For me, domestic cricket is greatly underappreciated in our country. County cricket is usually more exciting than the more famous international version and henceforth I urge you to go along to a match if you have a chance. Declining attendances are affecting the long term future of the game we love and therefore it’s crucial county cricket gets more attention in the mainstream media.
The highlight of the season is definitely Finals Day, where the four best T20 teams come together to play the semi finals and final in one magnificent day of cricket. T20 cricket was introduced to the world in 2003, as a way to make cricket more palatable for children and families. With matches being played over 3 hours rather than 4 days, plus extra activities such as live music, cheerleading and free giveaways has allowed the format to flourish and increase in quality almost exponentially.
The point of this article is to preview the 2015 finals day, held on the 29th August, talk about the four teams and explore where the matches will be won and lost. But before all that, I think I should explain more about the format and history of the competition.
There are 18 counties that make up the sides in this country (including Glamorgan in Wales). These days, they are split into 2 groups of nine with the top 4 from each going through to the quarterfinals. The groups aren’t randomly drawn; instead they are rather strangely split into north and south. I say it’s strange because this has led to the scenario where Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Worcestershire and Birmingham (Warwickshire) are in the North group despite very clearly being midlands sides. There used to be a midlands group (well technically, midlands, wales and west), when the format was 3 groups of 6, consisting of Somerset, Northamptonshire, Gloucestershire, Glamorgan, Warwickshire and Worcestershire but even then Notts, Derby and Leicester were placed in the north.
The problem with splitting the counties into North and South is that there are actually only 3 northern counties (Lancashire, Yorkshire and Durham) with quite a few more southern ones (Sussex, Surrey, Middlesex, Hampshire, Kent, Essex, Somerset, Glamorgan and Gloucestershire). The advantages of north and south means travelling times for the sides are reduced and two groups of nine makes the quarterfinal allocation easier. The top north team plays the fourth place south team, and so on and so forth with the matches being played at the grounds of the top 2 teams in each division. There’s no question that 2 groups of 9 are better than 3 groups of 6 and therefore this format should stay however there’s an argument that says the groups should be randomised.
But enough of my rambling about the geographical divide, in the two groups of 9 the sides play 14 matches each, with 2 points for a win and 1 for a tie/no result. For some bizarre reason (presumably amount of cricket) the organisers decided teams should play 6 of their 8 opponents home and away whilst only playing the other two once. All of that faff results in a massive deduction of 2 matches from the schedule! As per usual, those in charge of cricket in this country overcomplicate the most simple of tasks.
A quick breakdown of how each county has performed in all the T20 cups is provided below, including this year:
- Derbyshire: Finals Day appearances: 0, Quarterfinals: 1
- Durham: Finals Day: 1, Quarterfinals: 4
- Essex: Finals Day: 4, Quarterfinals: 8
- Glamorgan: Finals Day: 1, Quarterfinals: 3
- Gloucestershire: Finals Day: 2 (including 1 RU), Quarterfinals: 4
- Hampshire: Finals Day: 6 (the last 6, including 2 wins), Quarterfinals: 8
- Kent: Finals Day: 3 (1 win, 1 RU), Quarterfinals: 6
- Lancashire: Finals Day: 6 (2 RU), Quarterfinals: 10
- Leicestershire: Finals Day: 5 (3 wins), Quarterfinals: 5
- Middlesex: Finals Day: 1 (1 win), Quarterfinals: 2
- Northamptonshire: Finals Day: 2 (1 win), Quarterfinals: 3
- Nottinghamshire: Finals Day: 2 (1 RU), Quarterfinals: 7
- Somerset: Finals Day: 5 (1 win, 3 RU), Quarterfinals: 6
- Surrey: Finals Day: 6 (1 win, 2 RU), Quarterfinals: 6
- Sussex: Finals Day: 3 (1 win), Quarterfinals: 6
- Warwickshire: Finals Day: 3 (1 win, 1 RU), Quarterfinals: 9
- Worcestershire: Finals Day: 0, Quarterfinals: 4
- Yorkshire: Finals Day: 1 (1 RU), Quarterfinals: 3
As that shows, the most successful side is Leicestershire (a surprise given they can’t win a Championship match to save their lives!), with Hampshire not far behind. In terms of finals day appearances, Surrey, Lancashire and Hampshire lead the way with 6. Derbyshire and Worcestershire have never made it to that stage.
