuller, Neser from six to nine is opulent, especially after Vince up top – and the bowlers have all bases covered, especially with the dynamic quick attack.

KENT SPITFIRES

  • Captain: Sam Billings
  • Overseas players: Xavier Bartlett (Australia), Wes Agar (Australia), Charlie Stobo (Australia), Beyers Swanepoel (South Africa)
  • Finals Day appearances: Four (2007, 2008, 2009, 2021)
  • Titles: Two (2007, 2021)
  • 2023 finish: Fifth (South Group)
  • 2023 leading run-scorer: Daniel Bell-Drummond (600)
  • 2023 leading wicket-taker: Grant Stewart (24)

Key winter moves: Jordan Cox may have defected to Essex, but Matt Parkinson’s arrival from Lancashire provides the frontline spin option that George Linde conspicuously did not last year. The overseas players will be rotated, with Bartlett limited to eight appearances and Swanepoel expected to provide some lower-order pyrotechnics.

The big question: Will the rotation policy actually work? At the very least it has to be an improvement on the negligible contributions provided by Linde and an injured Kane Richardson last season. The Spitfires’ form improved significantly after Agar was drafted in from the red-ball squad.

Wildcard watch: The obvious choice is Jack Leaning, but Grant Stewart and Joey Evison can also bat and bowl, as can Joe Denly. A real wildcard choice as a specialist spinner would be Parkinson. He has 139 Blast wickets at 18.96 and has significantly improved his batting over the winter.

Final thought: The Blast brings first-class sport to an area 50 miles from the nearest Premier League football and rugby grounds, and 55 from the nearest franchise. The Spitfire Ground is a sold-out bearpit on Blast nights and the Spitfires have a genuine title chance.

MIDDLESEX

  • Captain: Stephen Eskinazi
  • Overseas players: None
  • Finals Day appearances: One (2008)
  • Titles: One (2008)
  • 2023 finish: Ninth (South Group)
  • 2023 leading run-scorer: Stephen Eskinazi (462)
  • 2023 leading wicket-taker: Tom Helm (12)

Key winter moves: Financial restrictions mean Middlesex go into the tournament without any imports, but former Derbyshire skipper Leus du Plooy is an excellent addition to their middle order, while Henry Brookes should take some pressure off Tom Helm’s shoulders in the seam-bowling department.

The big question: While Middlesex possess batting brawn up top, with Eskinazi, Max Holden and Joe Cracknell, their tendency has been to stumble in the middle overs. Can Du Plooy provide the cool head required to manage an innings – arguably lacking ever since Eoin Morgan called it a day.

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Watch highlights of a stunning game at The Kia Oval last year as Middlesex produced the highest run chase in Vitality Blast history against Surrey

Wildcard watch: Jack Davies steered Middlesex across the line in last year’s thrilling run-fest against Surrey, recording an overall strike-rate north of 150 during the tournament. The big-hitting wicketkeeper-batter should be guaranteed plenty more opportunities to shine in the wake of John Simpson’s departure to Sussex.

Final thought: Although Middlesex’s decision to switch two home games to Chelmsford was controversial, it is unlikely to put them at a disadvantage. The perennial T20 under-achievers belatedly found form on the road in last year’s Blast, winning three of their last four group matches after losing 10 in a row – including every game at home.

Max Holden, Middlesex, Vitality Blast (Getty Images)
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Max Holden’s runs could be crucial for Middlesex this season

SOMERSET

  • Captain: Lewis Gregory
  • Overseas players: Riley Meredith (Australia)
  • Finals Day appearances: Nine (2005, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2018, 2021, 2022, 2023)
  • Titles: Two (2005, 2023)
  • 2023 finish: Champions
  • 2023 leading run-scorer: Will Smeed (523)
  • 2023 leading wicket-taker: Matt Henry (31)

Key winter moves: Australia quick Riley Meredith has been signed to replace Matt Henry, who played such a big part in lifting the trophy last season. Roelof van der Merwe is back on a white-ball contract having not been named in the Netherlands squad for the World Cup.

