Richard Levi was the batting star as Northants Steelbacks beat Birmingham Bears by five wickets to reach the final of the NatWest T20 Blast at Edgbaston.
In a low-scoring game, Steelbacks restricted the hosts and favourites to a modest 131 for six and then closed out the victory with two overs to spare thanks to an excellent 63 not out from opener Levi.
A mid-innings stumble gave the Bears a sniff of an unlikely victory, but Levi held firm to see the Steelbacks home, and they can now look forward to a final against either Lancashire Lightning or Hampshire tonight (start 6.45pm).
Earlier, left-arm pace bowler David Willey had produced a stunning opening burst with the ball to help reduce the bewildered Bears to 14 for four, and despite an unbeaten 50 from Atiq Javid and a last-over burst from Laurie Evans, they never recovered.
After winning the toss, Northants got off to a dream start with the ball, and it was that man Willey who did the business again.
After a quiet opening over from Rory Kleinveldt, Willey struck with his second ball, with a full inswinging delivery pinning Varun Chopra on the crease and right in front, the ball smashing into the batsman’s pads.
The Bears were five for one, and two balls later they were six for two, Willey this time bowling William Portfield through the gate.
In the third over Kleinveldt got in on the act, with Tim Ambrose offering a simple caught and bowled chance that the South African gobbled up with ease.
The Bears were 12 for three and in desperate trouble, and it was to get worse a few balls later when England man Ian Bell edged Willey behind to Ben Duckett.
That means the Bears were 14 for four from 4.2 overs, having lost four wickets for 10 runs in 15 balls.
A rebuilding job was needed, and Rikki Clarke and Javid set about doing just that with a patient partnership.
The Steelbacks bowlers were keeping things tight, and at the halfway stage the Bears were just 41 for four, but crucially they hadn’t lost any more wickets.
Boundaries were proving hard to come by, and when Clarke scooped Muhammad Azharullah to the fine-leg boundary from the final ball of the 11th over, it was the first four hit since the fourth ball of the fourth.
Clarke and Javid were gradually getting their team back into the game though, with the latter eventually clubbing the first six of the innings in the 17th over, pulling Azharullah over mid-wicket.
The Bears had to open up in the closing overs, and they did so, but it wasn’t until Clarke was bowled by the impressive and consistent Kleinveldt and Laurie Evans came to the crease that the shackles came off - but he had been left just one over to do any damage.
He proceeded to hammer Willey for two sixes and a four in the final over before running himself out off the last ball of the innings.
Evans had smashed 18 from just eight balls, and the Steelbacks will have been relieved he didn’t get into the action until so late on.
His late cameo still boosted the Bears total to 131 for six, which was a decent effort considering they had been 14 for four.
The Steelbacks reply got off to a good start, with four boundaries coming in the opening two overs as they eased to 22 without loss.
It took the Bears until the final ball of the 11th over to strike their third boundary of their innings - the Steelbacks managed it in just nine balls!
Willey was struggling with his timing, and it wasn’t a great surprise when he was out in the fourth over, mistiming a pull off a slower ball from Oliver Hannon-Dolby and hitting the ball straight down the throat of Bell at deep mid-wicket.
That left the Steelbacks 27 for one, but still in good shape.
Richard Levi was looking comfortable, and his huge six off the opening ball of the sixth over of the innings from Hannon-Dolby helped them finish the six-over powerplay on 46 for one.
The South African and Josh Cobb kept things ticking over, and the County had comfortably moved on to 67 before Cobb was bowled by spinner Jeetan Patel.
That brought Ben Duckett to the crease, but the youngster didn’t last long before he was caught behind by Ambrose off the bowling of Boyd Rankin, and the County were stuttering a little at 74 for three.
The butterflies will have been really starting to flutter in the Steelbacks’ dugout a few balls later when Alex Wakely was snaffled by Patel, Ambrose taking the catch after the skipper had edged behind and was on his way for a golden duck.
That left Northants 80 for four and rocking a little as the Bears sniffed victory.
Steven Crook, who overcame an ankle injury to make the starting line-up, joined Levi in the middle, but it wasn’t to be his day as he smashed Rankin straight to Bell at deep point for 11, and the Steelbacks were in a bit of bother at 95 for five in the 14th over.
Northants were in danger of making a mess of their run chase as Afridi walked to the crease.
The boundaries dried up with the Bears putting the squeeze on, but Levi was standing firm and brought up his 50 off 36 balls in the 15th over.
Levi was going to be the key man, and he eased the pressure in the 17th over with a four off Woakes - the County’s first boundary since the 11th over.
When he repeated the trick the next ball thanks to a miss-field from Hannon-Dolby, and the next delivery went for four leg-byes, the Steelbacks were almost home.
In all, the 17th over, bowled by Woakes, went for 15 as that changed the whole atmosphere, with Northants needing only nine runs from 18 balls to win.
As it turned out, they only needed six of those balls to seal the win, with Hannon-Dolby’s over going for 12, and when Afridi smashed a straight four the Steelbacks players and supporters could celebrate.
Now they will be determined to do it all again tonight.
Birmingham Bears 131-6 (Javid 51no, Clarke 41, Willey 3-30, Kleinveldt 2-16) lost to Northants Steelbacks 135-5 (Levi 63no, Afridi 19no, Rankin 2-20, Patel 2-31) by five wickets