In many ways, Thursday night’s NatWest T20 Blast quarter final between the Birmingham Bears and the Essex Eagles is a mirror image of the clash between the teams at the same stage last year. Then, Essex had the home advantage that the Bears have this time. Essex had moved confidently into the knock-out stages whereas the Bears had just sneaked in, partly because of results elsewhere.
This year, the Bears topped their group, having won ten of their 14 matches. The Eagles, on the other hand, won seven and lost six. They were the ones sweating on results from other grounds on the last day of qualifying. It was only the fact that Gloucestershire beat Glamorgan in a five overs a side thrash that enabled Essex to scrape through. But if the parallel with last year continues, it will be Essex who will triumph, just as the Bears did last year at Chelmsford on their way to winning the title.
An Essex win is not such a fanciful scenario. The Bears’ overall 2015 campaign has faltered in the last few weeks. They have struggled in the 50 over format and, in the Championship, an overwhelming defeat to bottom side Hampshire has left their title aspirations in tatters. So they hardly come into this encounter trailing clouds of glory. Essex, on the other hand, walked all over the Bears in their Royal London clash and sit well above them in that competition’s Group table.
Of course, in this shortest format of the game, everything will depend on who hits form on the night and the Bears will be hoping that home advantage will tell in their favour.
The Bears have many players who make small but useful contributions. Brendan McCullum, in his short stay, played one outstanding innings but, that effort apart, disappointed slightly. Rather than star performers, it is a typical case of everyone contributing and the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, so picking out one key man is difficult. The most consistent batsman has been William Porterfield who averages 58.00, helped by four not-out innings. In the bowling department, Recordo Gordon and Oliver Hannon-Dalby have taken most wickets (21 and 18 respectively) but, through bowling largely at the death, have been relatively expensive. So the key man could be one of the Bears’ bits-and-pieces players. Ateeq Javid often goes under the radar but scores useful runs at the back end of the innings and can be relied upon to bowl at least a couple of effective overs of off-spin.
The key man for Essex is more obvious. Ravi Bopara has scored three fifties in this year’s competition and averages over 30. With the ball, he has taken 18 wickets at a cost of 15.44 runs apiece and has conceded only 6.6 runs per over. Those are outstanding figures. Tom Westley and Mark Pettini have comparable batting statistics and Shaun Tait has taken 22 wickets but no one comes near to matching Bopara’s all-round credentials.
The Birmingham Bears will be without McCullum but welcome back Ian Bell. Chris Woakes, who has made a slow recovery from injury, has played only one T20 game so far this year but is in the squad.
Birmingham squad: Varun Chopra (Captain), Tim Ambrose (Wicket Keeper), Ian Bell, Rikki Clarke, Freddie Coleman, Laurie Evans, Recordo Gordon, Oliver Hannon-Dalby, Ateeq Javid, Jeetan Patel, William Porterfield, Josh Poysden , Boyd Rankin, Chris Woakes
Essex Eagles have turned down the option of adding Alastair Cook to their squad in favour of sticking with the players who got them to this stage. Their squad of 14 includes all the players who appeared in at least half of the group matches plus Greg Smith and Jamie Porter.
Essex squad: Ryan ten Doeschate (captain), James Foster (Wicket Keeper), Nick Browne, Ravi Bopara, David Masters, Graham Napier, Mark Pettini, Jamie Porter, Jesse Ryder, Greg Smith, Shaun Tait, Reece Topley, Kishen Velani, Tom WestleyNick Browne, David mt Bysden Boyd Rankin – See moe at:
Weather and Conditions
This is where it could all go pear-shaped. The forecast for Thursday and also Friday, which is the reserve day, is for an unpredictable pattern of torrential thunderstorms in the area. This could not only affect the size of the crowd but also, in extremis, take us into a dreaded bowl-out. Let’s hope that the excellent Edgbaston drainage does its work if needed and that the storms fall mainly not on Edgbaston but on other suburbs of Birmingham.
As for the pitch, the Bears with a trio of spinners in Jeetan Patel, Ateeq Javid and Josh Poysden, wouldn’t mind a bit of turn and groundsman Gary Barwell might just oblige. But overall, it is likely to be a decent surface assuming that the covers do their job and defeat the downpour.
Date: 13 August 2015
Ground: Edgbaston Stadium, Birmingham
Odds: (Skybet): Birmingham Bears 8/13; Essex Eagles 5/4