Three teams – Middlesex, Sussex and Gloucestershire – left the Vitality Blast at the quarter final stage with not so much a bang as a whimper. Respectively, they lost by ten, eight and seven wickets. They departed with a collective total of seven overs and three balls unbowled and unneeded. Neil Diamond may well decide to sue for his missing Sweet Caroline royalties.
The other losers, Lancashire, exited in a much tighter finish (with just four balls left) but as a result of an embarrassingly wrong-headed decision about who should bowl the penultimate over. And their drama was played out in front of an almost deserted stadium many miles from home.
The outcome of these matches is that the Notts Outlaws, current holders the Worcestershire Rapids, first-time finalists Derbyshire and sole southern county Essex proceed to Finals Day at Edgbaston on 21st September.
Potential stars of Finals Day such as Eoin Morgan, A.B. de Villiers, Luke Wright, Chris Jordan, Glenn Maxwell and Michael Klinger will have to sit at home and watch, or find something else to do to distract themselves. For them, the Vitality Blast war is over.
Despite the one-sided nature of three of the four contests, there was much to be admired and enjoyed – and a lot of learning about the state of T20 cricket in England.
As an obvious starter, it is probably no coincidence that all four matches were won by the side batting second.
Playing the quarter finals well into September introduced early evening dew into the equation. It may be a cricketing myth that the dew makes the ball come better onto the bat in the second innings, but there was no doubt that the increasing need to dry the ball hindered all bowlers – especially spinners such as Will Beer, Nathan Sowter and Liam Livingstone who between them bowled a total of 11 overs and conceded 119 runs for a single wicket.
It has not gone unnoticed by those living north of Lord’s that three of the four finalists played in the North Group of the Blast. Sticklers for accuracy might point out that the real north remains unrepresented this year and that it is the Midlands that will dominate Finals Day. In any event, not since 2012 has a southern county won the T20 competition.
There is no doubt that fine batting is alive and well in the Blast, even amongst the losers. No-one could blame Alex Davies for Lancashire’s loss. His 80 off 55 balls held the team’s innings together. Similarly, Phil Salt struck 72 off 40 balls for Sussex; and Eoin Morgan’s 53 off 31 balls helped to rescue Middlesex from a struggling start of 43-4 and gave the team what looked like a reasonable chance.
It was the winners, however, who provided the true batting masterclasses. Moeen Ali, confidence re-born, struck an awesome undefeated 121 off just 60 balls with 11 sixes. Ravi Bopara showed exactly how to see a side home under pressure with 39 not out off 18 balls including four sixes; and Alex Hales and Chris Nash, in contrasting but equally brutal styles, conspired in an unbroken stand of 165.
Top bowling performances were harder to spot, though Ed Barnard’s 2-21 off four overs played a big part in Worcestershire’s win; and Matt Carter’s 2-16 in four overs of cleverly varied off-spin fatally restricted Middlesex. Nor should we overlook that, in addition to their batting, both Moeen and Bopara excelled with the ball, Moeen with 1-21 and Bopara 2-28. Each was, not surprisingly, named player of the match.
What else? The ground fielding was almost uniformly excellent. Fielders moved quickly to the ball, picked up cleanly and threw in fast, low and accurately. Players of the past would marvel to see what now seems to be routinely expected.
Catching is another matter. There were some excellent efforts such as Matt Critchley’s sprinting, diving caught and bowled for Derbyshire. But there were also a few bloopers like Steven Finn’s drop that reprieved Chris Nash, and Alex Carey’s miss of Moeen behind the stumps. Catches that are always held in practice are often spilt when the pressure is on.
Oh, yes, that blunder. With two overs to go, Essex needed 23 to beat Lancashire. Ravi Bopara was doing his best but the pitch was not easy and the boundaries long. Captain Dane Vilas could choose between the tournament’s top wicket taker, leg spinner Matt Parkinson, and pace bowler Saquib Mahmood (two overs for 10 runs). Instead, mysteriously and fatally, he chose occasional leg-spinner Liam Livingstone. Six balls and 22 runs later, the match was all but done and dusted.
Lancashire, supposedly enjoying the benefits of a home tie but banished from Old Trafford because of the Test match, faced a long and sad journey home. Few of their fans had travelled to Durham. And, as well as the Vilas blunder, Lanacashire were left to ponder why they ignored the option of switching the fixture to a smaller but more accessible ground.
Having put all these stories of triumph and disaster to bed, now is the time to look forward.
Could Derbyshire be not only maiden finalists but first time winners? Or can semi-final opponents Essex defend the honour of the southern counties? Can Worcestershire be the first team ever successfully to defend their title? Or will Nottinghamshire redeem a ghastly four day season with a T20 trophy?
All eyes will be on Edgbaston on 21st September. Early autumn weather permitting, it should be a great day.