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August 24, 2014 9:15 pm
If you want real cricket, say the purists, go to the Test match. If you want some early pantomime, try the T20 Blast final. Bright clothes, heroes and villains, leg-slapping feistiness, dwarves, giants, a few foxes, audience participation, and more twists than a beanstalk. And that was just the crowd. All in three acts.
The cast list at Edgbaston included Surrey and Hampshire, with early reviews putting Birmingham Bears and Lancashire Lightning down as just chorus players. The plot lines included a return to the big stage for Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen, and a rare chance to see Jimmy Anderson in county colours.
Act I: Surrey vs Birmingham Bears
Surrey, despite their top-of-the-bill line-up, were ordinary. The flawed hero of last year’s final, Jade Dernbach, reprised his role, this time going for 56 in his allotted four overs, beating even his 55 in four from 2013. Credit to Will Porterfield of the Birmingham Bears (for there are no cricket fans in Stratford or Nuneaton). He took the Surrey attack apart – scoring 81 off 47 balls, helping set a target of 194-4 for the pre-tournament bookies’ favourites to chase.
Surrey came out flying with the in-form and rarely ordinary Jason Roy – surely banging loudly on England’s door in this format – blasting 58 off 25 balls that went to all parts of the ground (and crowd) in an opening partnership of 89 with Steve Davies. When Roy holed out to Jeetan Patel off Chris Woakes, in came Kevin Pietersen, fresh off the plane from playing in the West Indies. But he could barely get the bowling off the square. He went for 13, his solitary boundary a six, and that was scored just after the crowd had stopped cheering for Freddie Flintoff, who got an ovation for just walking in front of the Lanky-packed Hollies stand. The Bears bought on Ateeq Javid, who stemmed the initial onslaught, restricted the run rate, and stopped Surrey scoring another boundary for 51 balls.
It was all too much. The Londoners kept on losing wickets in what rapidly became an impossible chase. They eventually lost by 16 runs and Oval fans headed for the bars and a few for the train.
Surrey, regardless of getting to this stage, need to off load. They need hitters at three and four, not someone who can’t get a game elsewhere, and skipper Gary Wilson, just doesn’t have any assertiveness in his batting to be coming in that early.
Act II: Lancashire Lightning vs Hampshire
Lightning were put in to bat by Hampshire, with weather more akin to early April making life more favourable for any side bowing first. Hampshire proved the point by taking two early wickets before the heavens opened, sending players and spectators scurrying for the dry. After 10 overs Lancashire were 72-3, with England keeper Jos Buttler walking out to join opener Ashwell Prince. Here was a bloke who could do the business and settle Lancashire nerves, the fans thought – then he was out second ball lbw, much to his own disbelief. Will Smith was doing most of the damage, taking three wickets in his first three overs. The Hampshire fans round the Raglan Stand were sensing a tonking. But then some wayward bowling by Matt Coles bought Lancashire back into the game.
The innings ended after 19 overs and another downpour on 160-5, with Prince carrying his bat for 72, helped by Karl Brown’s 41, and 19 and 22 from captain Paul Horton and Steven Croft, respectively.
Hampshire were eventually set a reduced target of 143 off 16, or pushing nine an over, thanks to Duckworth and Lewis.
But the first innings was just the prelude to what everyone knew the real business of the game: Lancashire’s canny bowlers, used to pulling the top order out of many a hole, versus the brutal batting power of Hampshire. Michael Carberry and James Vince with Jimmy Adams to follow, versus Jimmy Anderson, Croft and Tom Smith. Sit back and keep your eyes open and your hands ready to catch the inevitable flat sixes.
Then the wheels fell off.
Within three overs Vince and Carberry were gone. After six, Hampshire had struggled to 38-4, in the 10th it was 63-6. From the Hampshire team’s body language they seemed to feel there was nothing to gain. Jimmy Adams was the only batsman to make an impression, scoring 53 from 39. But Horton was still chivvying his bowlers and fielders hard with the game all but won. He looked like he wanted all 10, and he got them. Hampshire were all out for 101 from 14 overs.
