It may have ultimately ended in defeat, but Northants Steelbacks can hold their heads high after their performance at the NatWest T20 Blast Finals Day.
David Ripley’s team travelled to Edgbaston as the outsiders of the four counties involved, but ended up being just one good over with bat or ball away from winning the whole thing.
As it was, they came up just short as they lost the final to Lancashire by 13 runs, but they and the small army of supporters that went to Birmingham showed just how relevant Northants is as a club, and proved that there is room in English cricket for the ‘smaller counties’.
Much has been said and written in recent times about Northants’ financial worries and about the setting up of a franchise T20 competition, with some ‘in the game’ even questioning the very existence of counties such as Northants, Leicestershire, Derbyshire or Gloucestershire.
Well, nobody at Edgbaston on Saturday can argue with the fact that the Steelbacks looked right at home on the big stage that is the Birmingham Test ground.
On the pitch, their players were too good for the reigning champions, favourites and hosts Birmingham Bears in the semi-final, and then pushed Lancashire Lightning to the last over in the final.
Off the pitch, the Northants fans were a credit to their club, and there were a lot of them at Edgbaston.
Yes, there was the 800-strong block of allocated seating, but Steelbacks fans were also dotted all around the stadium, and were in good voice throughout. I would say there was 2,000 County fans there, maybe more, and try telling any of those people that Northants as a club doesn’t matter.
No, Northants is not the biggest, or the most fashionable club, but it is a good club, with good support and a home in the shape of the County Ground to be very, very proud of. It might not be a Test ground, but it is a great cricketing arena all the same.
It would have been fantastic if Alex Wakely and his team could have won the Twenty20 title for the second time in three years and really made a statement for ‘the underdog’.
But just by getting to the final they have made the whole country and the entire cricketing community aware that Northamptonshire CCC is alive, kicking, and very much a club with a future.
On finals day, the Steelbacks were up against the big-boys, and they produced a great performance to see off the Bears in the first semi-final.
That was set up by a stunning spell of pace bowling from David Willey that left the home side reeling on 14 for four, a situation they never really recovered from as Northants won by five wickets with two overs to spare, with Richard Levi’s chanceless 63 not out steering them home.
In the final, Lightning’s innings was set up by the best innings of the day in Alex Davies’ 47 from 26 balls, the youngster timing the ball sweetly where nearly all others had struggled on a pitch that wasn’t ideal for T20 cricket.
The ball stuck in the pitch slightly from the pace men, and was also offering spin, which led to the bowlers dominating both semi-finals.
That makes Lancashire’s opening stand of 77 in just nine overs from Davies and Ashwell Prince even more impressive, and it was a stand that laid the foundations for Lightning’s 166 for seven, despite the County fighting back well in the middle of the innings.
Ripley’s team will be rueing the fact they conceded 24 runs in the final two overs after pegging Lightning back mainly thanks to great spells from Shahid Afridi and Willey, but they would have settled for chasing 167 to win when Lightning were 123 for two after 14 overs.
With the bat, the Steelbacks were always slightly behind the rate in reply.
With Josh Cobb anchoring one end, Willey, Duckett and Afridi all threatened to play the big innings that would swing the match back in the Steelbacks’ favour, but they couldn’t quite manage it against a Lancashire side that bowled with consistency and accuracy.
Aggressive Aussie James Faulkner may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but he is some player, and he showed his true character by playing on after suffering what looked a nasty broken finger dropping a sharp caught and bowled chance off Afridi.
Faulkner ended up claiming two for 25 with his left-arm pace, including the crucial wickets of Levi and Willey, while the Lightning spin trio of Steven Croft, Stephen Parry and Arron Lilley conceded just 67 runs in the 10 overs they bowled between them, taking a couple of wickets into the bargain.
That meant the Steelbacks effectively had to find 75 runs from the six overs bowled by George Edwards and rookie Gavin Griffiths, who had only made his T20 debut in Lightning’s semi-final win over Hampshire, and that proved too big an ask.
So Northants lost, and were left hugely disappointed, but they were far from disgraced, and will already be planning how they can crash the party again next year.
Steelbacks player ratings
Richard Levi - brilliantly paced his match-winning innings of 63 not out in the semi-final, and was looking good in the final too. Will be frustrated at his dismissal as he timed the shot beautifully, just hit it straight to the fielder at mid-off! - 8
David Willey - didn’t get the winning send-off he desperately wanted as he ends his Northants one-day career, but still showed exactly why he is one of the hottest properties in English cricket. Stunning bowling spell in the semi set up the win, while in the final he checked Lightning’s charge with quick wickets. Didn’t quite come off with the bat, although hit one brilliant six of the fiery James Faulkner - 8
Josh Cobb - a quiet semi-final, but one of the key men with bat and ball in the final. Made the crucial bowling breakthrough with his spin as he dismissed the impressive Alex Davies, and then anchored the innings with the bat. Struggled to hit boundaries, but without 44 not out, the County wouldn’t have got as close as they did - 7
Ben Duckett - tidy performance in both games behind the stumps. Failed with the bat in the semi, but was just starting to cut loose in the final when his innings was ended by a borderline lbw decision. Looked at home on the big stage - 6
Alex Wakely - captained the team well in the field in both matches, although he may regret exposing Graeme White to Jos Buttler in the final. Batting wise, he was out first ball in the semi, and only faced two balls at the death in the final - 5
Steven Crook - clearly not 100 per cent fit following his ankle injury as he didn’t bowl in either match. He was used as a batter only, and unfortunately Crook came up short in both games, perishing going for the big hit - 5
Shahid Afridi - played hours after getting off the plane from Pakistan, and justified his inclusion. After a steady semi-final, his bowling in the final, where he claimed three for 14 from three overs, got the Steelbacks back into the game. Another couple of big hits with the bat might have won the match. But it wasn’t to be - 8
Rory Kleinveldt - fantastic bowling in the semi-final when he took two for 16 from his four overs, but couldn’t replicate that in the final, going for 29 off three. Might have been different if Graeme White had claimed a difficult chance offered by Ashwell Prince off his third ball of the innings - 7
Graeme White - not the greatest day for the left-arm spinner. Was tidy enough with the ball in the win over the Bears, conceding 12 from two overs, but went for 31 from 12 balls in the final, and also missed that early Prince chance in the field - 5
Olly Stone - showed good pace and troubled the batsmen at times in both matches, but ended up wicketless on the day. Went for 10-an-over in the final - 5
Muhammad Azharullah - a quiet day for the pace bowler by his T20 standards. Struggled a little in the semi-final, but was doing an excellent ‘death bowling’ job in the final until a six crunched off him off the final ball of the innings tarnished his efforts, and his figures - 5