The Northants Steelbacks decisively defeated title holders Birmingham Bears by five wickets with two overs balls to spare in the first semi-final. The Bears fought hard but never fully recovered from a disastrous start that left them reeling on 14-4. Richard Levi’s fifty was the foundation of the Steelbacks’ reply.
Birmingham Bears left out top wicket taker Recordo Gordon and leg spinner Josh Poysden whilst Northants welcomed Shahid Afridi back into the fold. Fitness doubts about Steven Crook and Graeme White were resolved positively so that the visitors were able to leave out Rob Keogh and Kyle Coetzer.
On a fine late summer morning, Northants won the toss and decided to bowl. Despite a 25,000 sell-out, there were understandable gaps in the crowd, though these were rapidly filled during the game. The pitch looked firm and true but appearances can be deceptive, as maybe the Bears would testify.
Disaster struck for the Bears in the second over when David Willey first trapped Varun Chopra in front with an in-swinging yorker and then bowled William Porterfield with another full length delivery. Rory Kleinveldt followed up by hanging on to a shot hit back at him firmly by Tim Ambrose. Willey then struck an even more decisive blow when a good length ball lifted and held its line and Ian Bell edged through to the keeper. The Bears had lost four wickets in 13 balls and their innings closely resembled Tintern Abbey – in ruins. At the end of the power play, they were 26-4.
Rikki Clarke and Ateeq Javid did their best to repair the damage but the Steelbacks’ bowlers stuck to their task and kept things well under control. The fifty came up as late as 11.4 overs in. The fifty partnership was reached two overs later. Rikki Clarke, who had struggled to time the ball throughout his innings, finally fell in the penultimate over, swinging across a length ball from Kleinveldt. The stand of 90 in 15 overs was a T20 fifth wicket record for the Bears but there was a question over whether or not they should have got Laurie Evans to the crease earlier.
Evans did his best to provide a much-needed boost, hitting 18 off just eight balls before being run out off the final delivery. Javid was left not out with 51 off 50 deliveries, which included just three fours and one six. 131-6 hardly looked like a winning total but was certainly a recovery from the depths of 14-4. 48 off the last four overs at least gave the Bears an outside chance. Shrewd observers commented that this was a a couple of runs shy of the previous lowest defended total on Finals Day.
David Willey starred with the ball, taking 3-30 but it was an excellent overall performance in the field from the Steelbacks.
The Bears, desperately needing early wickets, had to wait until the fourth over before David Willey hit a slower ball from Oliver Hannon-Dalby straight to Ian Bell on the square leg boundary. Even so, the Steelbacks reached 46-1 off the powerplay, compared with the Bears’ measly 26-4.
Josh Cobb was bowled by a brilliant delivery from Jeetan Patel that defied probability and moved from leg to off. Sensing that this was the decisive moment, Varun Chopra put in a couple of close catchers. It was Tim Ambrose who took the catch, however, when Ben Duckett edged a good length ball from Boyd Rankin. This left the Steelbacks on 74-3 at the halfway stage, still well-placed. But when, first ball, Alex Wakely edged another delivery which went the other way from Patel and Ambrose took another good catch, the game was back in the balance. Steven Crook steadied the ship very briefly but then cut Boyd Rankin to Ian Bell and the square cover boundary, making the Steelbacks 95-5.
Richard Levi reached an excellent 50 off just 36 deliveries and then the 100 came up, so that the Steelbacks needed 31 off the last 30 balls. Levi eased the tension by hitting two consecutive fours off Chris Woakes, the second as a result of a fielding error by Hannon-Dalby. It was now plain sailing for the Steelbacks and, with two overs to spare, they were home and dry and looking forward to the opportunity to reclaim the title they won in 2013. Richard Levi was deservedly made man of the match for his 63 not out off just 46 balls, with one six and eight fours. Patel took 2-31 and Boyd Rankin 2-20 but overall, the Bears were below their best in all departments.