As the NatWest T20 Blast romps towards its halfway point, both divisions are now firmly beginning to take shape with the end of the road already approaching for some whilst other can already view quarter-final qualification on the horizon, although there are still a plethora of counties whose campaigns are still to swing decisively.
Once more this week’s round of games were blessed by conditions more reminiscent of Barbados than the British Isles and those in attendance were again treated to plenty of enthralling cricket.
This was most definitely Nottinghamshire’s week in the North, with two wins rejuvenating a campaign that had been previously been typified by stuttering – somewhat surprising considering their billing as tournament favourites.
Their successes against Leicestershire and Derbyshire respectively followed the same formula with Notts' imposing batting twice mounting totals in excess of 200 – scores that were always likely to be beyond their East Midlands rivals.
Leicestershire made a significantly better fist of their pursuit of a towering 221 than Derbyshire did of 206; Josh Cobb’s side were inspired by a Greg Smith century falling 24 runs short. The Foxes, to their credit showcased tremendous character to bounce back from that setback to see off Durham on Friday night – their first Twenty20 win in six and only the second of their entire campaign.
With 26 still needed off the final two overs Durham might have felt in control, however Luke Wells clubbed 24 of those runs from Paul Collingwood’s 19th over to resign Durham to their fourth defeat in five. Like Leicestershire the Chester-le-Street outfit can only boast two wins and whilst nothing is terminal yet, time is running out to make a qualification assault.
Another side for whom time is running out are Northamptonshire with successive defeats to Birmingham and Lancashire meaning the defending champions are now winless in five. Most worrying is that they are not just being beaten but losing games comfortably – these latest defeats no exception with Birmingham easing past 133 with four overs in the bank and Northants being bowled out 53 runs short of Lancashire’s 187. Accounting for their dismal championship form and the impact that has had on moral, their strife is perhaps no significant shock.
Success over Northants signified a third victory on the spin for Birmingham, however that run was firmly halted by Worcestershire’s tidal wave of momentum – the Rapids emphatically chasing down their neighbours paltry 133 with 33 balls to spare.
Worcestershire have now remarkably won six games on the bounce and together with Lancashire – who clinched their sixth win with that earlier mentioned victory over Northants - have one foot in the last eight.
In the South both Essex and Hampshire strengthened their grip on spots in the last eight, with victories over Middlesex and Gloucestershire - both however were far from straightforward.
In pursuit of Middlesex’s 153 Essex’s hopes looked to be falling by the wayside considering they had slipped to 113 for six with 41 still needed off 23, yet Tim Phillips - batting at number eight - had other ideas as he clubbed 33 from only 13 deliveries, including two last over sixes, to snatch an unlikely victory.
That represented Essex’s fourth win in as many games, further to that they have now chased successfully in each of their six wins. Hampshire’s victory had appeared to be somewhat more straightforward with Gloucestershire seemingly destined for defeat having fallen to 106 for six in pursuit of 181. However, Benny Howell gave them an almighty scare with 50 off 22 deliveries resulting in his side falling agonisingly two runs short of their target.
On the top two’s coattails are Surrey; with a 17-run win over fellow qualification hopefuls Glamorgan their fourth success in five outings. Surrey’s bowlers have been fundamental to that run, on average conceding just 145 per innings over the last five games and with Tilekeratne Dilshan’s arrival imminent and Kevin Pietersen’s return to form surely an inevitable; they look in excellent state to again mount a genuine tilt on the trophy.
There was reason for cheer at Lord's where Middlesex finally ended a horror run of 10 consecutive Twenty20 defeats, belittling that form to chase down Somerset’s 152 with 17 balls remaining. Unfortunately the positive vibe was short lived with normal services resumed by that earlier discussed defeat to Essex.
Another side to terminate a disappointing sequence of results were Sussex, who in comprehensively beating Kent ended a return of five straight defeats. The Sharks are now one of four sides with three wins to their name – Glamorgan, Somerset and Kent being the others – and in spite of their previous lapse in form are firmly back in the qualification hunt.
Riki Wessels was the driving force behind Notts' double success, the batsmen transferring his sparkling Championship form to the shortest format of the game – scoring 66 at a strike rate of 213 against Leicestershire before plundering 95 off only 51 balls to overpower Derbyshire. These runs have propelled Wessells to fifth in the run scoring charts.
The required inspiration to lift Middlesex out of their doldrums was provided by Joe Denly who thundered 98 off just 60 deliveries to guide his side off the mark. That individual score was however bettered by Greg Smith with the Leicestershire opener firing a valiant 102 that kept is side in the hunt of 221 until his wicket in the 17th over, in the process becoming only the second player this year to reach three figures.
Smith wasn’t alone in seeing his efforts fail to bring fruit; with Craig Kieswetter, Eoin Morgan and the earlier mentioned Benny Howell all producing half-centuries that went in vain.
Nonetheless there were a glut of batsmen whose sparkling efforts didn’t know go unrewarded; Luke Wright’s 85 responsible for dragging Sussex back on the right track, Jos Buttler’s violent 56 hitting the life out of Northants and Jimmy Adams’ 69 laying the platform for Hampshire to defeat Gloucestershire.
In regards to bowling Saeed Ajmal was again the exceptional performer, remarkably conceding only ten runs in his four overs against Birmingham – taking his economy for the tournament as low as six. In that very game Chris Russell and Adam Shantry each claimed three wickets for Worcestershire – the former taking his seasonal tally to 16 wickets.
Second to Russell in the overall wicket-taking charts is Junaid Khan – the Lancashire man adding three further scalps this weekend and together with that can now boast the lowest economy rate of any seamer.
For Hampshire Will Smith’s supposed part-time off-spinners continue to prove a hugely effective weapon as he captured three for 26 against Gloucestershire, whilst the final mention goes to Steffan Piolet whose three for 14 was a significant factor in Kent falling substantially short of Sussex’s 149.
© Cricket World 2014