The big question: Can Tom Kohler-Cadmore return from a disappointing Indian Premier League campaign with Rajasthan Royals in confident enough mood to repeat the outstanding success of his first season at Somerset, which saw him average almost 35 in scoring 489 Vitality Blast runs?

Wildcard watch: Ben Green’s innocuous looking medium-paced bowling brought him 30 Blast wickets last summer, many of them to catches as opponents looked to increase their run-rate. That was only one less than leading wicket-taker Matt Henry and the 26-year-old Devonian all-rounder will go into this season’s competition high on self-belief.

Final thought: As champions, Somerset will be the team everyone is gunning for this summer. But they boast a formidable batting line-up to cash in on their true home pitches and can again count on fantastic support and a vibrant atmosphere at the Cooper Associates County Ground, which has become an intimidating venue for visiting sides.

Tom Kohler-Cadmore
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Tom Kohler-Cadmore starred in Somerset’s victory last season

SURREY

  • Captain: Chris Jordan
  • Overseas players: Sean Abbott (Australia), Spencer Johnson (Australia) – both available for first eight matches.
  • Finals Day appearances: Eight (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2013, 2014, 2020, 2023)
  • Titles: One (2003)
  • 2023 finish: Semi-finals
  • 2023 leading run-scorer: Laurie Evans (563)
  • 2023 leading wicket-taker: Sunil Narine (20)

Key winter moves: Surrey have pulled off something of a coup by signing exciting Australia international left-arm quick Spencer Johnson for the first eight group games. Johnson grabbed English audiences’ attention when he took an extraordinary 3-1 in 20 balls in last summer’s The Hundred, for Oval Invincibles against Manchester Originals.

The big question: A significant monkey on Surrey’s back is the constant reminder that their only previous T20 triumph came under Adam Hollioake’s captaincy in the inaugural tournament way back in 2003, despite eight appearances overall at Finals Day. Last year they were beaten by 24 runs in the semi-final by eventual winners Somerset.

Wildcard watch: You might describe him more as a forgotten man of English cricket, rather than a wildcard, but Jason Roy will be desperate to remind everyone of his world-class top-order hitting powers in the eight group matches he plays before departing for Major League Cricket in the USA. Expect early fireworks from Roy.

Final thought: This year’s Blast is another big test of the Surrey squad’s famed strength in depth. With four players initially away at the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup – skipper Chris Jordan, all-rounders Sam Curran and Will Jacks, plus pace bowler Reece Topley – other major talents like Roy, Ollie Pope, Jamie Smith, Gus Atkinson, Tom Curran and Dan Worrall will be expected to step up into on-field leadership roles until the England quartet return for the later group games in July.

SUSSEX SHARKS

  • Captain: Tymal Mills
  • Overseas players: Daniel Hughes (Australia), Nathan McAndrew (Australia)
  • Finals Day appearances: Five (2007, 2009, 2012, 2018, 2021)
  • Titles: One (2009)
  • 2023 finish: Sixth (South Group)
  • 2023 leading run-scorer: Ravi Bopara (408)
  • 2023 leading wicket-taker: Tymal Mills and Ravi Bopara (12)

Key winter moves: Tymal Mills, one of only three players who took part at Finals Day in 2021 still at Sussex, takes over as captain. Daniel Hughes, the experienced Australian left-hander who has played 105 Big Bash games, will be joined by compatriot Nathan McAndrew, who played seven Blast matches for Sussex in 2023.

The big question: Neither of Sussex’s two top scorers in 2023 – Ravi Bopara and Michael Burgess – are around this year so who is going to fire the batting? A lot depends on Daniel Hughes, who is experiencing the Blast for the first time, while Danny Lamb will look to take on Bopara’s all-rounder role.

Wildcard watch: James Coles played 11 games last year without producing a match-winning performance but with that experience under his belt the 20-year-old could be crucial this season, as a tempo-setting batter in the top four and with his improving left-arm spin in the middle overs.

Final thought: Sussex won five games away but only once at Hove and coach Paul Farbrace has prioritised improving that home record. They are set to lose young Scotland internationals Brad Currie and Charlie Tear to the World Cup and lack obvious star quality. They will need to start well if they are to threaten the big hitters in the South Group.

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