County cricket: T20 Blast groups tighten before final run of fixtures

Sport

Ball one: Siddle in middle but where should fielders be?
There was midsummer mayhem at the Oval on Tuesday night as Peter Siddle, on a hat-trick for Somerset, bowled to Conor McKerr needing to hit a boundary to win the match. Everyone, including the Surrey batter, knew it would, like the previous two deliveries, be spearing into off stump and everyone knew, including the bowler, that the batter would clear his front leg and swing hard. So, if you’re a captain in that scenario, what should you do?

I would have posted a long leg for the inside edge and put the other eight available fielders on the off side, closing off half the rope as a realistic target. That way, you invite an attempt on the near-impossibility of finding a gap on one side of the field or the equally tough job for the No 10 of stepping across his stumps and hitting an experienced international bowler from off to leg with a good enough connection to go all the way. It would be a bold batter indeed who tried that trick first ball.

McKerr swung at the ball that arrived exactly where he expected and it skimmed to the extra cover boundary to provoke delight and despair. Surrey’s unbeaten record lived on (for a couple of days, as it transpired).

Ball two: catches win matches – and fans
Do you ever go to matches primarily to see the fielding? At Lord’s on Thursday (which was so beautiful to behold in a golden hour that would have had David Lean reaching for his camera), neither Middlesex nor Essex batted or bowled particularly well (though Sam Cook and Chris Green might dispute that), but there were any number of spectacular catches in the field. The pick of the highlights reel was probably Dan Lawrence’s diving snare of John Simpson at widish slip, an airborne blur to the naked eye.

Fielding witnessed up close and personal is an often overlooked delight of being at the match and, with many grounds replaying wickets on the big screen, you can afford to miss one or two if you’re engaged in a discussion about England’s reluctance to develop a successor to Adil Rashid. Not that such a thing would ever happen to your correspondent.

Ball three: Sky’s coverage strikes right tone
One of the pleasures of Sky’s coverage of the Blast is its change in tone in comparison to Test matches. Though it’s a highly subjective matter (and plenty will disagree), I’ve always enjoyed the lighter touch of Charlie Dagnall and the more conversational style, growing from the early days of T20 when Bumble and others bought into its circus-coming-to-town vibe.

As a side benefit, current players are often invited into the Sky Pod to commentate and, in a more relaxed environment than the rather stiff three-people-standing-in-a-field-holding-mics approach the BBC uses in Today at the Test, they often reveal a little more of their thinking.

As Northamptonshire’s perfectly acceptable 211-6 was mown down by the Birmingham Bears with an over to spare, young wrist-spinner, Freddie Heidreich taking a particularly gruesome mauling, the Northants’ Championship skipper, Ricardo Vasconcelos, made the interesting suggestion that the new opportunity to retire a batter out and replace them with another more suited to the match situation should cost the batting side a ball. His reasoning was that a change of batter through a dismissal almost always finds a dot entered into the scorebook, so why not in this case? It was a good point well made.

Ball four: rope in maximum area available for play
Sky were back pointing their cameras at the Bears on Friday, as a very decent atmosphere was created by a good turnout at Edgbaston for a local derby. But the match was barely a contest at all.

Birmingham were good, piling up 228-8, led by the in-form Adam Hose’s undefeated 110, but Worcestershire were pitifully poor, with bowling, fielding and batting that is hardly acceptable in club cricket, going down by 144 runs, a record in the competition.

The disparity between the sides was exacerbated by the boundary rope being brought in further than I’ve ever seen it before, which gives the crowd more sixes to salute, but also rewards edges and limits the opportunities for fielding to make a difference through catches and run-outs. In contrast, almost the full expanse of the Oval had been used earlier in the week and batters were challenged to hit properly long balls to clear the rope.

I’m guessing that the Bears will not choose where the boundary is set for Finals Day at their home next month, but I hope they use as much of the playing area as possible. The game, if not the stats, is better for it.

Ball five: weekend set for sorting out shake-up
After another break for a round of four-day Championship matches this week (a scheduling quirk that somehow manages to diminish both competitions), the Blast resumes at the weekend for the completion of the group stage, with 17 games spread across Friday, Saturday and Sunday – while England play India in a Test match.

The long-time leaders of both groups have fallen back into the pack, with Lancashire and Surrey both required to dip deep into their squads due to England call-ups (though why Liam Livingstone and Jos Buttler could not play for Lanky on Friday is something of a mystery to your correspondent).

The cliche says that five into four won’t go and that is pretty much the situation in both groups. Birmingham, Lancashire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire sit in the qualifying positions in the North Group, with Northamptonshire needing to beat Leicestershire in their last game to give themselves a chance of breaking into the quartet. Leicestershire themselves are not completely out of it, but they would need Yorkshire to lose to the Bears and then themselves to beat the Tykes in their last match.

In the South Group, Surrey, Somerset, Essex and Hampshire lead the way, with Gloucestershire looking to use their two remaining matches to muscle into a quarter-final slot. Glamorgan are in a similar position to Leicestershire, needing to win their last two matches, get the right results elsewhere and hope the net run-rate falls their way.

It’s perhaps a little disappointing that there are not more teams involved in the shake-up, but Kent have defended their title so dismally that they sit bottom of the South Group and Nottinghamshire (who can still squeak through with a very unlikely set of results) have failed to fire in the North Group. Quite why such a talented squad has no batter averaging over 28 and only Samit Patel going for less than eight an over is a matter for a post-season inquest at Trent Bridge.

Ball six: Briggs sails on serenely
A shoutout for Danny Briggs, as unflashy a player as one might find in the razzamatazz (well, razzamattazzish) world of T20 cricket. With his international career now receding in the rearview mirror, he finds himself at Edgbaston having started at Hampshire and then spent some time at Sussex.

His consistent and canny brand of left-arm spin (well, maybe left-arm slow bowling might be a more accurate description) has brought 16 wickets this season, enough for him to maintain his position as the leading wicket-taker in English domestic T20 cricket history, with over 200 scalps in his bag.

Much of a spinner’s game is built around deception and perhaps Briggs, who has swapped his early schoolboyish looks for that of a junior doctor turning out for a Sunday friendly, has quietly buried his effectiveness behind an approach that invites batters to hit out – but also to get out. His output shows that, though T20 may be the most formulaic of cricket’s formats, it still offers plenty of ways to make your mark.