County cricket talking points: T20 Blast sets up intriguing quarter-finals


Sussex, Northamptonshire and Leicestershire secured their places in the last eight of the T20 Blast this week

Ball one: breaking news
This column does not do news, but if you haven’t tracked down the T20 Blast’s quarter-finals to be played on Thursday 1 October, here they are:

Notts Outlaws v Leicestershire Foxes
Surrey v Kent Spitfires
Gloucestershire v Northamptonshire Steelbacks
Sussex Sharks v Lancashire Lightning

It may have been a busy weekend for sport – Premier League goalfests, Tour de France sensations and a man whose golf clubs sport cricket bat handles winning the US Open, but details of the summer game’s one and only limited-overs domestic competition proved quite difficult to find on paper, online, TV or even on the radio, the medium that serves the game best. These are difficult days for editors, with finances squeezed and the pandemic shuffling the sporting calendar, but domestic cricket’s news profile has faded significantly in the last few weeks. Followers of county cricket deserve better.

Ball two: Sun sets on Somerset once again
Somerset wrote their usual hard-luck story with exactly the kind of match that other sports’ administrators would love to manufacture, but cricket gets largely for free.

Local rivals Gloucestershire, seeking a home quarter-final but also keen to stick one over the Bristol Channel, had restricted Lewis Gregory’s side to 105-5 with 33 balls left, but the skipper found a partner in Roelof van der Merwe and a defendable target of 162 was posted.

But if you want to beat Gloucestershire, you usually have to get Ian Cockbain out and Somerset didn’t do that until the 19th over, with 89 coming off his bat.

As David Lloyd would say “13 off the last over – where’s your money?” Benny Howell had struck 10 of them before Ollie Sale got him trying to hit the winning runs off the penultimate ball of the match. Tom Smith, having raced to the striker’s end while the ball was in the air, smashed his one and only ball of the match over long on and another last ball thriller was in the book. Gloucestershire will wear the pyjamas at least once more and Somerset can swap theirs for whites and a trip to Lord’s this week.

Ball three: why 120 balls is better than 100
Northamptonshire consigned Warwickshire’s season to the archives in a match that showed why 120 balls is better than 100. After Ben Sanderson and Tom Taylor had reduced the Bears to 20-4, Adam Hose and Dan Mousley constructed a stand of 171, Hose run out off the last ball for 119. It was a beautifully judged partnership, reaching 75 at the halfway mark but with the wickets in hand that allowed for the planned acceleration, 85 runs plundered from overs 12 to 17.

With the dismissal of the dangerous Paul Stirling clicking the scoreboard over to 53-5 after 7.2 overs, Warwickshire must have felt that the game was theirs to lose. But Rob Keogh and Tom Taylor (having a good match) kept Northants in the game and, when you’re in this game, you always have a chance.

Cue Graeme White, a journeyman pro in at No 9, who decided to grab back the four sixes he had conceded off his bowling in the first five balls that he faced. A stiff 52 off 27 balls was collapsed to 10 off the last two overs and final one was not needed at all.

OK, that’s not cricket on the operatic scale of a Test match, but who wouldn’t want to see that drama, those swings and arrows of outrageous fortune and an unlikely hero cheered in by his band of brothers? I venture that even women and children would get it.

Ball four: Ackermann backs a man – himself
Colin Ackermann, a journeyman deluxe (if that isn’t a contradiction) led his Leicestershire side to victory over Nottinghamshire with the bat earlier in the week, and then delivered a match-turning over with the ball to defeat Lancashire to squeeze into the quarter-finals.

After Lanky’s spinners had strangled Leicestershire, Matt Parkinson, Liam Livingstone and Tom Hartley combining for 11-0-77-2, the home side were odds on – 43 required off the last five overs, but with nine juicy wickets in hand. Ackermann decided to get the job done himself, removing Steven Croft and Alex Davies, who had put on 74, off consecutive deliveries and adding Josh Bohannon two balls later.

The usually reliable Dane Vilas fell first ball to complete a hat-trick of ducks in his last three knocks and, amid the scrambling for pads, boxes and focus, Rob Jones and Danny Lamb failed to find the boundary and Lancashire lost a match they felt they had under control for 35 overs by a yawning 22 runs.

Ball five: battle of Sexes won by Mr Wright
Sussex knocked the last nail into Essex’s defence of their title and secured a quarter-final slot with a comfortable win at Chelmsford.

An inexperienced home XI was anchored by Paul Walter’s 76, but wilted in the face of the left-arm pace of George Garton and Tymal Mills and the right arm nous of Ollie Robinson and Mitch Claydon. Roll in the experience of Danny Briggs, Ravi Bopara and David Wiese, and few captains will have more weaponry at his disposal than Luke Wright (even with Jofra Archer indisposed with the Rajasthan Royals).

If Sussex can generate the bat speed needed against Lancashire’s spinners and pace-off merchants at Hove, I’d have them installed as favourites for Finals Day.

Ball six: the Blast was a blast

This column did not join in the calls for the regionalism of the Bob Willis Trophy to be imported into the 2021 County Championship, so it may be somewhat perverse to suggest that such a structure may work for next year’s T20 Blast (Hundred or no Hundred). But it’s not really, as the competitions have different histories, different purposes and a different finale.

Three groups of six whittled 18 teams to eight in 90 matches – enough to satisfy the beancounters (insofar as they can ever be satisfied), enough to smooth the impact of weather on the standings, and enough to build a narrative with highs and lows and (maybe) highs again. Fans get their local derbies (home and away); young players get the opportunity to learn the skills of the game and apply them in match situations; and the overseas stars get a block of time to play in, aiding continuity of selection.

Now if only the ECB could market this fan-friendly format and make it as easy as possible for the media to tell the story of the tournament, there’d be no need for… Well, you know the rest.