This years line up:
The four quarterfinals took place last week and resulted in victories for Northamptonshire, Birmingham, Hampshire and Lancashire. In many ways, this is the ideal finals day line up. Hampshire and Lancashire are the two most consistent T20 sides in the history of the format, while Birmingham and Northamptonshire have had all their success in the past 4 years. At Edgbaston, Northants will play Birmingham, followed by Lancashire playing Hampshire. I’ll preview their sides in order of qualification.
Best Performance: 2013 victors. With 1 finals day appearance before this year and 1 win, they’ll be looking to continue their 100% success record.
Key player: David Willey. Willey rose to fame after his match winning performance in the 2013 final and has gone from strength to strength ever since. This year has seen the all-rounder make his England debut, performing well in the series victory over New Zealand this summer, as well as scoring his maiden T20 century in the quarterfinal victory over Sussex. Averaging 31 at a strike rate of 190, if he plays well, Northamptonshire will surely be a major threat.
Strongest suit: I’d go with batting for this one. Opening with Levi and the aforementioned Willey, Cobb, Duckett, Wakely, Crook and Coetzer follow. An explosive opening partnership with a solid middle order means no bowling attack will relish bowling to Northants.
Best Performance: 2014 winners. The defending champions are back at finals day, looking to be the first side to successfully defend their title.
Key player: Rikki Clarke. All-rounders are crucial in all formats, but possibly most in T20. While Birmingham’s success in the group stage was based around McCullum’s explosive batting, I don’t think he’ll be available for finals day and hence the England capped all-rounder will be key to how the home side fare. Clarke is only conceding 5.37 runs per over, and scoring at a strike rate of 122, averaging 22. Those numbers are very useful for a middle order batter and first change/new ball bowler. While most sides will focus on Chris Woakes or Ian Bell, ignore Rikki Clarke at your peril.
Strongest suit: All-rounders. Is that a cop-out? Possibly, but Clarke and Woakes are both deadly lower order batsman and dangerous wicket taking bowlers with international experience. If he bats, which he has 8 times, Jeetan Patel gives the ball one hell of a whack in the last 5 overs, scoring at a strike rate of 143. The brilliance of Birmingham lies in the number of their side who can perform as well with bat as they can with ball.
Best Performance: Champions in 2010 and 2012. Hampshire didn’t reach Finals Day until 2010, yet haven’t failed to reach it since.
Key player: James Vince. The 24-year-old captain is in immense form in the NatWest T20 Blast. In 15 innings he is averaging 58, with 1 century (in the quarter final v Worcestershire), at a strike rate of 137. With 641 runs, he is the joint second highest run scorer in the competition and it’d be a brave man to bet against him becoming the leader on the 29th August.
Strongest suit: Batting. Alongside Vince are Carberry, Wheater, Ervine, Shah and Adams; resulting in one of the strongest batting line-ups you will see in English county cricket. Expect them to bat first and get off to a good start. Hampshire also have good bowlers, so getting past them is a very daunting task indeed!
Best Performance: Runners up in 2005 and 2014. Lancashire are, as ESPNCricinfo put it, “skilled at winning T20 matches but abysmal when it comes to securing the trophy itself”.
Key Player: As you’ll see below, there are quite a few however I’ll go with Jos Buttler. Not having the best season for England in tests, his one-day form is as good as anyone’s in the world right now. Buttler has played 2 T20 matches for Lancashire this season, scoring 2 match winning 50’s in tight chases at a strike rate of 172. Those figures are ridiculously good and if he is in good form again on Finals Day, he’ll be difficult to stop.
Strongest suit: Either spinners or batting, possibly batting at a push. In Buttler and Faulkner, Lancashire have the world’s best finishers in one day cricket. A top order of Prince, Livingstone, Brown, Davies and Croft is more than useful in county cricket and could even call upon the experience of Horton and Petersen or the potential of Clark and Procter.
Looking at that, it is possible that this year will see more runs scored on Finals Day than ever before. All four teams have formidable batting line-ups, and although all four have good bowlers too, it is clear that runs should be scored. Hopefully Edgbaston produces a track, which benefits batting, as we all want to see an exciting run fest (well, maybe not the bowlers!). What is definite is that these four sides are definitely the best four counties in the country and therefore we are in for a very exciting day whatever the weather / pitch.
A closer look at Lancashire:
Being a born and bred Mancunian living 10 minutes away from Old Trafford, it was inevitable that I would end up supporting Lancashire. Luckily, my love for the club has continued throughout my time living in Nottingham and while I can’t go to many matches, I always make sure to follow how they are getting on via twitter. I’m excited about our latest appearance at Finals Day and given I know much more about this side than the other 3, I thought I’d give you all some information on the likely line up.
