Worcestershire 174 for 6 (D’Oliveira 45, Rhodes 4-34) beat Birmingham 125 (Pollock 53, Sodhi 4-24, D’Oliveira 3-15) by 49 runs
Worcestershire brushed aside their Midlands neighbours, Birmingham Bears, with ease in a match that they will hope was as good as a quarter-final eliminator. Much has still to be decided in the final week, and Birmingham have the chance to turn the tables in the return derby at Edgbaston next Friday, but a heavy defeat such as this and a long list of absentees will not imbue them with confidence.
Birmingham’s chances of a place in the last eight cannot be entirely discounted. They now trail Worcestershire by three points with two to play but Northants are also visitors to Edgbaston next weekend for two home games which Birmingham hope might yet provide them with an escape route.
But this was New Road, not Edgbaston, a ground where unwary batters of a romantic frame of mind might gaze blithely upon the Cathedral on a sunny evening and not spot the demons lurking beneath their feet. Birmingham utterly failed to come to terms with a low New Road surface as they surrendered to Ish Sodhi, a legspin bowler of proven pedigree, and the jaunty, but the less-feted, legspin of Brett D’Oliveira. Their combined figures of 7 for 39 in eight overs told their own story. D’Oliveira began the slide; Sodhi finished the job off.
Only Ed Pollock, with by his standards a restrained half-century, formulated any response as Birmingham were dismissed for 125. His departure, for 53 from 35 balls, left Birmingham 101 for 6 after 13.4 overs and as good as ended the contest. The prolific Sam Hain, who had earlier been bowled in D’Oliveira’s first over, was defeated by lack of bounce, but his reckless race down the pitch to attempt a hit over long-on might have said to the England selectors “If you won’t even consider me for a B team, I might as well just start slogging it.”
All over the country, as the group stage reaches its climax, Blast teams are being drawn together from whoever is available. Injuries and England calls (two squads no less) have meant a succession of changes with gaps being filled with untried youngsters, loan signings and whichever overseas player can make it through customs.
Birmingham are as bereft as any side when it comes to absentees. Their latest setback was to lose Danny Briggs, the leading wicket-taker in Blast history, but a left-arm spinner whose England days had seemed to be behind him. They gave Ryan Sidebottom his first taste of T20 at the age of 31. If he arrived in first-class cricket fashionably late, he has come to T20 with the food long since served and people already planning a taxi home. Still, he now has his first wicket – Ross Whiteley, bowled on the pull.
Worcestershire exist on meagre rations. They essentially pick the same top six every week. The rest have barely faced 100 balls all season – and they are 12 games in. If Moeen Ali is unavailable, as happened again here, the likelihood is that everybody just shuffles up one. That top six barely convinces, but everybody knows their role and an awkward square and a strong bowling hand, which includes not just Sodhi but their second overseas recruit, Ben Dwarshius, often gets them through.
Their need is to post a competitive total. The opening pair of D’Oliveira and Riki Wessels, their biggest run-scorers this season, pretty much assured that with an opening stand of 70 in seven overs; their 64 in six was their highest Powerplay of the season. D’Oliveira revealed that he was on song with replica extra cover drives in Craig Miles’ first over and then responded to Sidebottom’s Championship length by planting him over his head for six.
Will Rhodes, on his way to 4 for 34, removed both in successive overs – Wessels was bowled attempting the largest slog-sweep in history, D’Oliveira fell at midwicket for 45 from 25 balls. Then the match settled. Or rather, sunk, because Jake Libby is a rarity in T20, an under-powered and prudent batter who has found a side where such an approach is valued. T20 looks unnatural for him but Worcestershire make the best of it, and so make the best of him.
At No. 3, Libby is scoring at a strike rate of only 106.55 – the lowest rate among the top 50 run-makers in the competition this season. As far as runs go, he is no better than 31st. He produced a classic Libby innings of 18 from 20 balls after the openers had given Worcestershire their best Powerplay return of the season: his only boundary coming from a full toss from the left-arm spinner, Jacob Bethell, which begged to be driven to the extra cover boundary. Seeking a second boundary as he slapped Miles low to deep midwicket, he fell to Sidebottom’s excellent diving catch.
An energetic contribution from Ben Cox (43 from 28 balls) ensured Worcestershire achieved the 170-plus score their start demanded.
At 81 for 2 at midway (Charlie Morris hitting the stumps to remove Adam Hose and Rhodes), Birmingham could not be discounted. But D’Oliveira changed the course of the game with three wickets in nine balls, following Hain’s unexpected foray down the pitch by bowling Matt Lamb and Michael Burgess. Then Sodhi took a hand. Pollock struck him over midwicket for six before skying the next ball to the wicketkeeper – a horrible leg-side slog at a wide one. Bethell, Rob Yates and Jake Lintott were rounded up in the same over as the Bears succumbed to desperation.
David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps
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