At Old Trafford on Friday night, all eyes will be on one man – Brendon McCullum.
New Zealand’s superstar skipper and master-blaster makes his bow for the Birmingham Bears in the repeat of last year’s T20 Blast final and the build-up to the game would suggest Lancashire will be facing McCullum and ten strangers.
That does great disservice to the rest of the Birmingham side who are, of course, the defending T20 Blast champions and are going very nicely in the North group in defence of their title. The Bears have won five and lost just twice which leaves them second in the table.
William Porterfield’s 42 and Tim Ambrose’s 46 guided them to a six-wicket victory over the dangerous Yorkshire on Sunday and the pair both average over 60 in this year’s competition – with Porterfield amassing 243 runs in his seven innings. Add to that the likes of Rikki Clarke, Laurie Evans and Varun Chopra and the Bears aren’t lacking in firepower with the bat.
Having said that, adding one of the best limited overs batsmen in the world to your ranks can only be a good thing. On his day, McCullum can win a match on his own and alongside Chris Gayle is arguably the most destructive hitter in world cricket. His form for New Zealand this summer, however, has been patchy. In the ODI series, he averaged just 20.20 with a high score of 39. In the standalone T20 at Old Trafford he showed a glimpse of what he can offer, smashing 35 off 15 balls – the kind of striking that Lancashire will be wary of.
The Lightning have a superstar and a World Cup finalist of their own in James Faulkner who has started his stint at Old Trafford like a train. The Aussie has scored 171 runs in his five matches at a strike rate of 145.96 and has shown his all-rounder skills by taking ten wickets.
Despite the efforts of Faulkner, Lancashire’s form has been up and down but victory over Durham on Thursday lifted them into the top four in the table. Two successive defeats last week to Northants and Worcestershire had left their progression to the group stage in doubt, but a win over Birmingham would leave them confident of making the quarter-finals.
The Lightning won last year’s meeting at Old Trafford with the game at Edgbaston abandoned without a ball bowled. Birmingham beat Lancashire in the Blast final.
While Lancashire are reliant on the likes of Faulkner and Steven Croft to provide the impetus, every innings needs an anchor and more often that not that anchor is Ashwell Prince. The veteran South African has been in superb form in all forms of the game and his 63* against Durham on Thursday in difficult conditions proved his class. Prince is the man that the Lightning build their innings around and they will look for a similar showing against Birmingham.
Varun Chopra was Birmingham’s leading runs scorer in the competition last season and was instrumental in them lifting the trophy. His average last season was 40.38 and he hit five fifties but this season he has failed to reach those heights. Despite a high score of 80, he has hit just 138 runs in seven innings at an average of 19.71. The Bears will be hopeful their skipper can rediscover some of his form from last year and be the vanguard of their innings.
Lancashire may decide to freshen up their squad after playing against Durham on Thursday, but the nucleus of the side should remain unchanged. Liam Livingstone was moved away from the opening slot against Durham and will probably continue in the middle order. Ashley Giles will have to decide on whether to play Kyle Jarvis again after commenting in the past about the need to manage his workload.
Brendon McCullum is the obvious standout inclusion in the Birmingham Bears squad but where he will slot into the order is unclear. Ian Bell’s brief stint with the Bears is over for now as the build-up to the Ashes begins in earnest. Keith Barker has been omitted from the squad while Jeetan Patel will expect to play a major role on a track which offers assistance to the spinners.
Lancashire Squad: tba
Birmingham Bears squad: Varun Chopra (c), Tim Ambrose (wk), Rikki Clarke, Laurie Evans, Recordo Gordon, Oliver Hannon-Dalby, Ateeq Javid, Tom Lewis, Brendon McCullum, Jeetan Patel, William Porterfield, Josh Poysden, Boyd Rankin
Weather and conditions
Fine but cloudy weather is forecast with spells of sunshine. The Old Trafford pitch should be favourable for the batsmen but often aids bowlers who take pace off the ball.
Date: 26th June 2015
Ground: Emirates Old Trafford
Umpires: David Milns & Steve O’Shaughnessy. TV Umpire – Paul Baldwin
Odds (SkyBet): Lancashire 5/4, Birmingham 8/13