Essex 148 for 6 (Westley 36, Bopara 36*) beat Worcestershire 145 for 9 (Harmer 3-16) by four wickets
Eight hours earlier, Wayne Parnell had successfully defended Notts’ requirement of a single off the final ball to take Worcestershire into the final of the Vitality Blast. Now, at the end of English cricket’s longest day, with Edgbaston once again a sea of delirium, he had to do it again. This time Simon Harmer beat the off-side field and Essex had seen off the defending champions to win the tournament for the first time.
It was fitting that Harmer had the last word. In Essex’s semi-final stroll against Derbyshire and this narrowest of victories, he returned the combined figures of 7 for 35, the best ever recorded on T20 Finals Day. He was perfectly served by a surface that turned throughout the day and perhaps, just perhaps, gave Essex a little added zip with a hint of dew in the closing overs.
“It’s a lottery,” decry the critics of Twenty20. Don’t tell that to Worcestershire. In successive seasons, their nerveless, intelligent cricket under the brilliant stewardship of Moeen Ali (is there a better captain in the country?) had made them the most resilient side in the land. They had defended 147 against Notts; now it was 145. But this time they had to reckon with Ravi Bopara.
For much of the climax to this riveting final, fought out on a difficult turning surface, it had felt like Bopara versus Worcestershire, and for his most zealous admirers (and there are many) Bopara versus The World. County cricket’s most reluctant finisher, who has gently carped all summer long about batting at No 6, fashioned a super-cool 36 from 22 balls to hold together an Essex chase that, when they lost their fifth wicket at 82, needing 64 from 41, was so patently down to him.
This was Essex’s fifth Finals Day appearance and the first time they had won a semi-final. “It’s the one trophy I don’t have in my cabinet and we finally have it,” Bopara said. He has been trying since a T20 debut, batting at No 9, against Surrey at East Molesey in 2003. His international career ended in 2015 just as England adopted a new approach to limited-overs cricket and that his reputation was tarnished by association with their previous failings is unfortunate.
Bopara’s six over long off from Moeen’s penultimate ball was a key moment, leaving Essex 39 short with four overs left. He then clattered Pat Brown’s slower ball over midwicket as that rate fell to 23 from two.
When Brown bowled Paul Walter, Essex were still 17 short with eight balls left. Harmer drove Brown down the ground to cut the last-over requirement to 12 – but 11 for the tie, and victory by virtue of losing fewer wickets, was likely to be enough. Harmer drilled Parnell down the ground to reduce the trophy-winning requirement to one off the final ball. Parnell looked distraught and close to exhaustion. Moeen offered calming words. Harmer whistled the final shot to the cover boundary.
Essex’s Powerplay had yielded only 36 for the loss of Cameron Delport, who was strangely subdued in making a single off seven balls in an innings that came to grief when he clipped Parnell to backward square. Adam Wheater, a No 5 all season, came in at three, and no doubt to orders provided a decorous run-a-ball 15 until he was bowled attempting a reverse lap at Daryl Mitchell. Essex appeared composed enough at 63 for 2 at midway, with 83 needed from the second half of the innings, but Moeen had retained nine overs from himself, Parnell and Brown for the second half of the innings.
The strength of Worcestershire’s batting line-up, one that seems full of bit parts from as high as No 4, is that it finds a way. And, in making 145 for 8, it appeared to have found a way again. But Worcestershire could not subdue Harmer. He followed his 4 for 19 against Derbyshire in the semi-final with 3 for 16, a comparable return despite the sense that Worcestershire were playing him with rather more nous.
Moeen and Riki Wessels provided the substance with a second-wicket stand of 56 in 48 balls. Moeen’s presence was enough to persuade Harmer not to bowl in the Powerplay, as he had in the semi-final, Sam Cook’s pace was as unthreatening as that of Jamie Porter, who had been preferred to him in the semi.
Harmer intervened with wickets in successive balls at the start of his second over. Moeen’s first boundary had been an uppish slice against Lawrence through backward point, but he smoothed his way to 32 in 26 balls with another exercise in cricketing meditation.
But Harmer’s turn defeated his work to leg whereupon the bowler, one of the best slippers in the country, plunged forward to hold an excellent low catch. Ben Cox, who had guided Worcestershire to the trophy a year ago, was lbw next ball as he tried to sweep, but even the president of the Respect for Umpires Association would have deemed this a terrible decision, because Cox was well outside the line and got a big inside-edge on the ball too.
Parnell fell to Harmer’s penultimate ball, bowled by a faster arm-ball, and at 90 for 4 with the 14th over about to begin, Worcestershire promoted Mitchell above Whiteley. In Western terms, the peace-loving sheriff had been preferred to the local gunslinger, and Mitchell duly provided a cautious 19 from 15 balls to edge Worcestershire to a realistic total.
Wessels was a figure of realism, too, with 31 from 34 balls;. Once a square-of-the-wicket adventurer, he still has those qualities but increasingly in this Worcestershire side, a successful side at that, he finds himself pushing singles to hold the innings together. It might have been enough. Instead, he became a support act in a wonderfully entertaining day.
