Classy Surrey squad to go all the way this time
Glory beckons for double runners-up
Surrey have been runners-up in the 50-over showpiece final at Lord’s for the last two years and boast the squad most likely to be able to deal with the challenges the tournament poses.
Only three teams now progress from each group and the competition runs concurrently with the IPL and England’s two ODIs with Ireland, while the first two knockout rounds take place during the ICC Champions Trophy.
England spinning all-rounder Zafar Ansari sprung a shock by announcing his retiremen, but Surrey’s playing ranks are still well stocked.
Retired Sri Lanka legend Kumar Sangakkara remains the kingpin in Surrey’s batting order and the recruitment of top-notch Durham top-order duo Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick offsets Jason Roy’s absence with Gujarat and England.
Rory Burns, Dominic Sibley, Arul Harinath and Ben Foakes can continue their upward curve while behind those frontline batsmen, the precociously-talented Curran brothers, 22-year-old Tom and 19-year-old Sam, will be keen to press their all-round claims. Skipper Gareth Batty knows how to use the long handle too and can call upon left-arm quick Mark Footitt, veteran Windies swing ace Ravi Rampaul, Jade Dernbach and Stuart Meaker.
Seam-and-swing friendly conditions early on may lessen the blow of Ansari’s decision and Batty has part-time options.
In 2015, before the competition split into regional leagues, Surrey surged through the group stages with six wins out of the eight and batted brilliantly in both their knockout games before choking in the final against Gloucestershire.
Last year, they battled back from a slow start in the south section to qualify for the last-eight and then won two tough assignments at Northants and Yorkshire before crumbling in the final against Warwickshire.
Batty was adamant after defeat to the Bears that while the loss was embarrassing, it was part of the learning process for a club who when they become the finished article will be a force for a time to come. A solid start to their second County Championship Division One campaign of a crushing win and two comfortable draws suggests they have not gone backwards since September.
Hampshire missed out on the quarter-finals last year but beat Surrey while suffering narrow defeats to the three other qualifiers – Kent, Essex and Somerset– so there is good reason to believe that they can bring their good four-day form into the limited-overs arena.
Pace-bowler Kyle Abbott has already claimed 20 four-day victims and he is backed up in the seam and swing department by former West Indies whirlwind Fidel Edwards, fit-again one-time England left-armer Reece Topley, Brad Wheal and all-rounders Sean Ervine and Gareth Berg. Another quality left-armer Chris Wood is close to a return from injury.
New one-day skipper James Vince is surplus to England requirements in the early summer, and joining him in a vastly experienced Hampshire top order are overlooked Australian ace George Bailey, another Kolpak South African Rilee Roussow, Michael Carberry, Jimmy Adams and Will Smith.
With only three teams from each group progressing to the knockout stages it makes sense to strike a third wager and T20 Blast kings Northants look the each-way value.
The Steelbacks topped the north group last year, albeit on net run rate, and were only beaten on the last ball in last year’s quarter-final by Surrey.
Brilliant up-and-coming batsman Ben Duckett has been picked by England only against Ireland and there is the promise of more runs from South African Richard Levi, Rob Keogh, Adam Rossington, Rob Newton, Josh Cobb and club captain Alex Wakley.
Nathan Buck is an exciting addition to the pace bowling stocks lead by Azharullah, Rory Kleinveldt and Steven Crook.
Northants started the season with two County Championship Division Two wins, before sliding to defeat at Worcesteshire.
Yorkshire The favourites are the only northern side to make the quarter-finals in the last two years but unless England endure an early Champions Trophy exit, they will be without Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Adil Rashid, Liam Plunkett and David Willey for the start of the knockouts.
Lancashire Jimmy Anderson is no longer part of the England set-up but Jos Buttler’s IPL stint looks like going all the way to the knockout stages before the Champions Trophy.
Nottinghamshire can never be discounted and confidence should be high after three wins on the spin in the Championship.
Warwickshire The holders have made a woeful start to the Championship campaign before battling for a draw last week, and will be without ace England all-rounder Chris Woakes and Kiwi off-spinner Jeetan Patel may not be as effective so early in the season.
3pts 8-1 bet365, BoyleSports, Hills
2pts 9-1 general
1pts each-way 16-1 general