Essex: Route to The Rose Bowl
On the way to securing the chance to win today's final and then play in the cash-rich Champions' League and the Stanford series, Essex survived the "Group of Death", aka the South Group. This supplied a trio of quarter finalists – all three of whom went on to reach the semi-finals, underlining the competitiveness of the group. They began well with a comprehensive victory over Surrey but then lost back-to-back matches to eventual group winners Middlesex. A trio of wins, which included completing the double over Surrey, got them back on track for a place in the last eight. Although they stumbled against Kent at Beckenham, a thunderous innings by Graham Napier in the next game against Sussex at Chelmsford saw Essex pass 200 for the first time since the competition began in 2003. In fact their total in that match, 242, is the second highest score in the history of the competition. A tie followed by a win over Hants in another back-to-back pair of fixtures sealed a quarter-final at home to Northamptonshire. They got close to the 200 mark again, Napier once more to the fore with a 20-ball 40. Rain caused the target to be revised but Northamptonshire then fell foul of Napier with the ball – he returned an astonishing 4 for 10 in his four overs. The Duckworth-Lewis verdict was a whopping 59-run victory, which earned them a second appearance in finals day.
Essex's collective effort presents a formidable front to the opposition. Everyone appears to be pulling for everyone else and that can win matches. There is confidence in the batting these days: Napier, especially, has been on fire and scored the highest individual total in the history of the domestic competition, an unbeaten 152 against Sussex. That innings, which was only six fewer than the world record of 158 scored by New Zealander Brendon McCullum in the inaugural Indian Premier League, occupied a total of 58 balls and contained a staggering 16 sixes and ten fours. Napier's exploits with the bat have been complemented by contributions throughout the competition by wicketkeeper James Foster, captain Mark Pettini, Jason Gallian, Grant Flower and Ryan ten Doeschate. Essex will not want for runs at The Rose Bowl.
The bowling offers plenty of variety, so Essex should be able to cope no matter the conditions in Southampton. There is the leg-spin of Pakistan Test bowler Danish Kaneria, who has 18 victims in this campaign. Napier has underlined his all-round skills with 15 wickets to date, while the seam trio of Ten Doeschate, Maurice Chambers and David Masters have also got into double figures. And they managed to bowl out the opposition on four occasions.
Alastair Cook's enforced absence under the instructions of the England management means little. He has made just one appearance, scoring 15. But there is still a slightly brittle look to the batting when they come under pressure early on. Napier apart, only three other batsmen passed fifty on the way to the semi-finals. Collective effort notwithstanding, a few more solo shows will be needed at the sharp end of the competition.
Napier's 58-ball 152 not out takes the honours. It defied description and suspended belief. The 28-year-old has turned the competition on its head, rather in the way McCullum did. There is no doubt that his brilliant innings will remain a jewel in the competition's crown for a long time to come, having set a standard that every big shot batsman in the country, indeed the world, will want to emulate.
This season: Napier, 323
Overall: Pettini, 723.
This season: Kaneria, 18
Overall: Napier, 43.
Likely to fall just short, given the calibre of the other challengers, but Napier is capable of making a mockery of all negative predictions.
Mark Pettini (c), Ravinder Bopara, Graham Napier, Grant Flower, James Foster (wk), Ryan ten Doeschate, James Middlebrook, Tim Phillips, David Masters, Danish Kaneria, Maurice Chambers, Jason Gallian, Varun Chopra, Chris Wright.
Route to The Rose Bowl
The holders muscled their way into the quarter-finals as one of the two best third-placed teams in a group that could never have been labelled "The Southern Softies". Kent's players turned in consistent performances with bat and ball. Joe Denly was the outstanding batsman scoring five fifties, while Yasir Arafat led the way with the ball, taking 19 wickets on the way to The Rose Bowl showdown. There were some meaty batting contributions from captain Rob Key and Azhar Mahmood, who also picked up 13 wickets. They completed the double over Sussex, and three of their four defeats, against Essex at Chelmsford, Middlesex at Uxbridge and Surrey at Canterbury, were by narrow margins (one run, six runs and six runs) suggesting that had their luck been a trifle different then they might well have finished the group stages by topping the table. As it was, the last two defeats they suffered sent a wobble through their campaign. Fortunately they were able to re-focus after these two glitches and won the vital final match, overcoming Sussex thanks to a superb all-round performance by Arafat. The Pakistani hit 42 from 23 balls, then had Sussex reeling with three wickets in his first two overs.
