County cricket: it’s all to play for in last group games of Royal London Cup | Royal London Cup

Ball one: Memories stirred in top of the table encounter

With the two group winners going straight into the semi-finals and the four second- and third-placed teams going into a play-off stage, there is much to play for in Group A, with the last round of matches to be played this week. Four teams (Sussex, Middlesex, Gloucestershire and Leicestershire) are bunched at the top of the table on 10 points each, with Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire also still in with a shout. Whisper it, but the Royal London Cup might just be a cricket tournament with a well thought out structure.

Middlesex snapped their five-match streak with a defeat to Gloucestershire at Radlett, a result that keeps the visitors’ hopes alive, but they will need favours from Somerset and Surrey if their tenuous hold on third spot is to be maintained.

The home side’s 256-9 was an old-fashioned score (in my mind’s eye, about half of Benson and Hedges Cup matches featured a first innings there or thereabouts) and it took a mix of old and new batting styles to chase it down.

Ben Charlesworth offered a bit of nostalgia, his 97 occupying 40 overs as he anchored the chase (it would have been Sadiq Mohammad in that hypothetical B&H match). That set it up for Jim Foat’s modern day counterparts, Jack Taylor and Zafar Gohar, to hit more boundaries than the West Country folk hero ever would have, a partnership of 45 in seven overs closing out an easy win.

Ball two: Wright stuffed by Hutton and Hameed

Leicestershire will have to beat Durham to ensure qualification after losing the East Midlands derby to Nottinghamshire, who will have to beat Surrey to have any chance of progression.

The match produced two career-best bowling performances. Old stager Chris Wright bustled in to take 6-35 to restrict Notts to 255-9, then Brett Hutton found enough movement with the new ball to run through the Leicestershire top order en route to 7-26.

Though the bowlers caught the eye, Haseeb Hameed’s 99 not out, at the crease from the seventh over to the 50th, was probably the difference between the two sides. The ex-England man’s rollercoaster career is on the up again; he is responding well to his captaincy responsibilities in this competition.

Ball three: Blackpool illuminates appeal of county game

Hampshire and Lancashire have locked out two of the three qualifying spots in Group B, with the third lying between Yorkshire and Kent, and Glamorgan very much the outsiders.

Lancashire’s match with Northamptonshire at Blackpool was a fine advert for the game. The Tower was hazily visible in the distance; a good crowd came in, many with beers in hand (but nothing was too raucous); and boys and girls ran to return the ball after it had crossed the boundary, swiftly getting back to their spot to see the next delivery. There wasn’t much in the way of branding, no garish graphics and no fireworks. Marketing professionals would wince at so many missed opportunities; the rest of us cheered.

It was a magnificent match too, Northants’ openers, Ricardo Vasconcelos and Emilio Gay, putting on 198 for the first wicket, both notching tons as a target of 371 was set. With Gay justifying the entrance fee with his fielding alone, Luke Wells teed off with 84 off 56 at the top of the order and Lancashire captain Keaton Jennings continued his fine form with a brilliant 125 off 105. But when he departed, the home side still needed 107 to pull off a record chase.

Cue two Georges, Lavelle and Balderson, who batted with invention and skill but also with a maturity beyond their years, particularly getting into the head of the much more experienced pacer, Nathan Buck. Lavelle’s 61 not out may only have been the fifth highest innings of the day, but it was a mini-masterpiece and augurs well for the wicketkeeper-batter’s future – a Gold Award from me, young George. More of this kind of cricket please.

Ball four: Stewart the gaffer in last-ball drama

There were thrills aplenty at Canterbury as Kent kept themselves in with a shout of a play-off spot with a last-ball win over Yorkshire.

With two balls left, Australian all-rounder Grant Stewart declined the single and gave himself a death-or-glory shot off the last ball, a six required. Matthew Revis gave him length (don’t forget how tough these situations are on bowlers – it only looks easy after the ball has squirted away to third man). Stewart got under it and heaved it to cow corner. A roar went up to match any pilgrim’s relief on reaching his goal.

Try telling the 40 Afghan refugees (Kent providing an interpreter for them) or anyone else among the 2,000 or so watching that this was substandard fare played by young pros and those not able to get a contract elsewhere. It was competitive cricket and it mattered to the players and the punters – and that is what sport is all about. Extending the appeal of the game? Well, everyone who saw this match will be back.

Grant Stewart hits a six with the final ball of the match to help Kent beat Yorkshire.
Grant Stewart hits a six with the final ball of the match to help Kent beat Yorkshire. Photograph: Alex Pantling/Getty Images

Ball five: batter of the week – golden boy shines

Tom Haines was the star of Sussex’s band of young brothers, one of few who were not too callow to cope when Covid came calling and Hove became a cricketing kindergarten. This column remarked, as the defeats piled up in 2020 and 2021, that these baptisms of fire were likely to forge a star or two and, while Haines’ form has dropped off (and injury intervened), Ali Orr has grabbed his chance.

The 21-year-old is racking up the runs, averaging 42 in first class cricket and 48 in List A, passing 50 runs 14 times in his 28 matches to date. Those are serious numbers at the top of the order and should (but might not) catch the attention of selectors, if not for this winter, then for next summer.

In constructing a county record 50-overs knock of 206, he showed the kind of acceleration that batters need in all forms of the game these days, born of a recognition that the bowlers were there for the taking (Somerset’s season goes from bad to worse, not helped by call ups from elsewhere). Orr’s first hundred was scored at about a run a ball; his second at about two runs a ball, 11 sixes and 18 fours his bounty. Orr will face stronger bowling in the future but, in a time when 35 off 12 balls can be enough to set the hype machine blaring, this was an innings of real substance.

Ball six: bowler of the week – Conners smashes Tykes in vain

Chesterfield offered anything but a comfortable chair for batters as some balls shot and some balls reared but, as is so often the case on a difficult surface, it made for a thrilling match. While the late Brian Close looked down approvingly on his old county’s travails, doubtless enumerating the bruises he would acquire on uncovered wickets, Yorkshire got over the line against Derbyshire with the last pair at the crease.

Sam Conners had been their main tormentor, bagging five wickets, three clean bowled. The art of bowling on poor pitches is becoming somewhat lost as drainage systems and fear of points deductions has led to an increasing uniformity of surfaces at county HQs. With outgrounds often used in the Royal London Cup, it’s more likely that bowlers will be presented with a greater variety of pitches. Conners obeyed the first rule of bowling on an unreliable wicket – you miss, I hit.

This article is from The 99.94 Cricket Blog
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