Kagiso Rabada: My wicket celebrations stem from ‘passion’
Kagiso Rabada believes that his enthusiastic wicket-taking celebrations, which have led him to fall foul of the ICC’s code of conduct several times, stem from “passion”, but he has suggested he is looking for ways to express himself differently. Speaking from lockdown, Rabada indicated he has been using some of his time to consult with mentors after what he called a “disappointing” past summer.
“It’s passion, but everyone has their opinion and they are entitled to their own opinion,” Rabada said. “I have identified things that I needed to identify and I will address them with the people that are closest to me and who I feel should be helping me address it.”
Who those people are, Rabada did not get into, but it’s likely at least one of them is his father Dr Mpho Rabada, who is involved in everything from supporting his son from the sidelines to getting his musical side-hustle. Rabada senior released a single in February, the day before Rabada played what would be his last game for South Africa – a T20I against Australia – before cricket came to a worldwide standstill. A groin strain ruled him out of the subsequent ODI series and South Africa’s aborted series in India, leaving him to reflect on the season as a tough one.
“The past season was a disappointment,” Rabada said. “Even though I see that my stats are okay, I just felt really rusty and a bit out of place.”
The 2019-20 season, in which South Africa lost Test series away to India and at home against England, was Rabada’s leanest to date in the longest format. He played six Tests, and took 21 wickets at 32.85 – it was the first time he had finished a season with an average above 30. He would have played a seventh Test but was suspended from South Africa’s final fixture against England in Johannesburg after picking up a demerit point for screaming in Joe Root’s face after dismissing him in Port Elizabeth. Rabada already had three other points to his name, thus forcing him to spend a Test on the bench.
It was not the first time Rabada had been forced out of a match because of a code-of-conduct breach. In July 2017, he had to miss the second Test against England at Trent Bridge and in March 2018 he was due to sit out both the third and fourth Tests against Australia after a shoulder brush with Steve Smith but CSA hired a top-level advocate to head up Rabada’s appeal.
Rabada’s transgression was downgraded from a Level 2 offence to a Level 1 violation, but he acknowledged he needed to change his behaviour. However, Faf du Plessis, until recently the Test captain, has consistently said South Africa don’t want Rabada to lose his aggression. South Africa’s coaching staff have echoed du Plessis’ thoughts, but voices from abroad, notably the commentator Michael Holding, who shares a close relationship with Rabada, have taken the counter approach and hoped Rabada reins himself in.
Rabada is careful not to read to much into outside opinion. “Everyone will always criticise you in some way. It’s important that you don’t take what people say to heart,” Rabada said. “You will always have a lot of critics. Not everyone will agree with what you do. As long as you are true to yourself you can grow. What other people say about you shouldn’t affect you at all.”
The insular nature of the lockdown period means that Rabada has had more than enough time to shut out the noise, fully recover from his groin niggle, and even branch out into non-cricket-related projects. “I am really glad I can get a rest, not in the way that it has come but I am really enjoying my time,” he said. “It’s allowed me to think about what I really want and makes it easier to set goals.”
Together with this friend Cameron Scott, Rabada has started a podcast called The Viral Wellness, which aims to raise awareness about issues arising from the coronavirus pandemic. The pair have also worked on creating a Healthy at Home handbook, to help people cope with the challenge of being under lockdown. Rabada is also looking at ways to help those who are in need of financial assistance at this time. “A lot of people in the country are economically challenged,” he said.” “South Africa is the most unequal country in the world, so it’s good to lend a helping hand, especially now.”
Steven Smith willing to play IPL if T20 World Cup is postponed
Steven Smith suggested that he would be willing to miss the early part of the Australian domestic season to take part in the IPL should this year’s T20 World Cup be postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic and leave room for a delayed edition of the world’s most lucrative domestic T20 event.
Contracted to Rajasthan Royals, where he was named captain for the 2020 tournament, Smith said that while international cricket took priority for him, he could see the sense in travelling to play in the IPL in October and November, should the event be postponed due to the complexities of hosting a global event this year. In a letter to the ICC revealed last week, Cricket Australia chairman Earl Eddings requested this year’s event be moved to 2021, with that year’s event, scheduled to be hosted by India, moved to 2022.
Returning to training with his New South Wales squad members in Sydney on Monday, Smith said the Australian team would be led by expert and government advice about their own resumption of play, with CA currently mulling over a request from the ECB to tour England in September for a limited-overs series originally slated for July.
“I think when you’re playing for your country at a World Cup, that’s the pinnacle for one-day or T20 cricket, so of course I’d prefer to play in that,” Smith said. “But if that doesn’t happen and the IPL’s there, and they postpone it, then so be it. IPL’s also a terrific tournament as a domestic tournament. So that’s out of everyone’s control at the moment, players are just doing what we’re told and going where we need to go and playing whatever’s on at that stage.
“I guess there’ll be some more news about it soon, probably some decisions to be made soon, so I’m sure we’ll all find out and know where we’re going to be. I personally haven’t really thought about it, I think it’d just be going off the advice of the professionals and the governments and essentially doing what we’re told. If that happens then great, if not then there’s just so much going on in the world right now that cricket kind of seems a little bit irrelevant. So we’ll get back when we’re told to and until then it is sit tight, get fit and strong and freshen up mentally.”
