Last night saw the first two quarter-final matches in the Friends Life t20 competition. The Somerset Sabres welcomed the Essex Eagles to Taunton and the Sussex Sharks hosted the Gloucestershire Gladiators down at Hove.
The ECB must be thanking the weather Gods as sell-out crowds basked in the sunshine that has finally arrived around the country. And the spectators weren't left disappointed as an array of international stars mixed with fine local talent, to show off their skills in two high-class matches.
The Essex Eagles captain, James Foster, buoyed by the return of England stars Alastair Cook and Ravi Bopara, opted to bowl first having won the toss. Taunton is a small ground compared to most and so sides always feel they are in the game when chasing, however the pressure of runs on the board always helps in the big, winner-takes-all type games. Essex got off to the best possible start when Tim Phillips combined with Cook to remove Somerset Sabres danger-man Craig Kieswetter for a first ball duck. However through the attacking play of South African T20 international Richard Levi (20 from 15), club legend Marcus Trescothick (19 from 13), and England Lion James Hildreth (58 from 36), the Sabres set the Eagles a target of 176.
The Essex reply got off to a stuttering start, as they fell to 9 for 2, which included the key wicket of Bopara for 0. With Cook (28 from 27) not at his fluent best it was left to captain Foster and Dutch star Ryan ten Doeschate to go in search of victory. When Foster (26 from 16) fell with the score at 84 for 6, the victory looked unlikely, and so it proved. Ten Doeschate (47 from 24) hit some lusty blows but it was all in vain as he was the last wicket to fall with the score at 148, giving Somerset victory by 27 runs.
The second quarter-final between the Sussex Sharks and the Gloucestershire Gladiators at Hove provided the real entertainment for the evening as the crowd was treated to one of the greatest innings in the history of the competition from Scott Styris.
The visiting captain, Hamish Marshall, also opted to bat first and his decision looked to be correct when the hosts were reduced to 3 for 2 with both Chris Nash and Luke Wright being removed for 1. This ultimately proved costly as England star Matt Prior was allowed to play his usual attacking style, made easy by just two fielders situated out of the inner-ring for the first 6 overs. A mix-up between Prior (60 from 38) and Murray Goodwin, with the score on 101, resulted in the the run-out of the England wicket-keeper and proved the pre-cursor to an innings of blistering hitting rarely seen on these shores.
Having taken his time to assess the pitch conditions, Styris then proceeded to hit the ball to all parts of the ground, and indeed Sussex, on his way to the third fastest T20 hundred. His feat was made all the more impressive, as he started with just 8 from his first 9 balls. It wasn't until the 15th over from Benny Howell that Styris hit the first of his 9 shots to clear the ropes for 6. The real damage however came in the 18th over from James Fuller, which went for a record 38 runs. Styris (100* from 37) brought his 50 up in the same over off just 24 balls and then reached his century off only another 13 deliveries. The contribution of Goodwin (55 off 42) must not be underestimated as he proved a perfect foil to the big-hitting of Styris as Sussex closed on the imposing total of 230 for 4.
Having to find more than 11 runs an over for the full 20 overs was always going to prove tough for the Gladiators and it was only going to get harder. When their first wicket fell in the 4th over with the score on 16, the required rate was already up over 13 runs per over. Good contributions from Marshall (42 from 29), Dan Housego (47 from 24), and Alex Gidman (44 from 22) helped Gloucestershire reach a respectable total, however they needed someone to be able to produce the same quality of batting as Styris. Unfortunately this did not materialise and the Gladiators ended their reply on 191 for 8.
The result of T20 cricket has seen counties looking for specialist overseas players for the shorter format of the game. The Gladiators had one of the greats in Muttiah Muralitharan on their side, but even he failed to make an impact, as proved when he missed the crucial run-out chance of Styris on 7. The Sharks on the other hand have a T20 specialist in Styris who backed up his match-winning innings with a new-ball spell of 3 overs, 1 for 25. Although Muralitharan will bring money into the club through attracting big crowds, the real rewards come from reaching the biggest stages of all, which Somerset and Sussex will get to enjoy at finals day on August 25th.