Don Topley: Bopara and Essex have taken an unlikely route to t20 Finals Day
PUBLISHED: 12:35 06 September 2019 | UPDATED: 12:35 06 September 2019
Whilst September's 'Autumnal Test' is being played at Old Trafford, four important Vitality t20 Blast quarter-finals are taking place elsewhere in the country, writes Don Topley.
Essex have been the surprise t20 package, not only sneaking into the quarter-finals on the very final group game, but also defeating the top team in the North section, Lancashire, in the first quarter-final.
Essex, it has to be said, only won five of their 14 group games and qualified on their stand-alone points and not on any net run rate. Unfortunately, Essex endured four rained-off games which really does handicap any side.
After underperforming for years in t20 (Essex last made the t20 Finals day six years ago) Essex started their campaign in mid-June by losing to Middlesex in front of a full house at Lord's.
The following night they defeated a star-studded Surrey at home - in fact they demolished them, with Cameron Delport smashing an incredible century.
Losses against Kent and Hampshire followed, and then a couple of rained-off games. Essex could not find any real momentum which, in t20 cricket, is massively important to any side. Essex hit rock bottom after a dreadful loss at home to an aggressive Somerset side.
Surpringly at the time, Surrey and Essex were locked in a battle for the wooden spoon with bottom placed Glamorgan. Add more rained-off games, any thoughts of qualification were 'blue sky thoughts' and any bets placed would have received exceptionally long odds!
During this period, veteran, former international and ever-dependable Ravi Bopara was surprisingly dropped.
Some have alleged it was for discipline, others suggested it was because he wanted to go off and play in the proposed, (then ditched) Euro t20 Slam, involving Scotland, Ireland and The Netherlands.
The fan's favourite, Bopara, was eventually re-instated and rightly so. He, and Essex, have not looked back since. Traditionally, Bopara often takes a few balls to get going but with leading light, Dan Lawrence, starring in the Eagles line-up at No4, Bopara was asked to come in lower, at No6. The experienced and former t20 captain, Ryan Ten Doeschate, bats at No5.
Overseas Pakistan professional, Mohammed Amir, has been in brilliant form with the ball. Bowling potently in the powerplay, he also performs skillfully at the death of the innings and restricts the opposition - he rarely goes for many runs.
Suddenly, every game Essex played became a 'final'; they had to win every game and pray other results went their way - they did!
Late August, they tied an amazing game at Hampshire which they should have won. That solitary point was vital as they went on to beat Surrey, again - they always do at The Oval - and also won a key game at Hove against top of the table, Sussex.
Bopara performed brilliantly at Hove. He not only bowled economically and skillfully, but batted sensibly (45 runs off 24 balls) towards the death to post Essex a winning total. He has blossomed at No6, taking the attack to the opposition in the final overs.
With England playing Australia at Old Trafford, Lancashire could not play their home quarter-final fixture with Essex in Manchester. With no lights at any of their outgrounds, Lancashire bizarrely agreed to play their important home fixture at Durham over 130 miles away.
That annoyed many in the cricketing fraternity, including Essex fans. Few made the trip to the North East on a wet and windy evening and with many Lancashire fans watching England at Old Trafford, spectators at Chester-Le-Street were few and far between. To me, it resembled a game behind closed doors, as occasionally seen in football.
With Amir having returned home, Essex were under real pressure against a competitive Lancashire side. The Northern county posted a decent score of 159/5. On an unfamiliar large outfield Essex were challenged, but Lancs had the unfortunate part of bowling with a wet ball.
But no fear, call for the two veterans Ten Doeschate and Bopara. Their batting partnership of 60 to see their team home was sensational and simply match-winning. They do run so well together and are a great example to any youngsters.
In the other quarter-final matches, strongly fancied Middlesex had a night to forget at Nottingham. Sussex, who possess two Suffolk men and England internationals in their ranks - Reece Topley and Tymal Mills - take on last year's winners Worcestershire, whilst today, there's an encounter with two less fashionable teams - Derbyshire travel West to Gloucestershire.
The Vitality t20 Finals Day is at Edgbaston on Saturday, September 21. Essex Eagles will be there - but bring your coats, it'll be cold!