VIEW FROM THE BLUES: Skipper Wakely deserves huge credit as Steelbacks close in on last eight

Northants Steelbacks V Glamorgan T20.'Alex Wakely and Muhhammad Azhar Ullah
Northants Steelbacks V Glamorgan T20.'Alex Wakely and Muhhammad Azhar Ullah

So, just three Twenty20 games to look at this week and with two to go, the Steelbacks are a win away from the quarter-finals, and that is something very few people thought possible back in April.

The two things the fans really wanted to see this year was team spirit and faster Twenty20 pitches, with the addition of genuinely classy overseas bowlers a bonus, and Trent Copeland and Mohammad Azharullah are destined for greater things.

David Smith has really turned the show around and empowered head coach David Ripley to give one-day skipper Alex Wakely what he needs to be competitive on those pitches. This team is playing way above its apparent ability.

Wakes doesn’t want to blame David Capel or others, but he is the catalyst with his leadership style, and he is not scared to bow to greater knowledge on the pitch to get results, Ripley a soft hand on his shoulder.

First up for the column were the Somerset Sabres, arriving in Northampton last week with work to do.

Their run of four straight Twenty20 finals days is in danger of coming to an end, as the mighty Steelbacks turned them over in one of the team’s best wins in front of the biggest County Ground crowd yet.

Rips knew a flat pitch would hand the game to Somerset’s powerful first seven, and so a musty used pitch from last year’s catalogue was dragged out of the groundsman’s hut.

The Steelbacks mustered an above-par 150, with Kyle Coetzer again holding things together at halfway with 30-odd and swashbuckling twinkle toes Steven Crook smashing that 63 off 43 balls with four more sixes.

A good score on a used pitch is still hard to protect against the Sabres, but the Steelbacks did just that, as they were never really behind in the game and not intimidated.

David Willey and Lee Daggett got some tap, but the slow bowlers did enough to set up our demon quickie and Azhar did the rest with three for 19 for a thrilling 10-run win, picking off the danger men one-by-one.

During the match there was no doubt the fielders were hindered by the crazy placing of the gimmick Calor Gas burners edging the ropes and a serious accident is nearing, Willey looking like he pulled out of a catch attempt in fear of just that.

Move them back guys!

Another worrying incident at the ground, that hasn’t been reported, is an alleged betting scam attempt by two gentleman, who were at one point sitting behind me.

The match was being shown live on the Sub-Continent, although with a sizeable delay, meaning these guys could phone through what was happening well before it happened, just like the movie The Sting with Robert Redford and Paul Newman.

An ECB match fixing compliance team was on the ground, and the bad guys were nabbed, presumably shown the pavement and no more.

Talking to friends in India is hardly a crime after all, but this begs the question on just how common this is?

An ECB team is apparently at every televised Sky game now, and unless there is a tabloid sting we never hear about this stuff.

I emailed the right people for comment, but they were abrupt or simply not interested.

Chris Watts, the head of anti-corruption at the ECB, told me that the ground staff did ‘eject 2 people for breach of ground regulations’.

Chucking them out under an ambiguous law, of course, means it doesn’t get reported as it should, until now.

If the Somerset was a win against the current, Saturday’s defeat at Edgbaston was the Steelbacks being swept away in the rapids, their worse batting performance so far and a flashback to last year.

A win would have all but secured the quarter-final place, but the away team misjudged the dry looking pitch with early aggressive batting, the short boundary enough of a distraction for the Steelbacks to muck it up.

Groundsmen do say that 10 days of the same weather is never good for an exciting cricket wicket, a straw dead top seeing the Bears knock Northants over for just 111 inside the 20, Coetzer making 33.

Front loading the batting didn’t work, and too many guys slogged out.

The tried and tested building partnership tactic on used wickets would have produced 140 and victory here.

But the Bears have been poor in the competition and struggled to get over the line, a last-over victory bringing some relief to the 5,000 strong crowd, with a healthy contingent from the Wantage Road admin staff enjoying an ice cream or two!

The plusses are that a Steelbacks bowling attack that looks okay on paper again performed well to take it the distance, and at 89 for six it was an even game, preserving the run rate that may yet play a part.

But that man Matt Spriegel lobbed a 22-run over in, and that was that, with Willey and Azharullah needing more than eight overs between them to save this one.

Spriegel seems to be the new Tim Walton, played as the specialised fielder and some sort of lucky charm.

It was the same equation on Sunday at a steamy New Road, with the Royals having been as similarly poor as the Bears this year.

A small Northants contingent rocked up as the boys hit first, making 137 for six on a slow and low track, which about par.

It looked much better at 102 for one, Richard Levi shooting 70 with some huge drives and he is a man to keep a six off his card with elegant pitch and putt stuff.

The Royals were in the game and favorites at 99 for three with Andre Russell going very well, but Wakely juggles his mix bag of bowlers so well he could even let Daggett bowl the last.

It was a rare pace bowler’s pitch where low bounce allowed for plenty of full straight deliveries, Willey (3-13) and Azharullah (2-22) again the main men in the last five overs to seal a cracking five run win.

Victory over Glamorgan on Friday night should now secure that home tie in the last eight.