Birmingham, Hampshire, Lancashire and Surrey qualified for finals day of the NatWest T20 Blast, leaving Essex, Nottinghamshire, Glamorgan and Worcestershire behind. Matt Carter looks back on the action
Having won 10 of their opening 11 fixtures Essex appeared the team to beat, yet upon securing qualification their form tailed off, their campaign concluding with three consecutive dead rubber defeats.
Although those losses were written off by many as being non-events, it is now clear that through the closing phases of the group stages Essex’s momentum was derailed and defeat against Birmingham was vindication of that.
During their earlier golden run even a target of 198 would have been considered within Essex’s reach - after all this was a side who had successfully chased on nine consecutive occasions - yet the pressure of a quarter-final environment coupled with the absence of that earlier momentum meant they were never realistically in the hunt as Birmingham eased home by 20 runs.
In contrast to Essex, Birmingham Bears are hitting their stride at exactly the right time having visited Chelmsford off the back of three victories on the spin. That run is encouraging enough in itself but add in the fact that all were must-win encounters and it is becoming apparent that Birmingham have the mental resilience to excel in pressurised situations.
That viewpoint gains further evidence by their display at Chelmsford, with Birmingham’s batsmen choosing the optimum moment to fire their highest tournament score - Varun Chopra and Rikki Clarke somewhat belittling the opinion that their batting stocks lacked oomph.
Birmingham Bears 197-2 (Chopra 86 no, Clarke 70 no)
Essex 178-5 (ten Doeschate 61no, Rankin 3-34) by 19 runs
For all the question marks hanging over their batting, Birmingham’s bowlers have been among the tournament’s gold standard - in particular the unheralded Jeetan Patel - and they shone once again with Essex constantly kept at arm’s length: whenever a partnership was beginning to threaten Warwickshire struck at the right time.
Birmingham were far from among the favourites to reach the last eight, however they might just possess the key attributes to prosper in the business end of the tournament - particularly if their batting can continue in a similar vein to that witnessed on Saturday night.
At 92 for two in pursuit of 137 - with just over six overs left in the bank - a first ever voyage to finals day looked plausible for Glamorgan.
It was at that point though that things turned sour for the South Wales outfit. A little more than two overs later they had slumped to 100 for six and their aspirations were seemingly sailing away. Jordan Clark proved the catalyst to their demise, the 23-year-old capturing a triple-wicket maiden to turn the contest on its head.
But for all the lamenting of Glamorgan’s capitulation Lancashire should also be commended for the character they displayed in swinging the contest.
Jacques Rudolph - who watched through the carnage in dismay - at least ensured the contest went down to the wire with an unbeaten 67, nonetheless Andrew Salter could only send the final delivery for four rather than the required maximum to leave Glamorgan agonisingly just a run short of a historic victory
That there was even a game at Old Trafford is in no small part down to a hugely praiseworthy effort from the Lancashire grounds staff, who were persistently tasked with clearing the outfield following deluge after deluge.
Lancashire 137-8 (Khawaja 67, Wagg 3-28) beat
Glamorgan 136-7 (Rudolph 67no, Clarke 4-22) by one run
Originally scheduled to take place on Friday night it wasn’t until Saturday afternoon that the elements finally allowed an opening and even then the work was not done for Matt Merchant and his team - the rain returning to twice halt proceedings.
That the dreaded bowl-out did not come into play is no small part down to the sterling efforts of the ground crew, while at the same time the umpires should also be lauded for doing their utmost to ensure a spectacle took place.
For all Surrey’s plethora of batting riches their bowlers have arguably been the star turn in reaching finals day.
The attack was at its strangling best to restrict Worcestershire to 141 - such is the well-oiled nature of their Twenty20 bowling unit that all of the six bowlers utilised by Gary Wilson could be satisfied with their work.
Perhaps the biggest facet of the unit Wilson has at his disposal is that they can cover every base. Robin Peterson and Gareth Batty offer accurate wily spin, Matt Dunn express pace, Azhar Mahmood seasoned seam bowling guile and when he gets it right Jade Dernbach plenty of variations.
