Another largely sun-kissed weekend ensured an enthralling round of Twenty20 cricket as the NatWest T20 Blast continued its impressive inception.
With the halfway point now on the horizon, both groups are taking shape in relatively similar fashion - congestion in the middle being separated by certain stragglers and a few select counties forcing their heads through the bottleneck.
That Nottinghamshire are not one of the sides peeping out of the parapet will come as a surprise - accounting for their talent-loaded unit and the fact that in each of the last two seasons they topped their group - with their frustrations compounded by defeat to Birmingham on Friday night.
Their much heralded arsenal of batsmen falling 18 runs short of Bimringham’s 156 was the third time in four innings they have failed to eclipse 140. Lamenting their plight is the fact that aside from Alex Hales no Notts batsmen can vaunt a strike rate in excess of 125 and none feature in the tournament’s leading 30 run-scorers.
In contrast Birmingham have now strung together three successive wins, in the process restricting their opponents to below 150 in four consecutive occasions. The Edgbaston outfit now occupy the final qualification spot, raising hopes that in spite of a batting unit lacking the firepower of certain other counties they have the bowlers miserly enough to force a first quarter-final appearance since 2010.
At the summit Worcestershire’s momentum reached tidal wave like proportions, as the New Road county inflicted a fifth straight defeat on basement side Derbyshire - a stark comparison to the fifth consecutive victory for the Rapids. Worcestershire’s soaring confidence weighed against their dejected hosts was arguably the telling factor: had Derbyshire entered the contest in better spirits, then the final equation of 20 from the last 12 balls with wickets in hand would have perhaps been cracked.
Joining Worcestershire at the top are Lancashire who recovered from last week’s Roses irritation to oust a Leicestershire side who are in now in danger of joining Derbyshire in being cut adrift from the qualification chasers.
This was a success which followed an all too familiar script for Lancashire as Tom Smith - the tournament’s fourth highest run scorer - laid the foundations with the bat before Junaid Khan - joint fourth on the wicket-taking charts - led a typically compact bowling effort.
The final game in the North was at Northampton, where the defending champions fell to a second consecutive defeat against an improving Yorkshire. Buoyed by that dramatic Roses win last Friday Yorkshire sealed a comfortable 16 run victory – which had it not been for Richard Levi’s 76 would have been all the more resounding. With just one defeat Yorkshire now occupy third spot and only a second knockout round showing in seven years is within their sights.
Down South, Somerset, who have progressed in each of the last five years, gave their campaign much-needed lift off with victories over Hampshire and Sussex respectively which ended a torrid sequence of three defeats on the spin.
The Hampshire win, which brought to an end their four-game winning streak, was particularly enthralling with Somerset surviving a late Will Smith blitz to get home by a single run. Sunday’s win over Sussex was somewhat more routine, with Craig Kieswetter’s fourth 50 on the summer laying the platform for a 31-run success.
There is still an abundance of work to do but Marcus Trescothick’s side have at least thrust themselves very much back into the qualification reckoning and they are now one of four sides with three victories to their name.
For Sussex that defeat followed a thumping 10-wicket loss at the Oval - which saw Surrey chase down 149 with 27 balls and 10 wickets to spare - and signified their fifth uninterrupted loss with their opening two victories now a very distant memory.
The Hove county who last year missed the quarter-finals for the first time since 2008 courtesy of a disastrous return of just one win in 10 are sinking at a rate which indicates that 2013 failure was no flash in the pan.
Profiting from Hampshire’s defeat were Essex, who now climb to the South division apex thanks to victories over Kent and Gloucestershire. Wednesday night’s successful pursuit 190 was the third time this season Essex have successfully chased down a score in excess of 180, such was the emphatic showing from their batsmen that they surpassed Kent’s total with an over to spare.
Accounting for that perchance for a run chase – all five of their victories have come batting second – Gloucestershire’s 162 was never likely to be sufficient and so it proved with the Chelmsford outfit coasting home with nine balls remaining.
Perhaps the round’s most remarkable contest occurred in South Wales where Glamorgan – indebted to Michael Hogan - pulled off an extraordinary steal which saw Kent only able to tie when needed just two runs off the final over as they chased 177.
That, coupled with the previously mentioned Essex defeat, compounded a frustrating weekend for Kent, whilst Glamorgan will be delighted with their escapology act that ensures they both maintain their momentum and third spot.
There were a plethora of noteworthy individual showings this week, none more so than Hogan’s sensational last-over heroics, which included three wickets and cost only two runs. Hogan wasn’t the only bowler to excel at the death as Chris Russell - now the tournament’s leading wicket-taker - took three wickets in the final over to ensure Derbyshire’s wait for a victory would be prolonged yet further.
At Taunton the evergreen Dirk Nannes rolled back the years with figures of five for 31 in Somerset’s routing of Sussex, whilst Richard Jones also took five for Leicestershire but even that couldn’t halt Lancashire’s charge.
As ever there were a handful of significant spin bowling showings. Azeem Rafiq’s two for 19 which strangled Northants and Jeetan Patel’s three for 26 were among those most worthy of a mention and the latter is now able to boast an economy rate of just five.
This week’s action was littered with outstanding individual batting efforts, with no fewer than 17 half-centuries scored across the 10 fixtures. At the forefront of those excelling was Ravi Bopara, who was the chief destroyer in both of Essex’s successful chases this week, launching 81 off just 41 balls to see off Kent before contributing 66 off 39 to take his side past Gloucestershire, with those innings combined generating nine maximums.
Another player to twice pass 50 – albeit in less destructive manner – was Kieswetter whose scores of 70 and 57 were pivotal to Somerset’s game-changing week, although Peter Trego’s swashbuckling 76 was perhaps the key contributor to the success over Kent. Kieswetter’s exceptional week means only Jason Roy can better his runs tally, with the Surrey opener rising to that summit with arguably the weekend’s most brutal knock, as his unbeaten 81 – a fourth 50 of the tournament – putt to the sword a bewildered Sussex.
Jonny Bairstow is also worthy of special praise, given that his 60 off only 37 balls firmly took the game beyond Northants, while Colin Munro’s even swifter 65 did a similar job for Worcestershire against Derbyshire. His wicket may have triggered something of a collapse but Darren Steven’s 71 off just 39 – which included six maximums – should not be overlooked, as that innings also arguably the most substantial factor in Kent claiming a point for their tie with Glamorgan.
© Cricket World 2014