The Birmingham Bears are the current holders of the NatWest T20 Blast title. They join Lancashire, Hampshire and Northants in this year’s final at Edgbaston on Saturday (29 August) and will be attempting to become the first team to win back-to-back T20 titles. If they succeed, they will join Hampshire and Leicestershire as the only teams to have won the T20 title more than once.
Those who think that success in T20 is mainly down to luck might want to reflect that three of this year’s four finalists contested Finals Day last year and the fourth, Northants, won the title in 2013. There must be something more than good fortune involved.
Last year, the Bears took the title the hard way, having to win their last two qualifying games to sneak into fourth place in their group. This year, they have been more dominant, winning their North group and then decisively beating Essex in the quarter-final match at Edgbaston.
Although the Bears have this year performed strongly in T20, they hardly arrive at Finals Day on the crest of a wave. In the LV= County Championship, they have just suffered two crushing innings defeats and now look extremely unlikely to match their second place of last year. In the Royal London Cup, they failed to reach the quarter finals, whereas last year they made the final at Lord’s. So overall, as a squad, they seem to have reached a peak last year from which they have now declined.
In the T20 Blast, Northants, the Bears’ semi-final opponents, won the group match at Edgbaston between the two sides, though the Bears got their revenge in the return fixture. It was one win apiece, too, for the Bears against Lancashire, the other finalists who were in the North Group, so there are few pointers there as to the comparative strength of the teams.
The Bears, of course, have home advantage. It’s difficult to know how much benefit this will prove to be, though the support they received on Finals Day last year certainly helped, especially in the tense last over of the final against Lancashire.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The Bears have plenty of all-rounders in their squad, giving them depth in batting and variety in bowling. Chris Woakes, Ateeq Javid and Rikki Clarke might all command a place in the side based on just one of their key disciplines. In addition, they have in Tim Ambrose a wicket-keeper who can bat in the top four when required.
If the ball is turning, Ateeq, Jeetan Patel and young leg-spinner Josh Poysden form an impressive spin trio responsible for 28 wickets so far in the competition. When it comes to pace and seam, Recordo Gordon and Oliver Hannon-Dalby have shared 40 wickets between them; and they have Rikki Clarke (12 wickets at only 20.58 each) in support. They also have Chris Woakes who has bowled just four overs in the competition so far but is likely to be fit and raring to go for Finals Day.
William Porterfield has been the Bears’ most consistent performer with the bat, averaging over fifty despite scoring only one half century in ten innings. Their batting received a boost from the presence for seven qualifying games of Brendan McCullum at the top of the order. He played one record-breaking innings of 158 but that was his only score of note. So the return of Ian Bell to the Bears’ line-up may largely compensate for the absence of the New Zealander.
The Bears are an outstanding fielding side. Close in, Porterfield patrols the key backward point area occupied in past years by Jim Troughton and, before him, Trevor Penney. Whenever a shot is lofted into the outfield, Rikki Clarke seems magically to appear and his sure hands close around the ball – he has 12 catches so far this year.
The Bears will be worried that skipper Varun Chopra has been inconsistent with the bat, averaging only 23, whilst Laurie Evans, the Man of the Match in last year’s final, averages just 21 this time round. It will also be a concern that, despite all their wickets, Gordon and Hannon-Dalby have increasingly leaked runs as the competition has progressed, going overall at 8.34 and 9.04 runs per over respectively.
The Bears are a team where the whole is often greater than the sum of the parts, so choosing a key player is not easy. Those all-rounders (Woakes, Ateeq and Clarke) come to mind. It would also be a great bonus if one or both of Chopra and Evans re-discovered their best T20 form. And can William Porterfield continue his run of good scores?
Overall., my vote as the man most likely to put in match-winning performances goes to Chris Woakes. Recalled to the England ODI squad after a season disrupted by injury, he has much to prove. He played a key innings of 48 not out off only 23 balls in the quarter final win over Essex as well as taking 1-23 in his four overs. He has developed into a powerful hitter with a wide range of strokes. As a bowler, he can potentially provide a steady influence and a sound temperament at the death.
Previous Finals Day Appearances
We know that the Bears are the current holders of the NatWest T20 Blast trophy. Prior to 2014, however, Warwickshire (as they then were) had failed to make Finals Day since their only previous appearance in the inaugural year of 2003 when they lost to Surrey. So historically, they hardly have a proud record of T20 success.
Road to Finals Day
1st in North Group: P14 W10 L4 T0 NR0 Pts 20 NRR +0.200
Quarter-final: Birmingham Bears 189/5 (Evans 50) beat Essex Eagles 165/6 by 24 runs, at Edgbaston
The likely Bears squad is as follows: Varun Chopra (captain), Ian Bell, William Porterfield, Rikki Clarke, Laurie Evans, Tim Ambrose (wicket-keeper), Chris Woakes, Ateeq Javid, Jeetan Patel, Boyd Rankin, Recordo Gordon, Oliver Hannon-Dalby, Josh Poysden
To beat Northants: 8/13
To win tournament: 2/1
2015 Tournament Stats
Top run scorer: William Porterfield 313 @ 52.16
Top wicket taker: Recordo Gordon 21 @ 19.85
Total wickets: 92
Total runs: 2184