Global stars gather to provide Blast-off for new T20 season

Championship set to begin on Friday

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As if the pace of change was not going fast enough already, the new chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board takes office on Friday on the back of all sorts of promises, some of them broken already.

The NatWest T20 Blast also begins Friday evening, and Colin Graves swept to power not only suggesting that Kevin Pietersen might get back in the England team but also calling for a revamp of the domestic game’s short format by creating a Premier League based on city franchises instead of counties, along the lines of Australia’s T20 Big Bash.

So this may be the last time you can visit little out-grounds like Beckenham and Old Deer Park on a Friday evening to relish a burger and a couple of pints in semi-suburban, semi-sylvan surrounds.

As with the Pietersen fiasco – and indeed Graves’ plans for reducing the length of Tests – the development has not met with universal approval. It’s putting the ire in Shire.

Soon Birmingham Bears, Warwickshire’s ground-breaking venture, could be joined by the London Lords and, God forbid even in the Broad Acres, the Leeds-Bradford Bullshiners. They will play in Test match stadiums and what happens to the likes of Somerset and Worcestershire nobody yet knows. It is complicated if you don’t happen to have a massive conurbation on your doorstep.

England’s deficiencies in the limited-overs game were rudely exposed at the World Cup, and those who were picked to replace the failing old guard for the abandoned ODI in Dublin are experts at the shortest format: Alex Hales of Nottinghamshire, Northants’ David Willey and Jason Roy (above) of Surrey have all been brought up on the game.

Hales is so highly regarded that he has been poached by Mumbai Indians for the closing stages of the Indian Premier League – being overlooked for the England Test team probably helped him make that move. Roy, a South African-born batsman touted as the next Pietersen, outshone everyone in the Blast last year with 677 runs at an average of 48.35 and a strike-rate of 157.07. Willey, son of former all-rounder Peter, virtually won the 2013 final on his own, scoring 60 off 27 balls as an opener and then finishing off Surrey with a hat-trick. That’s the kind of cool confidence under pressure England are crying out for.

But the centre of attention will be the array of global stars on view. County champions Yorkshire will be early favourites for the T20 crown with World Cup winners Australia providing two of their most exciting batsmen, Aaron Finch and Glenn Maxwell, while red rose rivals Lancashire have snapped up all-rounder James Faulkner.

Sri Lanka provide their two veteran masters, Mahela Jayawardene at Sussex and Kumar Sangakkara at Surrey, Chris Gayle will pepper the short boundaries at Taunton for Somerset and “Boom-Boom”, Pakistan’s Shahid Afridi, rocks up at Northants.

New Zealand’s inspirational captain at the World Cup, Brendon McCullum will play seven games for the Bears after New Zealand’s tour – and even that reduced workload might be enough to propel them into Finals Day at Edgbaston on 29 August.

One T20 specialist who probably won’t be pulling in the crowds is Pietersen. His contract with Surrey was for Championship matches and when the calf strain that kept him out of the denouement of the IPL heals, he heads off to the Caribbean for their T20 tournament. But Surrey may want to slip the gun for hire a few quid if they need a boost in the Blast. You just never know with KP.