Leicestershire Metro Bank One-Day Cup Final Preview
Given where they were barely two months ago, for Leicestershire to stand just one game away from their first one-day silverware in 38 years represents a turnaround in fortunes few could have foreseen.
The Foxes, three-times domestic Twenty20 champions but with their List A trophy cabinet empty since 1985, take on Hampshire in Saturday’s Metro Bank Cup One-Day Cup final at Trent Bridge.
Yet back in early July, with just two wins from 14 Vitality Blast T20 matches and reeling from the departure of head coach Paul Nixon in unexplained and plainly acrimonious circumstances, the club appeared to be in turmoil.
Somehow, though, they were able to launched their Metro Bank Cup campaign at the start of August by chasing down 326 to beat Surrey at The Kia Oval and followed it up by thrashing defending champions Kent by 264 runs at Beckenham.
They went on to win seven from eight matches to finish top of Group A before comfortably seeing off Gloucestershire in the semi-finals.
No one could be more delighted, naturally, with how the players have bounced back from adversity than Lewis Hill, who has led Leicestershire’s List A side for the last three seasons but is in his first year as club captain.
“After everything that happened, the guys have stuck together like glue and that is so pleasing as a captain,” he said.
He praised Alfonso Thomas and James Taylor, who were named as joint interim head coaches after Nixon’s exit, for their part in the story - largely for giving the players space to breathe and regroup.
“They have been brilliant,” Hill said. “They have mainly left it to the players in terms of how we went to train and how we want to play our cricket and they have supported us in doing that.
“Kudos to them for stepping in amid all the pressure and the stick that they were getting. It is testament to their character and that has really shone through with the players, so well done to them.
“That first game set the tone. We knew the potential of the batting line-up we had with Sol Budinger joining the likes of Rishi Patel, Colin Ackermann and Wiaan Mulder in the side, but to do it in that first game at Surrey, on a big ground in front of a big crowd, made us realise what we were capable of and gave us massive momentum.”
Such momentum, in fact, that the next three matches saw Leicestershire reset their List A record total twice.
Their 380 for five in the win over Kent was the club’s highest List A score against a first-class county and that was eclipsed only five days later with their massive 411 for six against Lancashire at Old Trafford, which beat 406 for five against Berkshire in 1996 as the county’s all-opposition record.
“What has been the most pleasing for me is that our skill level has been so high with bat, ball and in the field right through the competition,” Hill said. “We’ve been really clear in our plans to play aggressive cricket and to play cricket we enjoy. You play better cricket when you enjoy it.”
If the batters have grabbed the headlines, the work of the bowlers has been equally important. Chris Wright (16 wickets) and South African all-rounder Mulder (12) have been mainstays, backed by impressive contributions from lesser-known faces in Tom Scriven (14) and Josh Hull, the 18-year-old left-arm quick who has notched a debut-season return of 15.
For Hill himself, born in Leicester, leading Leicestershire out at Trent Bridge will be a spine-tingling moment - and proof that good things can come to those who persevere.
A product of the club’s academy pathway, Hill left the club and it was only after spending two seasons playing for the now-defunct Unicorns team that he impressed Leicestershire enough to win a contract. He was 24 before he made his senior debut in 2015.
He witnessed the Foxes’ golden moments in Twenty20 as a fan and has used that for inspiration.
“On the wall of the Bennett Bar at Grace Road there are pictures of all three of Leicestershire’s Twenty20 Cup winning teams,” he said. “At the start of the season, I said to the other players ‘I want our picture to be alongside those’.
“Having seen Leicestershire win finals as a supporter, to get to a final as the Leicestershire club captain makes me so proud.
“The last final I played in was for Lutterworth against Market Harborough in the County Cup in 2012, so to lift a trophy for Leicestershire would be like a dream come true, my best moment in cricket.”
The Benson and Hedges Cup brought Leicestershire their last victory in a one-day final when David Gower’s team downed Graham Gooch’s Essex at Lord’s in 1985. The Foxes have been in one final since, coming out on the wrong side against Somerset in the Friends Provident Trophy decider, also at Lord’s, in 2001.
Leicestershire were the only side to beat Hampshire in the group stages but having reached the final with an identical record to the Foxes Leicestershire, Nick Gubbins’ team remain a major threat to Hill’s ambitions.
Leicestershire, moreover, will have to manage without their leading run-scorer, Australian international Peter Handscomb, who has had to return home to prepare for his own domestic season. Handscomb also kept wicket, which complicates the picture further. Hill may have to take the gloves himself, although Harry Swindells is another option.
“It’s a blow that Peter can’t be with us for the final, but I’m confident that we have enough talent in the side to win without him,” Hill said.
“The important thing is that we stick with the brand of cricket that has got us to the final. We owe that not just to ourselves but to the fans, the members, all the people who work at the club who want to see us bring some success.”