Underdog

For many in Britain there is a fondness for the underdog. Something in the psyche provokes many to cheer or support the less favoured team or player, the performer or squad more likely to lose. Giving one’s backing for the expected victor just isn’t cricket. Such a social phenomenon is interesting and intriguing. Much like Ireland’s burgeoning cricket talent it is a case of being good but not too good. Thus, with the cricket season entering its second half and a trip to the Rose Bowl for a T20 contest on the cusp, the state of the beleaguered, now maligned in some quarters, T20 Blast sprung to mind.

Curiously, English cricket were leaders and innovators when they introduced the T20 Cup in 2003 but they are now seemingly slavish followers to the Big Bash and the Indian Premier League. Or, more specifically, followers to the sums of loot that both generate. Indeed, the Twenty20 Cup (pre the format’s re-naming by cricketing deed-poll) was the original T20 competition, the vanguard. It almost managed to progress through adolescence before something shinier appeared on the horizon. Such scenarios are hardly surprising. Heritage and legacy are bunkum in modern society. Much is about the here and now, too much is so last year. Nobody remembers that meal they had at McDonald’s ten years ago after all. So the T20 Blast, barely four seasons after its latest nip-tuck, is last year’s model as the city based / franchise league (delete as appropriate) is the basket into which all the eggs are being placed. One ponders whether this will have an effect on the T20 Blast. Bunted into a less favourable section of the calendar, the obvious conclusion to draw is that finances will be hit as the cricketing public flock toward the new toy. Similar to the FA Cup in football, if you give the impression that the product is a little substandard then don’t be surprised when the public follows such an attitude.

Maybe the English cricketing public could adopt the opposite though; the spirit of supporting the underdog as outlined earlier. Much like the economy at large the T20 Blast has experienced periods of growth and recession. The last couple of years have witnessed the former though as attendances have steadily increased. Somerset sold out their fixtures during the 2016 campaign, the Roses derby at Headingly was a no-go zone if you hadn’t purchased a ticket a good month or so before the match whilst Surrey and Middlesex regularly experienced bumper crowds at headquarters and the Oval. In general, attendances across the country were encouraging for the format. As the cricketing public at large have been in some respects discounted from the new tournament (it’s going to be attended by all those people not interested in cricket before who will flock through the gates for reasons as yet unknown) then maybe the same cricketing public could continue offering sterling support to the T20 Blast. Administrators may soon view it as little more than a cast-off from the previous year’s fashion but the tournament is a solid staple of the cricketing summer. The Blast is not the Big Bash and it is not the Indian Premier League. But why should it be? Simply attempting to copy a tournament from the other side of the world suggests that there is a social homogeneity between the two or more countries. The twenty-first century high streets may appear identikit but demographics and social norms are surely a little more intricate. The tournament has slowly grown and the public have grown with it. The successes of Leicestershire (three victories) and Northamptonshire (two victories and a runners up place in the last four summers) have also likely proved palatable to the underdog loving audience, victories for English cricket’s proletariat rather than the bourgeois counties helped by the finance of international cricket.

Such unlikely, yet romantic, victories inspire the aforementioned fondness for the underdog. Remember how the nation’s football fans almost to a man / woman rejoiced at the stunning Premier League victory of Leicester City at the end of the 2015/16 season? Thus, venturing through Telegraph Woods toward the Rose Bowl for a contest between hosts Hampshire and visiting Middlesex, one attempts to channel into the underdog spirit. The T20 Blast needs the continued loving support, even if the administrators appear happy to effectively render it a second class cricket tournament.

In spite of the Blast’s precarious looking future the present appears much rosier with signs that the tournament is forging its own niche in the British summer. Indeed, the public’s growing interest in the T20 Blast was further highlighted by a reported 16% increase in ticket sales prior to the latest edition beginning with counties again reporting early sell-outs. The hosts of tonight’s match, Hampshire, are a little late to the hosting party; (lagging behind fourteen of their counterparts in staging a contest) the advent of two concerts in three nights at the ground the previous weekend likely causing a clash with the stadium’s main residents. (The ground is now owned by the local borough council as opposed to the club themselves) Even in the height of summer cricket seems down the list of priorities.

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Nevertheless, the visit of Middlesex to the south coast prompts a potential tete-a-tete between two of T20’s old stagers. Hampshire have re-signed Shahid Afridi for the current campaign whilst New Zealand’s Brendon McCullum captains the London county. An impressive crowd has filled the Rose Bowl for the ground’s opening Blast match of the summer but neither the number of those in attendance or the star quality of those playing can detract from the astonishing appearance of the outfield that one catches sight of upon entry to the ground. The recent weather may have been largely dry for some time but the poor outfield has been remorselessly scarred by the excesses of the previous weekend’s concerts, its appearance akin to the fairways of a scorched, parched Open Championship venue in places, barely disguised mud in others.

