Dani Hazell is expecting a wide open regional summer.
Hazell, coach of the Northern Diamonds, believes more of the eight teams will challenge for silverware in 2023, a season which kicks off this weekend.
Across the first three years of regional cricket, only half of the regions have made a serious challenge for trophies, including the Diamonds – the current Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy champions.
The Diamonds and the Southern Vipers have faced each other in all three RHF Trophy finals to date, the Vipers winning two of them and the Diamonds one.
The South East Stars won the first Charlotte Edwards (T20) Cup in 2021, beating the Diamonds in the final. Last year, the Vipers beat the Central Sparks in the final of that competition.
It means that four teams – Lancashire Thunder, Lightning (they have rebranded as Blaze for this summer), Sunrisers and Western Storm have never qualified beyond the group stage of either trophy.
But Hazell, the former England off-spinner, would be surprised if that pattern continued for much longer.
The Diamonds begin their Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy title defence on Saturday when they welcome the Western Storm to Headingley, starting at 10.30am.
Hazell said: “I think both competitions will be pulled closer together this year. If you look at the squads that have been assembled, I don’t think there’s one who is an obvious to run away with it.
“Us and the Vipers have been the strongest sides, but now you’re starting to see a bit more movement of players. I’m sure there won’t be an obvious runaway and equally an obvious nowhere team this year.
“The Blaze moving from Loughborough to Trent Bridge, I think they’ll be strong with the backing they’ve got from a first-class county in Notts. That’s important for them. The Vipers have been strong for a number of years now.
“Equally, we played the Sunrisers out in Spain, and they looked like a well organised unit.
“That’s only going to make for better cricket.”
The Diamonds are confident they can be up there again and not only challenge for 50-over success but T20 as well.
They have lost some experience, most notably left-arm spinner Linsey Smith to Vipers and retired all-rounder Jenny Gunn. But they have nurtured some exciting young talent this winter such as Lizzie Scott and Phoebe Turner and on the eve of the season have added the exciting overseas signing of South Africa all-rounder Chloe Tryon until the start of August.
“We’ve got some young and exciting players coming through, and I think we’re in a better position than we were this time last year,” continued Hazell.
“Our tour to Spain (last month) was a great trip, and not just for the cricket. It was great to get the girls out there together. It was good for our younger ones to be able to gel with the group.
“They have been shown the way by the more experienced girls, some of those have left now, and it’s up to them to take it on now.
“It might not be this year that they shine bright, but we have more than enough to challenge.”
The Diamonds are in a healthy state availability wise ahead of Saturday.
Tryon is in line to debut, while Lauren Winfield-Hill and Sterre Kalis are back from Fairbreak Global, with the plan for them to drop straight into regional action.
“Beth Langston is the one we’re still missing,” added Hazell. “She’s still coming back from a major knee injury and is tracking really well. It will be great to get her back on the park, but not quite yet.
“Normally I get to this point of the year and think, ‘Who’s fit and who’s ready to go?’
“Now, we’re looking really fit and healthy, and that makes my job a little bit harder than it normally is.”
The Diamonds have beaten Storm in each of the last two RHF Trophy campaigns, last season’s coming at Taunton in September when captain Hollie Armitage hit her first senior century in a total of 334-8 – the highest ever regional total by any side. It led to a 104-run win.
Captained by batter Sophie Luff, Trevor Griffin is back in the South West for a second spell as Storm coach.
Squad announcement coming soon.