Thursday 16 August 2018 9:00 am

Vitality Blast: Domestic Twenty20 tournament flourishing despite ECB direction

The group stages of England’s domestic Twenty20 competition comes to a close tomorrow. But with England’s Test series against India taking much of the attention of late, the Vitality Blast has occupied its own space, largely away from television and the back pages.

Meanwhile, the England and Wales Cricket Board has been busy blue-sky thinking, brainstorming weird and wacky ideas for their magic-bullet tournament, the much-derided Hundred.

Yet despite such restrictions the Blast has been going from strength to strength over the last few months, exhibiting many of the aspects the powers that be are trying so hard to conjure from their groundbreaking razzmatazz.

Although every zany thought has already been drip-fed to the public, the ECB’s grand plan to fix an apparently ailing sport will be made public “later this year”.

Middlesex v Surrey - Vitality Blast
Crowds at the T20 Blast have been encouraging across the board (Source: Getty)

But while a lot of effort has been expended on shaping the future, ECB chief executive Tom Harrison has also squeezed in time to praise the present’s short format offering.

“We’re going to see compelling cricket and strong crowds with some exciting overseas signings and England’s white-ball specialists available to play more often,” he said ahead of the competition’s start in July.

And you know what? He’s been right. The Blast may not be as dramatic as the Indian Premier League or as well attended as Australia’s Big Bash, but it’s more than serving its purpose.

While two-time winners Northants and One-Day Cup victors Hampshire are among those to flop this season, the competition has generally been hard-fought.

Cash-strapped Durham have impressed in the north group and Somerset have put an imposing run together in the south. Crucially there have been stand-out moments live on television.

Sky Sports is broadcasting 26 Blast matches over 45 days and has been rewarded for its coverage by some moments worthy of column inches and social media buzz.

On Tuesday a Sussex side which features the world’s No1 ranked T20 bowler Rashid Khan and arguably its most exciting talent, Jofra Archer, put on a bowling exhibition for the cameras.

Tymal Mills, bowling near 90mph, then clinched the match against Glamorgan with a hat-trick.

Another example was Durham’s four-run win over Lancashire earlier this month in which 19-year-old left-arm spinner Liam Trevaskis successfully defended six runs in the final over, taking three wickets in the process.

As well as the usual names from around the world, the Blast has also played host to Afghanistan’s burgeoning stars, with Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb Ur Rahman joined by Lancashire’s left-arm wrist-spinner Zahir Khan.

The product is good so the crowds have followed. Last season had a record aggregate attendance of 902,000 across the country and it’s likely that figure will be beaten this year.

Sussex Sharks v Gloucesterhsire - Vitality Blast
The Afghanistani players have brought a different flavour to the competition (Source: Getty)

September’s Finals Day at Edgbaston was sold out before the competition even started, with a full house of 25,000 expected for what is one of the high points of the season.

The Blast should also be applauded for helping grow the women’s game too, with double-headers helping exposure.

One negative has come to light in recent weeks, however, as overseas stars like Dwayne Bravo, Martin Guptill and Imran Tahir left early to join the Caribbean Premier League, which offers greater riches and better weather.

The ECB has held talks to try and avoid such a crossover with the CPL for the Hundred, but have endured the problem with the Blast since 2013. It’s just one indication of the direction of travel.

The Blast is flourishing both on and off the pitch in spite of the situation, not because of it. The Hundred is coming whether the public want it or not, but its predecessor is showing that the much-sought after audience is quite content already.