Babar Azam appears set to fulfil his T20 Blast contract with Somerset after the end of Pakistan's T20I series in England, pending a No Objection Certificate from the PCB. Azam, the leading run-scorer in the competition last season in his first year with the county, was due to spend five weeks at Taunton this summer before the Covid-19 pandemic altered the dates of both the county and international seasons.
While Surrey and Northants cancelled contracts for Shadab Khan and Faheem Ashraf respectively, Somerset have kept Azam's deal on the table throughout, and hope to confirm that he will be available next week. He would miss the first three or four fixtures due to his involvement in the T20Is, but looks set to play the bulk of the rest of the tournament.
ESPNcricinfo understands that the remaining question mark over his availability is dependent on whether he will be exempted from the National T20 Cup, Pakistan's domestic competition, which is set to be staged at the end of September.
Hampshire have yet to confirm Shaheen Shah Afridi's availability for the tournament, but at this stage he appears less likely to play in the Blast than Azam. They will announce the signing of Scotland international George Munsey for the tournament next week, while James Vince is set to miss the start of the competition for the birth of his second child.
Unusual problems may call for unusual solutions, but it would be quite something for a team to qualify for this year's Bob Willis Trophy final by virtue of taking more wickets than another group winner.
In this season's abbreviated first-class competition, the two group winners with the most points will reach the five-day final at Lord's on September 23. If the current standings were used, Essex (61 points) would progress, but Worcestershire and Derbyshire (57) would have to be split by a tie-breaker.
Under the tournament's playing conditions, they would be split first on most wins (two each), then fewest losses (both unbeaten), most points in contests between them (they won't play each other), wickets taken, and runs scored. That means Worcestershire, with 57 wickets, would edge out Derbyshire on 46 to reach Lord's; in case you were wondering, they've hit more boundaries, too.
The winner of the Central Group seems likely to be decided in the final round when Somerset head to New Road, but both teams will be acutely aware that their positions could be stronger if they had timed declarations better.
Alex Gidman defended Joe Leach's belated pulling of the plug in the second round, with Glamorgan escaping on 141 for 7 after being set 358 in 50.4 overs, while a miserable final day in Birmingham meant Somerset ended up with only 15.4 overs to take the last four Warwickshire wickets. While the welfare of bowlers is an important concern in an abbreviated season, whichever side fails to qualify will rue their caution come late September.
Players were told at the PCA's rookie camp in February that there had never been a better time to be a professional cricketer, but inevitably the Covid-19 pandemic has put the brakes on that.
This week, the players' union signed off a deal intended to protect jobs for next season, including a reduction in the minimum wage, the option of a summer contract, and young players being able to extend their 'rookie' deals into next season even if they should be ineligible due to age limitations - as reported by ESPNcricinfo in June.
As Leicestershire and Durham decided to set their game up on the final morning this week, there seemed few better candidates for some declaration bowling than Hassan Azad, whose first-class career with the ball extended to a solitary over playing for Loughborough MCCU in 2016.
But after Sam Evans had lobbed up some gentle pies from the far end, the second ball of Azad's first over was a wicked googly, which skidded through low and onto the base of leg stump, possibly via Brydon Carse's edge. Carse and non-striker Ned Eckersley were both nonplussed, while Azad's celebration was muted; but it was Carse who had the last laugh in the run chase before the rain intervened, bowling Azad via the inside edge to get his revenge.
Meanwhile, Essex's highly-rated young batsman Rishi Patel will join Leicestershire on loan for the rest of the Bob Willis Trophy. He played six first-class games for Essex last season but has fallen behind Feroze Khushi in the pecking order this year.
Somerset have labelled their captain Tom Abell 'the mop' for his ability to clean up tailenders, and he gave a reminder of his knack by removing nine, ten and jack in the first innings of their draw with Warwickshire to finish with 3 for 4 from his 3.2 overs.
But perhaps that moniker would be better suited to Mason Crane, the Hampshire legspinner. Crane ripped through the Surrey lower order this week to seal a thumping win, and has now dismissed a No. 9 batsman twice, a No. 10 batsman twice, and four No. 11s this season.
All in all, he has taken 11 wickets at 8.72 in the BWT - some improvement after returns of five wickets at 107.80 in last year's County Championship. Surrey, meanwhile, are rock bottom, with fewer points than anyone else in the competition. They will be boosted by Ben Foakes' return from the England bubble on Saturday, while Ollie Robinson is set to play for Sussex.
Northants have left T20 captain Josh Cobb out of their side throughout the first-class season, but he seems to be finding his feet ahead of the Blast. In Northants' first warm-up game against Leicestershire on Thursday, he hit nine sixes and a four in a 45-ball 80, before clubbing 33 off 14 in the second.
Having missed out in last year's Hundred draft, Cobb will feel he has a point to prove in the Blast, and will be hoping to remind teams of his ability, with some spots for 2021 likely to be up for grabs in a partial re-draft.
No final decision has been made regarding whether picks from the draft will remain valid, but it is understood that there will be some kind of retention mechanism similar to that initially planned, which allowed teams to keep up to ten players from their squads for the following season at a mutually agreed salary band.
The exact details will be ironed out between the PCA and the ECB next month, with an announcement to follow after England have announced their centrally contracted players for 2021.
Additional reporting: Danyal Rasool