Review - Supreme Bears Deny Lancashire & Flintoff
The fairytale outcome may not have fully materialised, but nonetheless once again the most prestigious event in the English domestic cricket calendar delivered a breathless day of enthralling action.
Twenty20 finals day has never needed any extra spice, yet the return of Andrew Flintoff only added further substance to the spectacle - had he not arrived at the crease until the horse had bolted the former England man might well have scripted yet another glorious chapter to his distinguished career.
There was to be no fairytale winning return for Freddie
As it was, on their own patch the Birmingham Bears delivered their first title, 10 years after they had last graced the final four. For all the Flintoff romanticism, Birmingham’s success was wholeheartedly deserved – on the day there was little question that Varun Chopra’s side were the most complete side, although that will be little consolation to a Lancashire side who came into finals days off the back of seven consecutive wins.
As the group stages drew to close, that Birmingham would even contest the knockout stages appeared seriously in doubt; yet hinting at what was to come the Bears ended their campaign with three wins in must-win scenarios.
Even accounting for the impressive character showcased in the concluding stages of the groups, Birmingham were far from fancied, many citing an absence of genuine batting firepower for their plight. That criticism though has been blown out of the water, with Birmingham’s knockout journey to the trophy coinciding with three consecutive scores in excess of 180.
Laurie Evans will draw significant plaudits and rightly so after his superbly timed assault in the final but nonetheless in theme with their campaign, Birmingham’s batting upsurge has revolved around collectives rather individuals - William Porterfield and Chopra being just two of the others worthy of substantial accreditation.
Laurie Evans top scored in the final with 53
In the final Birmingham might have buckled with Lancashire’s spinners applying the stranglehold, however again outlining their proficiency under pressure the Bears didn’t panic. Evans combined with Chris Woakes to bludgeon 58 from the final four overs and with it set Lancashire the highest total to a win the Twenty20 trophy.
From a Lancashire perspective they will point to the absence of Kabir Ali – following an injury sustained against Hampshire – for the wheels coming off at the death, but that shouldn’t devalue the expert timing of Birmingham’s innings.
The fundamental factor in Birmingham negotiating the group was their miserly bowlers and that attribute would again prove significant on Saturday in testing conditions against Lancashire.
In spite of the dew, which somewhat hindered star turn Jeetan Patel, Birmingham were always ahead of the eight ball and whenever Lancashire did threaten a timely wicket arrived: the seam trio of Boyd Rankin, Oliver Hannon-Dalby and Woakes all laudable for individual praise.
Bears captain Varun Chopra kisses the trophy
Lancashire – remarkably chasing for only the second time all tournament – questionably didn’t help themselves, with an approach which simply left their power hitters too much to do, particularly under such a high pressure.
The Lightning’s top three ate up 57 balls, yet could only boast a strike rate of 114. Plus, that Jordan Clark and Flintoff did not arrive until the fall of the sixth and seventh wicket respectively raised plenty of eyebrows given how far the game had drifted from Lancashire.
Such was their top order’s struggles that Lancashire’s victory hopes became even more dependent on Jos Buttler and when he departed cheaply to the guile of Hannon-Dalby the writing appeared on the wall.
Karl Brown is bowled by Chris Woakes - a wicket from which Lancashire never recovered
Flintoff, though, had other ideas.
Wwith 26 needed off just 14 deliveries and only two wickets in the bank the ship appeared to have sailed, however the all-rounder rolled back the year to launch two maximums that left a reachable 14 from Woakes’ final set.
Woakes, however, was calmness personified under pressure, offering next to no room for manoeuvre and with it denying the Flintoff fairytale script.
Lancashire will query why Birmingham didn’t receive penalty runs for missing the last over cut off point, but to hand out punishment for narrowly missing that target in such an intense situation would have been both harsh and devaluing to the contest.
Further to that had Paul Horton not hung around following his dismissal Birmingham would have likely made the cut.
Earlier on in the day both Hampshire and Surrey had seen their deficiencies badly unfold. For the second consecutive year Surrey’s seamers fell apart in the finals day pressure cooker before their overreliance on Jason Roy was ruthlessly exposed – his rapid half-century had raised hopes of gunning down Birmingham’s imposing 194 but following the departure of the tournament’s top-scorer Surrey’s hopes disintegrated rapidly.
A scarcity of support for Chris Wood terminally cost Hampshire, with a lack of reliable seam options allowing Lancashire to escape from Will Smith and co’s stifling job – with it sowing the seed for Hampshire’s third consecutive semi-final defeat at Edgbaston.
Without doubt the two most complete sides advanced to the evening’s showpiece – a contest which was a more than fitting finale to what was a glorious day’s cricket.
Birmingham were far from fancied to be lofting the trophy a month ago, yet they’ve overcome all tests and questions best upon them, at the same time showcasing weighty aptitude in high intense environments – making them more than worthy winners of the 2014 NatWest T20 Blast.
© Cricket World 2014