We have reached the last-eight stage of the Vitality T20 Blast and Richard Mann feels now is the time to strike a bet on a strong fancy.
English cricket has endured a strange relationship with the Indian Premier League over the years: to begin with there appeared to be a little resentment, followed by a refusal to accommodate the likes of Kevin Pietersen and his clamour for the bright lights, before a softening and then something close to warmth towards what is undoubtedly one of the greatest spectacles in the sport.
Nowadays, IPL success can often prove something akin to a badge of honour; it was the primary reason why Jos Buttler was returned to England's Test side in 2018 and has had a greatly positive impact on Jonny Bairstow and Jofra Archer to name just a few.
However, there is little doubting that in recent years the IPL has left a hole in the early part of the County Championship and this time around its rescheduling to the autumn due to the coronavirus pandemic will have ramifications for the conclusion of the Vitality T20 Blast.
Sussex - who will face Lancashire at the quarter-finals stage on Thursday - have been hurt most by this year's IPL with Archer and Chris Jordan taken from their bowling attack.
With batsman Laurie Evans having made the switch to Surrey recently, Sussex don't look quite as intimidating a prospect nowadays, for all Ravi Bopara's arrival and the continued development of George Garton and Delray Rawlins still gives them plenty of firepower.
Their clash with Lancashire promises to be a closely contested affair, the Lightning boasting a strong bowling attack themselves - one that is led excellently by wrist spinner Matt Parkinson and also includes the unheralded Luke Wood and Saqib Mahmood.
I'm not sure either have enough quality in their ranks to go all the way, though, while Northamptonshire could have their work cut against Gloucestershire in their last-eight tie in Bristol. Gloucestershire were comfortable victors when the sides met at Northampton at the beginning of last month as the hosts produced the type of strong team performance that helped them win seven of their nine completed matches and top the Central Group.
Gloucestershire don't posses too many household names in their ranks but they are a shrewd outfit and should prove a real handful if, as expected, they reach Finals Day.
They currently sit at 9/2 behind current market leaders Nottinghamshire in the outright market, and ever since this season's campaign began, the Outlaws have appeared desperate to avenge their narrow semi-final loss to Worcestershire last time.
Even without the services of veteran bowler Harry Gurney, Nottinghamshire swept all before them in the North Group. Their bowling has been led really well by paceman Jake Ball but spinners Imad Wasim and Samit Patel could prove the Outlaws' trump card the deeper into the competition they go, while the batting has all bases covered.
Joe Clarke - 316 runs and counting in the competition already - continues to make a strong case for international recognition and his eye-watering strike-rate of 179.54 at number three has ensured Alex Hales' quiet summer to date hasn't hurt Nottinghamshire too much. Hales should come good and with Ben Duckett enjoying very strong returns at number four, it is hard to find too many faults in a side who will have been disappointed not to go all the way 12 months ago.
Without the services of the excellent Gurney at the death, Nottinghamshire do have a potential weak spot in their armoury, but Ball and experienced Australian Dan Christian have proved more than capable of filling his big shoes this summer and a generally well-rounded attack leaves them looking apparently well-set for their quarter-final match at home to Leicestershire.
It was a case of one win apiece in the two matches played between them in the group stages, but Leicestershire had home advantage and no Ball to worry about in their victory, two factors they won't have on their side on Thursday.
As such, I fully expect Nottingham to reach their second Finals Day in a row and give themselves a shot at regaining the title they claimed as recently at 2017. With a batting line-up stronger than anything else in the competition, a well-rounded bowling attack featuring a host of past international players, and group of players who have tasted Finals Day many times before, 3/1 for Nottinghamshire to go all the way looks well worth taking.
If there is to be a potential fly in the ointment, I suspect it will come from the winner of the quarter-final between Surrey and Kent at The Oval. Surrey will be warm favourites here, but as already alluded to, the IPL has made its mark on this year's Blast and Surrey deserve plenty of credit for topping the South Group despite neither of the Curran brothers featuring for them all season.
Their batting is their strength with the aforementioned Evans proving a brilliant signing, complementing the likes of Jason Roy, Hashim Amla and the burgeoning Will Jacks perfectly. With such riches, Surrey can beat anyone on their day but I'm less convinced about their bowling, which will need veterans Liam Plunkett and Reece Topley to roll back the years once more.
In Kent they face a side who, while possibly lacking the same level of depth that Surrey can boast, do house the likes of Joe Denly, Zak Crawley and Sam Billings in a batting group that has proven to be particularly destructive on its day.
Crawley and Billings have enjoyed strong international summers for England and will surely relish the opportunity to try and win Kent some silverware while Denly - despite his England axing a couple of months back - remains a class act with a wealth of T20 experience from all around the world to call upon.
Like Surrey, their bowling wouldn't be a strength but Kent can certainly match their opponents with the bat and having scraped through the group stages, might feel they have nothing to lose going into the latter stages. As ever, Surrey are sure to feel the weight of expectation from a club that has always demanded success and I fancy Kent to cause a minor upset in this one.
Posted at 1230 BST on 25/09/20
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