In terms of the shape of cricket when it does resume in a fundamentally changed universe, Smith said that he agreed new regulations restricting the use of saliva to polish the ball would affect the contest between batsmen and bowlers, noting too that his own habit of spitting on his hands for a bit of extra grip in the field virtually every ball would have to change.
“I’ve always been one to want a fair contest between bat and ball, so if that’s taken away, even as a batter I don’t think that’s great,” Smith said. “Whether they can find other ways with certain things, it’ll be hard. I actually spit on my hands most balls and that’s how I get grip and stuff. So that might take some adjusting to certain things like that, but that’s something for the ICC to figure out what they want to do going forward and different regulations. We’ll see how it all lands, everything is up in the air at the moment, but we’ll see where everything goes.”
State squads have returned to training amidst a raft of cost-cutting at CA and at every state association other than Smith’s NSW, and he said that a period of adjustment would be required for players if they found themselves tended to by a reduced gaggle of support staff. Certainly, Smith’s own habit of needing to face hundreds of extra throwdowns in order to find his ideal rhythm before starting a Test series may need to change.
“I think if that’s the case it’ll be about guys being able to help each other out as well, particularly senior players being able to take a bit of time off your own game and help someone else out at training or something like that,” he said. “We’ll see what happens, there’s still a fair while probably until we get back out there playing again and plenty of decisions that the hierarchy needs to make and things like that. We’ll just wait and see and play it by ear at the moment.
“They [support staff] all have a role to play, particularly as the game’s evolved and got more professional, we’ve got people in different areas of expertise to help the team prepare and get ready to play. If that happens it’ll take some adjusting and guys might have to throw some balls to one of the other batters or help out the bowlers in certain ways and different things. It’ll take a bit of adjusting, but there’s still a while until we’re back out there and plenty of decisions to be made.”
One of those decisions will be around scheduling for the World Test Championship currently in limbo. Australia were originally scheduled to be playing a series in Bangladesh this month. With a victory over the hosts in that series, they would have been able to vault India and move into top spot on the table ahead of series against India at home and South Africa away prior to the final, originally set down for Lord’s in June 2021.
Smith said that he wanted to see the championship retained, but as the World Cup and IPL dilemma shows, space is growing more limited by the day. “It’d be ideal if we can keep that going,” Smith said. “It’s the first one we’ve had and we’re all working towards hopefully playing at Lord’s in mid-June , we were all working towards that, so it’d be good if we could carry on with that, but I don’t know, everything is sort of up in the air at the moment with everything going on around the world. So we’ll wait and see where everything lands.”
ECB welcomes green light for behind-closed-doors sport
The ECB has welcomed the UK Government’s go-ahead for the return of professional sport behind closed doors as it presses ahead with plans to host international cricket this summer, and stage a domestic season.
In a further easing of lockdown restrictions imposed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden announced government health and safety guidance on Saturday for elite athletes and professional sportspeople to return to competition in the absence of spectators from June 1. He added that it was up to individual sports to confirm they could meet the safety protocols and therefore when to resume.
The ECB, who are hoping to host a condensed international schedule at so-called ‘bio-secure’ venues, starting with a three-Test series against West Indies in July, issued a statement on Sunday saying they were “heartened” by the news. The ECB will study the guidelines to determine how they will help the sport emerge from lockdown, but it clearly saw hope for the resumption of domestic and recreational cricket.
“We are extremely heartened by Saturday’s announcement from the Secretary of State, which will support the return of professional, domestic cricket behind closed doors, and provides a meaningful next step for recreational players to begin playing at their clubs again,” the ECB statement said.
“Over the coming week, we will seek to understand the specific guidance from Government’s medical teams so that we can provide support for cricket clubs who will be eager to see their communities safely playing in small groups. We extend our thanks to all those in Government who have worked hard to support the return of sport and we look forward to seeing players from across the game start returning to the field.”
The ECB has been working on plans to hold televised international matches at two grounds – understood to be Emirates Old Trafford and the Ageas Bowl – with another base to allow a third team to train – likely to be Edgbaston. Each of the venues will be configured to encourage social distancing, along with the use of different zones to separate groups such as players and match officials from those not staying on site.
England last week named a 55-man training group to prepare for the series against West Indies as well as planned visits from Pakistan, Australia and Ireland.
Cricket West Indies has agreed to the scheduled tour of England in principle and is awaiting approvals from the various national governments in the Caribbean for player and staff movement on charterd planes. The Test series, part of the World Test Championship, was originally supposed to start on June 4 but was postponed when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
The ECB last week announced that no professional domestic cricket would be played in England or Wales until at least August 1, while recreational cricket would remain suspended until further notice, with the exception of using outdoor cricket nets and pitches for exercise under the government’s social distancing guidelines. It is investigating options for playing a domestic season possibly starting in August, including a County Championship split into regions and a T20 Blast competition.
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