County cricket: T20 Blast group stage is proving enjoyably competitive
Ball one: Stokes fires up Durham
One point separates five teams at the top of the North Group – it’s almost as if the ECB has a popular and ultra-competitive competition on its hands. It even has 2019’s BBC Sports Personality playing in it and Ben Stokes was at the heart of Durham’s win over the Birmingham Bears, two of those five pacesetters.
But cricket matches are seldom won by one player and seldom won by one approach. While Stokes muscled five of the 18 balls he faced to the boundary, his captain, Cameron Bancroft (who had a rather different 2019) hit just seven of his 53 to the rope, but his 76 not out was the glue that bonded two more mid-range innings from Graham Clark and Sean Dickson into a competitive target.
The Bears kept losing wickets when they needed to accelerate and fell well short in the end, Stokes getting a wicket and catching his old nemesis Carlos Brathwaite off the bowling of Brydon Carse.
Both teams have nine points, level with group leaders Yorkshire, and Stokes has a much needed match under his belt.
Ball two: Lancashire tie with Notts
It was more “Oh Dear, Lanky Lanky” than “Oh Lanky Lanky” at Old Trafford, as the home side managed to turn a chase they were controlling for almost its entire duration into a tie against Nottinghamshire, a result that kept each a point off the triumvirate leading the group.
With Matt Parkinson having a rare off day, it was surprising that Dane Vilas didn’t turn to Keaton Jennings or Luke Wells for an over or two of part-time stuff but, after Alex Hales had done his thing in the powerplay, no Notts’ batsman really got away and 172 felt like a par score at best.
Openers Jennings and Finn Allen were soon making it look a lot less than that, still together at the halfway mark in the chase, 92 chalked off, 81 to get, but Samit Patel got the squeeze on and, somehow, the home side needed 20 from the last two overs, a situation in which their eight wickets in hand sounds more beneficial than it actually is. The time to “spend” those wickets had gone, as new batsmen no longer had a couple of sighters available to them before boundary hitting (as they would have had in the overs 12-16).
Keaton Jennings’ six off the penultimate ball left his team needing two off the last ball to win. He was well short seeking that second run. Credit to Steven Mullaney’s men though – they conceded just the six boundaries in the second half of the Lancashire innings, a tremendous effort given the wickets in hand. And Samit (4-0-18-1) should have been man of the match, not Jennings (88 off 61).
Ball three: Kent leaning upwards as Essex buckle
Kent top the South Group after hammering Essex at Canterbury. After a delayed start due to a wet outfield (just play lads, surely) The home side posted 236-3, their highest ever T20 score, not requiring the outfield at all on 14 occasions.
Daniel Bell-Drummond and Zak Crawley got away after a couple of overs to assess conditions and never stopped in an opening stand of 145 off 11.5 overs including nine fours and eight sixes. Bell-Drummond fell 12 short of his century, but that just brought in Jack Leaning, who can do no wrong at the moment, and he biffed 42 off 17, and a chastened Essex XI set off in pursuit of a mountainous 237.
Once Leaning dismissed Ryan ten Doeschate in the eighth over, there was only net run rate to play for (rather a grim phrase) and Essex will need a lot more than that to raise them from second bottom in the group after one win from six. In contrast, Kent have only lost one of their six matches and sit two points clear at the summit.
Ball four: Cracknell breaks open a tough chase
In a difficult season for Middlesex, a ray of light shone on the backwater of Radlett as an old pro, a young thruster and a canny import came together to chase down Hampshire’s imposing target of 216.
Joe Simpson was the old pro, a wiry six hitter, whose partnership of 122 in 10 middle overs with young Joe Cracknell got his team back into yet another match in which they were sliding towards defeat. Cracknell, at 21, showed plenty of nous in his 77 to anchor the innings, and proved it was no fluke with 67 a couple of days later against Gloucestershire. Cue Aussie T20 specialist, Chris Green, whose 26 not out got his team over the line with a couple of balls to spare. The Londoners are going to need a lot more of that stuff in all formats very soon indeed.
Ball five: Batsman of the Week
Too often it’s too easy to define Jonny Bairstow by what he’s not doing: not keeping, not opening, not playing, not defending. Sometimes it might be better to heed the two forthright words on Jos Buttler’s bat handle and concentrate on what he is doing.
Against Worcestershire, he was not fit (whoops, there I go again) but he was doing what few English players can do better (in the history of the game) – repeatedly striking and smearing the ball to the boundary in his 112. Though he can show elegance (he has the balance of the gifted multi-sports star he was at school) he often foregoes that grace for power-hitting, which can get him out of kilter at times . In some ways, his restricted movements due to injury in this innings may have helped to maintain his shape through the shots.
But with Jonny, it’s perhaps better to hear than to see. Has any English batsman ever made that unmistakable sound that makes you, almost involuntarily, inform the person next to you “well, he’s middled that” more often? There’s AB de Villiers and Adam Gilchrist in the world game – and that’s about it for me.
Ball six: Bowler of the Week
My son, on catching a little cricket on the television, exclaimed, “Is that the Steven Finn?” – and I explained that it was, and that he was still only 32. To be honest, it could have been me asking the question, because dear old self-effacing, stump-bothering Finny appears to belong to a previous generation, itself on the verge of becoming a previous generation in its own right. That’s a mark of how swiftly the game moves these days and, perhaps, of how many players England chew through with their schedules and range of selection options.
But the Glamorgan match also illustrated something about Finn’s career and Middlesex’s season. He comes on, dismisses just about the biggest overseas name in the competition (Marnus Labuschagne), nails the captain David Lloyd next ball, finishes with 4-19 from his four overs – and loses the match.
An amusing and perceptive presence behind the mic, with the right ghost, Finn may provide one of the more interesting My Story biographies should he choose to do so when the boots are hanged up for the last time. But let’s see plenty more of him doing what he does best before that moment comes.