We will open with Ashwell Prince and either Liam Livingstone or Alex Davies, with the other probably coming in at 3. Prince is a former South African test player who is arguably in the form of his life this season (he’s averaging 30 in one day cricket, 80 in the four day form!) while the other two are exciting young prospects. Livingstone is famous for scoring the world record amount of runs in a 50 over match (admittedly not a major one), and on his 50 over debut for Lancashire blasted his way to a 90. He’s aggressive and hence can bat in the first 6 overs or the last 6, if he gets going we could have a very big score. Davies is a busy wicket keeping-batsman who has been in such good form this season that we haven’t missed Buttler! He hardly faces dot balls, looking to score from every delivery. Personally, I’d prefer him in the middle order than at the top.
The middle order will be Karl Brown, Steven Croft, Jos Buttler and James Faulkner although the order of that will change! Croft is averaging over 50 in this years tournament, as well as usually bowling the first over of the innings and being as electric as ever in the field. He’s our captain, and has rescued us from multiple bad starts over the course of his career. Brown has 3 50’s in this year’s edition of the T20 tournament, at a quick rate and in many different scenarios. He’s useful in setting up a score so that Buttler, Croft and Faulkner can have a whack towards the end of the innings. Buttler and Faulkner are the two best finishers in world cricket, and having them together with 2 or 3 overs left to go will usually result in a victory for Lancashire. On top of that, Faulkner’s bowling at the death will restrict most teams. If injuries hit, Paul Horton (last year’s captain), Alviro Petersen or Luke Procter could come in to boost the middle order.
Aaron Lilley and Stephen Parry will make up Lancashire’s spin attack. The two of them have been deadly in the competition to date, with 35 wickets between them and neither going at more than 7.1 runs per over. They aim to restrict the batting teams during the middle overs and actively look to take wickets. On top of that, Lilley is a magnificent fielder, and has taken the best two catches of this year’s tournament. Both can score useful runs if called upon, Lilley is technically classed as an all-rounder and has 2 Championship 50’s from 5 innings.
The pace attack will be spearheaded by Kyle Jarvis (and Faulkner) with the 11th spot in the team up for grabs. Jarvis is having a terrific season across all forms, with 61 Championship wickets and 16 in the one-day competitions. He’s a little expensive in T20 although he does bowl 2 overs at the start and 2 at the end and his main aim is to pick up wickets. The fifth bowler spot is the weakest area of our side, and we have a few options for it. Croft will probably bowl at least one, if not two, overs meaning there is less pressure on whomever we choose. This season we’ve tried George Edwards, Saqib Mahmood, Tom Bailey and Jordan Clark. All have done reasonably well, and we went with Bailey in the quarterfinal although I’d like to see Clark given that he can bat as well (indeed, he is the only Englishmen to hit 6 sixes in an over). We could also try all-rounder Luke Procter with his unusual medium pace. Of course, this discussion might be rendered mute due to the possibility that should James Anderson recover enough from his injury, we may have the England bowler available.
All four sides are strong and Lancashire are certainly as good as the other three. We started slowly in the T20 competition this year, but have grown into it as it’s progressed. We have a batting line up to rival most, and useful bowlers who can take wickets and keep it tight. If the pitch is turning, we have Parry, Lilley, Croft and possibly even Kerrigan and if it isn’t then Jarvis, Bailey, Edwards, Clark, Procter and possibly Anderson give good pace options. It’s impressive that we’ve reached the final stages of this competition given that we’ve spent a whole season without club captain and opening batter and bowler Tom Smith. It’s a shame for Smith, as despite the quality we possess, he would have been a key member of this side.
Traditionally, my predictions are known for being dreadful and as wide of the mark as Steve Harmison’s first ball in the 06/07 Ashes series! So, I’m going to stick on the fence and say that I predict it’ll be a wonderful Saturday of high quality cricket. Ok, ok, I’ll say more than that…
During Lancashire’s quarterfinal, the commentators mentioned that there isn’t an advantage whether you play semi final 1 or semi final 2. They said that 6 winners have come from the first semi and 6 have come from the second. I mention that because this year is so close, it could have been a pointer like that, which decided where the trophy is heading.
I fear for Lancashire. Not because we don’t have the quality to win, more because every other team has won this competition before and hence if the matches get close, they might fancy themselves to get through more than we do. If truth be told, I think I’m swaying towards Birmingham. They have home advantage so they’ll know the pitch better than the other 3, they have the best bowling line up of the finalists (in my view) and they won the competition last year, beating Lancashire in the final who in turn had beaten Hampshire in the semi. Three sides remain from last year’s edition, and all will know that Birmingham won last year and will see them as the ones to beat once more.