Had Hampshire had a fully-fit team, they probably wouldn’t have gone to Sussex with nothing to play for except pride. Had they not been knocked out, some of their shining youngsters may have been facing more time in second XI cricket. And had Tino Best bowled to his potential, Brad Wheal probably wouldn’t have been given the last over.
But, in a season full of could haves, would haves and ifs for Hampshire, that was the hand they were dealt. For every Reece Topley, Chris Wood and Gareth Berg sitting on the sidelines, there was a Wheal sitting patiently for his chance.
And patiently the 19-year-old waited. Having watched every other professional in the squad get a chance in the first team this season, the fast bowler feared his chance would not be forthcoming.
But, after featuring without taking wickets against Essex and Glamorgan, his time had come. And before he knew it, he was defending five in the last over against Ross Taylor, live on Sky television.
It was a position Hampshire shouldn’t have been in. This time, the could haves, would haves and ifs were working in their favour.
Mustering just 134-9 from their 20 overs, defending an underwhelming score on a small Hove ground with a power-packed Sussex line-up and an inexperienced bowling unit looked a step too far, even for a side who have mercilessly bossed the competition’s group stages for the past six years.
And with just 28 needed from 36 balls, the cause looked even more hopeless, with the efforts of 19-year-old Brad Taylor and George Griffiths, 22, and Wheal, himself still a teenager, looking to be impressive, but in vain.
Even the most optimistic of Hampshire fans may have lost their last flicker of confidence when Sussex’s Taylor flicked the last ball of the 19th over for four to leave just five needed for victory.
On his return to the side, Best had earlier leaked 26 from three overs, prompting Liam Dawson to entrust Wheal with the final set.
It worked, perhaps even better than Wheal could have hoped, pushing himself onto cricket’s spotlight and potentially springboarding him to further honours after the one-run success.
“Playing with a young side like that is always fun, lining up with your mates and to get the win is even more pleasing,” said Wheal.
“I had advice flying left, right and centre and guys like Slugger [Sean Ervine] and [Shahid] Afridi have done it before, but I went in there with no pressure on myself, backing what I did with the right fields and just hoping it would come off.
“We play the game for these moments. I got the ball and thought ‘I’m going to win this for the side.’ This is what we train for, I wanted the ball at the start and the end, it’s the responsibility any fast bowler wants and I’m glad I could deliver.
“There’s not much pressure because we can’t qualify, so we’re playing for each other as mates, and that’s why we’re doing so well. We want to play as many T20s as we can, there’s a lot of good bowlers coming through so anything I can do to try and cement my spot is great.”
For Sussex, the question of how Wheal was able to get Hampshire into that position will remain souring for some time, given the potential ramifications and likelihood of now not reaching the knockout stages.
Chris Nash (32) started brightly, and while others around him fell, the quick striking of Matt Machan (29 from 19) and the rearguard of Taylor (46no) had paved its way for a comfortable victory before the lower-order lost its way to dumbfound a packed-out Hove.
It didn’t stop the kids queueing up patiently, however, for the autographs of an explosive pace trio, Chris Jordan, Tymal Mills and Ajmal Shahzad, all boasting international prowess.
The slowish nature of the Hove pitch made it a difficult outing for Mills (1-32), while Jordan delivered in classic Jordan style (2-14 from four overs) as Hampshire struggled to 135-9 – a score Wheal even admitted was about 65 below par.
Aside from the experiencced trio came a new talent in Sussex’s ranks in the form of Jofra Archer. Impressing against Pakistan with five wickets last week, the 21-year-old returned to the fore with a strong first three overs to open the innings.
The debutant led a triumphant Sussex opening, with brief cameos from Tom Alsop and Dawson (both 25) thwarted by run-outs for the former and Afridi, while Adam Wheater couldn’t take advantage of three sublime boundaries off Mills to go for just 17.
Those efforts were as good as it got for Hampshire, despite Afridi smashing a glass bottle in the crowd from his very first ball, though it mattered little for Hampshire, edging over the line by the narrowest of margins.