With the County Championship returning to take centre stage over the coming weekend, it allows time to reflect on what has thus far been a breathless 50 over competition.
The ECB often bear the brunt of criticism from cricket followers around the county circuit, yet they are deserving of rare commendation for the latest incarnation of the troublesome limited overs tournament even if many would argue they have merely stumbled upon the winning formula.
The addition of quarter-finals is an undoubted plus point, given that it has naturally diminished the amount of insignificant fixtures – at the same time progression was a realistic target for everybody rather than the elite few the old system favoured.
There was a worry that the extra 10 overs would harm the quality of the cricket, yet on a whole the product has been largely captivating with a plethora of astounding contests being combined with a series of remarkable individual performances.
Events of recent days have seen four sides book their quarter-final births, while several others are practically there. The battle for the final tickets will conclude later next week alongside the scrap for the luxury of a home last-eight fixture.
Already qualified: Yorkshire, Essex, Gloucestershire
That Essex and their talent-loaded limited-overs unit have extended their journey will not raise eyebrows and the Chelmsford county have advanced with minimal fuss, their only defeat coming against Leicestershire on a pudding of a Chelmsford wicket.
Yorkshire – although not boasting the same calibre of personnel as Essex – were also highly fancied to progress, however in contrast nobody anticipated Gloucestershire would be vying for a home quarter-final come the winding up of the groups.
Having stuttered through much of the campaign to date – their Championship promotion hopes being dead in the water and having failed to negotiate their respective Twenty20 group – Gloucestershire have been a different animal in the Royal London Cup having lost only one of their seven encounters.
In a tournament which has in the main been typified by high scoring, Gloucestershire’s basis has been the opposite with their bowlers often sowing the seed to victory.
The final qualification spot is a shootout between East Midlands duo Leicestershire and Derbyshire – a scenario nobody would have envisaged at the tournament’s inception. Both have suffered distressing campaigns and endured miserable Twenty20 journeys, however the final trophy has offered significant solace.
Leicestershire, following a Duckworth Lewis success over Worcestershire on Thursday, have their fate in their own hands and a win over Lancashire next week would book a well-needed knockout appearance.
If Derbyshire do go out they may well lament a contentious point deduction which was carried over following a perceived substandard pitch against Durham in the Pro40 last term.
Worcestershire – arguably the overall fairy tale story of the season – have been brought back down to earth in the Royal London Cup with that defeat at Leicestershire ending their participation although that should take little away from their marvellous campaign.
That Lancashire and Hampshire prop up the pile will raise plenty of eyebrows given that both have made it to Twenty20 finals day yet could only manage a victory each – Hampshire’s demise particularly shocking accounting they reached the last four in both 2012 and 2013’s equivalent tournaments.
Already qualified: Kent
The tournament’s undoubted narrative is Kent, with Sam Northeast’s outfit negotiating their way this far without tasting defeat – the closest they’ve come being a dramatic tie against Surrey.
Having been in the doldrums for a prolonged period after years of arguably punching above their weight, there are signs of the corner being turned at Canterbury – their run in this tournament being preceded by three Championship wins on the bounce and a relatively encouraging Twenty20 showing.
Their success has been built around a perfect balance of youth and experience, with old hands such as James Tredwell and Darren Stevens combining with the likes of Sam Billing and Daniel Bell-Drummond to devastating effect.
Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire are within touching distance of their next round tickets but with the pair set to meet next week there is potential for the loser to perish should other results go against them.
Notts have carried the momentum generated by an excellent group stage campaign and have only lost once with James Taylor able to call on a squad brimming with form and lacking in holes.
The Bears are quietly enjoying a terrific limited-overs season, with an appearance at Twenty20 finals day now likely to be followed up with a 50-over last-eight spot. Their miserly bowling unit – which on its own makes them a threatening proposition – is now being supported by a batting unit that is belittling earlier suggestions it lacked firepower.
Joining Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire on nine points are Durham, however their group stage campaign has now been concluded so the Chester-le-Street side must now wait on developments in fixtures involving Notts, Warwickshire and Somerset before the extension of their stay is confirmed.
Durham’s aspirations had appeared to be dwindling with just a single victory from their opening four fixtures, however a sequence of three victories in four has reignited their hopes.
Having stumbled out of the Twenty20 – the first time in six years they’ve fallen at the first hurdle – Somerset will be determined to defeat Surrey and with it avoid a complete limited overs season write off.
In their favour is that Surrey have endured a nightmare run – astonishingly considering their quality they are the only county without a tournament.
After a bright start last year’s beaten finalists Glamorgan have faded badly – winning just one of their last five – while Middlesex have concluded yet another woeful limited-overs campaign by again failing to threaten to escape the group stage.
Similarly 2014 will be a year Sussex will want to forget in regards to the shorter formats, with a thumping against Kent ending their hopes earlier in the week.
There have been no shortage of individual showings that have created ample disbelief. At the pinnacle of those is Kent’s Billings who combines claiming fourth spot on the run-scoring list with a mind-boggling strike-rate of 168 – those returns including a remarkable 135 off just 58 balls against Somerset.
At the top of the run-scoring charts is South African Jacques Rudolph, although his tally of 406 could do little to halt Glamorgan’s slide – in fact if Durham and Derbyshire go out, of the current top seven run-getters only Billings will have the opportunity to extend his tally.
With an average of 104 Varun Chopra has provided Warwickshire a persistent top order anchor, while Alex Hales – boasting 280 runs and two centuries in just four games – has offered Notts top-order strength of an altogether more ferocious nature.
In terms of all-round performances Will Gidman’s accomplishments are undeniable with nine miserly wickets being combined with 196 invaluable runs at an average of 65. The all-roudner is doing everything in his power to ensure his tenure at Gloucestershire ends on a successful note.
Gidman is however trumped in the all-rounder stakes by the ever popular Paul Collingwood, who at 38 has consistently produced telling contributions with bat and ball throughout the competition.
Collingwood’s total of 344 runs at a handsome strike rate of 108 place him second overall, while nobody bowling consistent overs can match his economy rate of 3.96 which is also supplemented by 10 wickets – the Durham man showcasing exactly why he will go down as one England’s greatest ever limited-overs performers.
Jeetan Patel has again proved a potent weapon, with the Warwickshire man combining an economy rate of 4.6 with 14 scalps – a number only bettered by the evergreen Yasir Arafat.
Tim Bresnan has been an integral component to Yorkshire’s progress with 14 wickets – in the process showcasing he is regaining his best form following an exasperating winter.
For Kent Doug Bollinger and Mitch Claydon – although both expensive – have ensured a steady flow of wickets, with the pair sharing 26 between them. Like with their batting questions will be labelled at Glamorgan’s bowling supporting cast accounting for the fact that Michael Hogan and Dean Cosker both bagged 13 scalps at more than respectable economy rates.
© Cricket World 2014