The hosts’ skipper James Vince is similarly remorseless when the contest begins, blazing early with a clutch of beautiful, crisp cover drives and extravagant pull shots that demonstrate his class and ability. Somewhat disappointingly, a leading edge to mid-wicket in the fourth over curtails a glorious innings at just thirty-four runs from fifteen deliveries. Vince’s opening partner Rilee Rosouuw and his replacement Michael Carberry progress well post a couple of slow overs, although three dropped catches in the outfield help their cause, Hampshire reaching 92/2 at the  halfway point.

The tempo slows again for a couple of overs around the median of Hampshire’s allocation but Carberry judges his innings beautifully and reaches his half-century in the fourteenth over. Two successive sixes in the next over underline a return to some sort of form for the erstwhile Middlesex veteran.

Hampshire appear set for a total in excess of 200 but just as such an achievement  appears inevitable Middlesex chip away at the middle order, using T20 cricket’s most effective tactic to stem the flow of runs. Michael Carberry is castled for a brilliant innings of 77 three delivers into the final over as Hampshire finish their innings on 189-8.

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Boom Boom skies one and is out for the number on his shirt

The target may be handsome but Middlesex possess a powerful batting line-up and one wonders whether the lack of runs in the final overs will prove costly for the hosts. Nevertheless, Paul Stirling, Brendon McCullum and Dawid Malan are all back in the pavilion after just four overs and the chase has been hamstrung. James Franklin’s kamikaze, careless run out soon after further strengthens Hampshire’s position of dominance as the visitors stumble to 41-4 at the end of the power play.

England captain Eoin Morgan remains in situ as the wickets tumble but he soon succumbs to the beguiling brilliance of Mason Crane; another erstwhile Middlesex performer, Gareth Berg, taking a fine catch as the London county’s disastrous innings reaches the ten over point with just 63 runs on the board. The home team’s increasingly impregnable position is further highlighted as cries of ‘Aaaaaammmmppppppppppsssssshhhiiiiiirrrrrrrreeeeeee!’ begin from the buoyant crowd. An attempt at a rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” across the public address system soon after receives short shrift but the second attempt engenders better results, particularly after Toby Roland-Jones is stumped off of Mason Crane.

Witnessing the young leg-spinner in full flight is one of the evening’s highlights. Quality spinners in English cricket are so few and far between that the novelty is particularly pleasing. Eight overs of Crane and Shahid Afridi suffocates the Middlesex’s innings whilst providing fabulous spectating as the young buck demonstrates his raw talent in tandem with the old stager. Crane wins the battle with the erstwhile Pakistani international (3/15 in contrast to 0/29) and produces a stellar imitation of Afridi’s star celebration after the latter takes a catch off of the former.

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BMac in familiar mode, but not for long

With the game effectively over Tim Southee and John Simpson enjoy some late innings humptee; Southee in particular enjoying a shackle free final six overs as he smotes five sixes in an innings of 64 from just half that number of deliveries. It is all largely irrelevant though as Hampshire have plenty of runs in the bag and the late flurry does little more than add a modicum of respectability to the scorecard, limits the dent to Middlesex’s competition run rate and provides some late entertainment for those in the crowd who have remained, Hampshire winning by 29 runs. The margin of defeat may have shrunk a little courtesy of the Kiwi’s innings but the nature of defeat is not lost on the visitors’ management; the Middlesex players are reportedly kept in the dressing room for more than an hour after play has finished.

 

As a contest the match was effectively over with a third of Middlesex’s allocation remaining. Such an advent provided an opportunity for a little pondering. The Blast doesn’t possess the same carefree, joyous ambience of its predecessor from fourteen odd summers previous but it remains a pleasant competition to watch. Crowds continue to grow and, whilst they may not necessarily concentrate on the match itself, they are still venturing through the turnstiles. Times have changed though. Counties have now become dependent on the T20 financial bonanza and there is concern about whether this will be affected in the future. Certain theories dictate that the Blast status quo will remain despite being bunted to the early, colder part of the season in favour of the city based equivalent. Thousands upon thousands of new supporters (should that be customers?) will pay for the shiny new event and everything will work out fine. Somehow such an idea seems rather fanciful. The Blast has taken over a decade to reach this point in terms of ticket sales and grounds consistently selling out. It would seem rather churlish to expect the new tournament to replicate that overnight. Whatever happens with the city based tournament, the Blast will need support and backing. It will need to channel into the British underdog spirit lest it should wither and die.

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