Then a whisper started going round the ground: Kabir Ali had done his shoulder. Freddie was set to play in the final. Who was writing this script?
Act III: Lancashire vs Birmingham Bears
Whoever won in the final act, there would be a new champion. Neither of these teams, underdogs before the first ball was bowled, had won the trophy before.
The Bears won the toss and decided to bat. After two overs they were 19-0, with Jimmy Anderson being hit for a maximum. Then on came Flintoff.
Ian Bell can’t have faced many balls from his old team mate in the last few years so maybe he was expecting an old full-throated Freddie reverse swinger. But with the Lancastrian’s knees the way they are, his first delivery was more amble than Armageddon, and Bell was through his shot about five years too early. Up went the ball, in came Brown from the boundary, and off walked Bell, leaving Flintoff in the middle with his arms outstretched as if to say: “And did you miss me?”
For a man who David Lloyd said was chasing pigs in the Amazon a few months back this wasn’t a bad way to make a comeback.
But the Bears still reached 50 after five, taking two sixes off one Flintoff over. Lancashire were regularly taking wickets. The batting side swung at everything even with a few potential catches just brushing fingertips. The Bears were at 114 for 4 after 15. But no one was taking the Bull Ring by the horn so to speak. Would anyone step up? Enter Laurie Evans; he made 50 off 28, finishing with 53 before being caught on the furthest boundary trying for another six. The Bears had a fighting score of 181-5, and had taken apart Jimmy Anderson in the process. Could they win the title at home?
Lancashire started their innings confidently this time, with Prince again playing a dominant role. He and Tom Smith took the score to 40 off the first five. With dew setting in, it was becoming more difficult for the bowlers to grip the ball and Rankin, a persistent offender during the course of the day, bowled some waist-high full tosses. And the wicket was beginning to grip less for the spin bowlers. Prince eventually went for 30 off 24 balls, playing on to the stumps from a Rankin delivery, leaving Lancashire at 62-2 off nine. Rankin took his second of the night to dismiss Usman Khawaja, leaving Lancashire 73-3 in the 11th. Next to the crease was Jos Buttler. Could he make amends for his earlier travails. He and Brown took Ateeq for 17 off one over.
Then Buttler was caught behind for 11 off Oliver Hannon-Dalby; a Yorkshireman couldn’t stay out of a game against Lancashire. Not a good day for the England keeper.
Brown seemed comfortable at the crease doing some power-accumulating. With six overs to go, they were 114-4 with Brown on 33 off 16, but Croft tried to hit Hannon-Dalby to cow corner and lost his stumps. The task was getting more difficult, but with Flintoff still waiting to come in, anything could happen.
Horton was out to a questionable decision, “caught” off Patel despite replays showing his bat nowhere near the ball, but it didn’t help his cause questioning the decision. If the umpire gives it, you walk, a philosophy any young schoolboy cricketer will tell you.
With 30 to win, Lancashire were beginning to find the boundaries with ease until Brown was bowled for a quality 55 from the perfect yorker from Woakes. In came Freddie Flintoff. The stage was set. Jordan Clark was caught by a brilliant catch by Bell on the boundary, leaving Lancashire at 154-8, needing 28 from 10 balls. Flintoff wasn’t giving up without a fight, hitting two successive sixes. Down to the wire. 14 off the last over. The first ball went for a bye, bringing Flintoff on strike to face current England all-rounder Woakes. A couple of twos; nine off three; brilliant death-over yorkers from Woakes; boundaries needed. But Flintoff is at the wrong end.
Lancashire required a six off the last ball, but number 10 Stephen Parry couldn’t get the power on it. Birmingham Bears deservedly won the trophy on their home ground – after nearly 11 hours of play and 115 overs – by just four runs. Some pantomime.
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