Further to that on the experience scale Surrey’s bowlers are streets ahead of their rivals with Mahmood, Batty, Dernbach and Peterson alone able to vaunt 629 Twenty20 appearances - that 'seen it all' feature is likely to prove a fundamental asset in the pressure cooker of finals day
For all the squeeze applied by Surrey’s bowlers, the game-changing performance was delivered by opener Jason Roy - the-23-year old enriching his growing reputation with a ferocious 20-ball half-century.
For a player of such devastating hitting power, that this was Roy’s eighth half-century in 14 Twenty20 games outlines a frightening degree of consistency, as does being able to boast both a strike rate in excess of 150 and an average of 48.
By the time Roy departed Surrey’s equation looked a relative stroll with 74 needed from just over 14 overs, yet there was still time for The Oval outfit to nervily slump to seven wickets down with a further 13 required to book their finals day ticket - with that stuttering only further enhancing the theory that Roy was batting on a different track to the sluggish surface the rest were enduring.
Surrey 144-7 (Roy 52, Leach 2-22)
Worcestershire 141-9 (Peterson 2-12) by three wickets
With Roy causing early carnage Daryl Mitchell was in desperate need of a method to stem the tide and it was here where his side most craved the magic of the unavailable Saeed Ajmal.
The Worcestershire skipper was bereft of a go-to bowler in the time of crisis - for all the merits Jack Shantry and co offer they can’t match the game changing ability brought to the table by the Pakistani.
To their credit Worcestershire fought back with impressive resilience but after Roy’s onslaught they were inevitably chasing a losing battle. Ajmal might well have been powerless to curb Roy’s display fireworks but his array of weapons would certainly have asked different questions of the Surrey opener.
Heading into the knockout stages Nottinghamshire were the form team - boasting a run of seven victories on the spin and possessing a squad performing at optimum level.
Even accounting for the virtues of visiting Hampshire, James Taylor’s side looked in perfect shape to finally dispel their quarter-final demons - in each of the last three years they had fallen at this stage in spite of dominating the group stages.
It may be purely unfortunate coincidental timing that Notts produced a rare below par bowling showing against Hampshire; nonetheless it is hard to argue that their persistent last eight failings did have some impact on the result.
Notts were uncharacteristically poor in the field - match-winner James Vince being crucially dropped with the chase still its fledgling stages - but at the same time they were hindered by out of character waywardness from the bulk of their bowlers as Vince also profited from early peppering of his favoured areas. If that wasn’t enough the hosts also contributed a hefty 14 extras to their downfall.
Hampshire 198-5 (Vince 93no, Ervine 38)
Nottinghamshire 197-2 (Wessels 62no, Patel 53no, Hales 51) by five wickets
It was all in all a day for Notts to forget and one which will only provide further ammunition to those citing a quarter-final mental block.
In contrast to Notts, Hampshire are battle-hardened when it comes to the demands of high intensity knockout Twenty20 cricket - they have progressed to each of the last four finals days and lifted the trophy in two of those instances.
Those qualities were in full evidence as Hampshire without any hint of panic advanced to their 197-run target with an over to spare. Granted, the pitch was conducive to high scoring but nothing should be taken away from their expertly-timed chase.
Vince added a further feather to his cap by anchoring the chase, the 23-year-old cutting the figure of calmness on his way to an unbeaten 93 - whenever Notts did look like building pressure he was able to find a timely boundary.
Sean Ervine and Michael Carberry both played their parts in the chase - the former setting the tone and the latter’s rapid 39 dragging the game away from the bewildered hosts.
Naturally Hampshire’s ever present status at finals day over the last half a decade affords them a significant psychological edge over the rest, given they are well versed in the event’s considerable rigours - as a result few will relish squaring off against Vince’s men.
One of the conundrums offered by this season’s T20 Blast is why only now has Will Smith’s bowling been used?
Birmingham v Surrey
Hampshire v Lancashire
Finals Day, Edgbaston, 23rd August
At Durham Smith’s off-spin was used only as a mere novelty option, yet Hampshire have clearly seen things in a different light given that Smith has become a fundamental component of their limited overs attack.
For all the deserved credit Vince’s supreme innings will receive, that his side’s target was kept below 200 was in no small part down to Smith who conceded only a meagre 23 runs from his allocation - the game’s best figures.
Those efforts were no flash in the pan either with Smith’s tournaments economy rate a miserly 7.16 being backed up by 17 wickets.
© Cricket World 2014