County cricket: T20 Blast lets game do the talking after quiet buildup


Ball one: Blast making waves

In glorious early summer sunshine, two hours before the start of Surrey’s opening fixture of their T20 Blast season, The Oval is a hive of activity. Stewards, hi-vizzed and as callow-looking as ever, are being briefed; a new member of catering staff is being walked through the settings on the coffee machine; great slabs of food and drinks are being wheeled about the concourse on pallets. There is an air of “the circus has come to town” about the place.

Later these workers will be joined by 16,000 spectators, one of the largest single gathering one could find anywhere in the country last week outside the behemoth of football. And the Blast attracted plenty more spectators elsewhere too (as ever, all cricket needs is the weather). Even if the crowds were not strictly sell-outs, nobody landing from Planet Zog would consider this activity anything other than successful, providing jobs and pleasure to thousands and thousands in the fragile warmth of a May evening.

So why the near invisibility in the media? Why so little marketing (other than that done, creditably, by individual counties)? Why the tedious hum of “franchise cricket” infesting social media again? When people say that county cricket is “not successful”, they mean county cricket is “not successful enough for me” – they will never be satisfied.

Ball two: Narine just fine on Surrey debut

The match itself was a curate’s egg of a contest. On a pitch barely discernible from the outfield in its greenish hue, Glamorgan were 67-2 at the halfway point and 150 or so looked a likely target to be set, especially as Sunil Narine was near unhittable, experience gained in 404 previous T20 matches brought to bear in his first for Surrey. But Chris Cooke injected some urgency with the first big hits of the night and Sam Northeast smashed his first boundaries for nine overs with consecutive sixes off Reece Topley.

Surrey scampered after their 174 target with Ollie Pope giving back some of the runs his abject wicketkeeping had cost with a succession of crisp fours and clever singles. Sam Curran, one of the six of Surrey’s eight bowling options who can bat, struck the sweetest boundaries of the match and the home side looked to be cruising to the victory that had been on the cards since Marnus Labuschange’s dismissal two hours or so earlier.

Nobody told Michael Hogan. The Aussie pacer, 41 years old on Tuesday and playing his first T20 since 2019, took two wickets and conceded one run in the penultimate over, finishing with a beautifully constructed fivefer. Suddenly, new skipper Chris Jordan and Jamie Overton needed eight off the last over, to be bowled by Australian Test player Michael Neser. They sensibly made sure that they got bat on ball and scrambled home with a ball to spare.

Nobody left thinking they had invested their evening in an outdated sport and many will return to prove the point.

Ball three: Gleeson not gleeful in thrilling tie

Up at Old Trafford, the old enemies locked horns again in a trans-Pennine match-up that added another chapter to 155 years of Roses history.

Phil Salt’s 59 anchored the home side’s innings and, with the Yorkshire’s two leg-spinners, Adil Rashid and Shadab Khan going at 7.4 runs per over and the rest of the attack at over 10, Lancashire’s 183-7 looked a defendable, if not impregnable, score. When Matt Parkinson snared Joe Root in the seventh over of the chase, Red looked the likely to defeat White.

But Tom Kohler-Cadmore and, inevitably, Harry Brook cashed in on being dropped in the field, constructing a stand of 115. So, to nobody’s great surprise, the old foes went into a 20th-over shootout yet again.

Thirteen required off Richard Gleeson’s last over became 10 off Richard Gleeson’s last three balls. Boundary, no ball (height), two and an LBW saw the scores level and hands shook on a tie that Lancashire will think they had won at least three times. But T20, for all its Pot Noodleishness in comparison to the banquet of a Test match, can still twist and turn and nerves can shred in front of a big, baying crowd.

Fans were out in force for the Lancashire v Yorkshire match at Old Trafford. Photograph: Nathan Stirk/ECB/Getty Images

Ball four: Should Benjamin chase the Benjamins?

The Birmingham Bears (it still jars a little, doesn’t it?) sit atop the North Group with a 100% record after three matches, the last two of which has seen them cross 200, only Derbyshire presenting much of a challenge.

That Paul Stirling (somehow still only 31) is striking at over 200 with a century already in the bag is no surprise, but Chris Benjamin may be a less familiar name. He is also going at over 200 with 111 runs notched and yet to be dismissed.

The South African-born Brit is a favourite of Kevin Pietersen, who sees something of his own inventive fearlessness in the 23-year-old who became a star in the first season of The Hundred.

The young man faces a dilemma though: does he go all-in with short-format cricket, playing around the world in franchise leagues for the big bucks and, maybe, gaining international recognition in England’s T20 setup? Or does he seek to play red ball too, building a portfolio of innings for Warwickshire in the Championship, slotting in behind the likes of Harry Brook and Ollie Pope in the queue for a middle-order slot?

Brendon McCullum has indicated that he will look at white-ball talents when considering Test match squads but, for many reasons, it looks like Benjamin has a binary choice ahead of him. Perhaps England’s Test match followers are destined to spend as much time hankering after his batting as they do lamenting the loss of Adil Rashid’s bowling.

Ball five: Middlesex lack stars but they are shining bright

In the South Group, Middlesex continued their fine form in 2022 with three wins out of three putting them at the top of the table.

Captain Steve Eskinazi set the tone for the campaign in the first innings of the first match, out in the 12th over, but with the scoreboard showing 156-3, his contribution 87 off 37 balls. Not many sides chase down 230 and Gloucestershire didn’t.

It’s easy for the eye to be taken by the big scores and the big hits, but it’s parsimonious bowlers who win matches as much as boundary-beating batters. Toby Roland-Jones, in the form of his life, has delivered his full allocation in the three victories, taking seven wickets at less than a run a ball. He’s had excellent support from the inexperienced slow left-armer Thilan Walallawita, who is also going at under seven an over.

How much more cricket for his county is left in Eoin Morgan’s locker remains to be seen, but maybe they can get by without the veteran’s contribution. Middlesex’s squad may lack the name recognition he brings (and that illuminates other teams in the Blast) but confidence, leadership and options can count for much in a compact tournament, and the Londoners have those attributes in abundance.

Ball six: Smeed hits the sweet spot

Somerset slotted into second place in the group with a display of pyrotechnic hitting in a rain-affected match against Essex. The game was won in nine overs of mayhem in which Rilee Roussouw and Will Smeed hit six fours and 12 sixes at a combined strike rate of 211.

Roussouw has represented South Africa more than 50 times, but not for the past five years, initially taking a Kolpak deal and now working as a bat for hire around the world. Smeed is 12 years his junior and yet to make his debut in the 50-overs format never mind the first-class game, but a surefire pick for The Hundred come high summer.

Like the aforementioned Benjamin, he must be pondering his options and wondering where his talent can take him. That they are doing so is another sign that cricket is inexorably cleaving into two related but separate sports, like rugby union and rugby league, in which some players can apply their skills to both but not at the same time. That’s a shame but it’s something we’ll have to live with.

• This article appeared first on The 99.94 Cricket Blog

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