There is no doubting their run-making ability. Opener Denly is enjoying his best Twenty20 season and knows how to score big and quick – he smacked a 57-ball 91 that contained five sixes and fifteen fours to help Kent pull off a win against Essex at Beckenham – and passed the 300 mark halfway through the group stage. Key, meanwhile, arrives at The Rose Bowl within touching distance of 300. In Azhar Mahmood and Yasir Arafat they possess two high-quality all-rounders. The former has more than 250 runs to his name as well as 13 wickets; the latter also got into three figures with his batting, while setting the pace for his team-mates on the bowling front. Ryan McLaren, one of last year's Twenty20 heroes, has also been among the wickets, as has off-spinner James Tredwell. In short there is support in depth for the defending champions, who are buoyant after reaching the final of the Friends Provident Trophy.
Over-confidence. Not that there has been any evidence of that, but complacency fuelled by their FP Trophy success – allied to the fact that they are sitting pretty in the Championship – could trip them up. But Key, one of the cannier captains on the circuit, is unlikely to allow his side to fall victim to arrogance.
Joe Denly has been outstanding. He began the quest for a Finals Day place by stringing together four successive half-centuries, three of them contributing to victory. There was a brief pause before he hammered a fifth. His stunning form provided the perfect platform for those coming in behind him to build on. Arafat was a model of consistency and class with the ball, and he arrives at The Rose Bowl with an impressive 19 wickets so far. He is certain to add to that tally.
This season: Denly, 384
Overall: Azhar Mahmood, 929
This season: Yasir Arafat, 19
Overall: Yasir Arafat, 49
A good bet to reach the final and to win it. There is so much breadth and depth to the side. And, most importantly, they have been here before – in the finals stages that is – and know what is to come. They arrive as champions and could well leave as title holders.
Joe Denly, Rob Key (c), Darren Stevens, Martin van Jaarsveld, Matt Walker, Azhar Mahmood, Justin Kemp, Ryan McLaren, James Tredwell, Yasir Arafat, Geraint Jones (wk), Simon Cook, Robbie Joseph, Martin Saggers.
Route to The Rose Bowl
They were impressive winners of the South Division, which bristled with Twenty20 Cup Titans, including fellow Finals Day challengers Essex and Kent, not to mention the tournament's inaugural winners, Surrey. Middlesex were undisputed masters of their group though, winning their opening five matches on the trot. They had a hiccup, losing two games at the mid-point, but picked up again with an unbeaten three-match run to wrap it all up and earn a quarter final tie against Lancashire, a match that had to be played at The Oval because Lord's was being used for the Test match. It was a close game against the red rose county, the difference between the two sides ultimately being a stunning century from Dawid Malan, a South African. He pulled Middlesex around from 21 for 4 and not even Andrew Flintoff, with a lusty half-century to go with his three wickets, could save Lancashire, who fell a dozen runs short in a thrilling climax. This is Middlesex's first Finals Day.
The 20-year-old Malan, nicknamed "AC" after the Italian football club, has amassed an impressive 300 runs at an average of 60 on the way to the semi-finals. His maiden Twenty20 Cup hundred against Lancashire contained half a dozen sixes and 10 fours and revealed him to be a formidable big-hitter, who stays calm under the most intense pressure. Irishman Eoin Morgan is another attacking batsman, who has scored 256 runs this season. When Billy Godleman (180 runs) and Tyron Henderson (179) are added to the mix the Middlesex batting grows in stature.
The attack includes Tim Murtagh, who has a career haul of 56 wickets in this competition, 17 of them this season. Henderson, a South African, is another useful bowler, especially at the death, and he has picked up 19 wickets to date this season. But Middlesex also possess Dirk Nannes, a Japanese-speaking, World Cup-skiing, saxophone-playing left-arm seamer. Nannes, nicknamed "Diggler", claimed the competition's sixth hat-trick in a telling group victory over Essex. Unfortunately he was unable to participate in the last three South Group matches and also missed the quarter-final triumph over Lancashire because of an inflamed hip, but the Australian has made a full recovery in time for the climax. And despite his injury he has still picked up 13 wickets. He is one of five Middlesex bowlers to get into double figures on the wicket-taking front, a quintet that also includes Indian slow left-armer Murali Kartik (13) and the veteran off-spinner Shaun Udal (10).
Andrew Strauss has not been released by England, and although he scored just 88 runs in his half-dozen appearances in this year's competition, he is an effective scorer in limited-overs cricket. Otherwise, Middlesex's Squad looks one of the best balanced of the four finalists, with some able fielders to support the varied and effective attack.
Malan's century against Lancashire is head and shoulders above the rest, while Nannes' 4 for 28 against Essex, just pipping Henderson's 4 for 29 later in the group stages against Kent at Uxbridge – the only two four-wicket hauls for the county so far in this season's competition.
This season: Malan, 300.
Overall: Owais Shah, 686.
This season: Henderson, 19
Overall: Murtagh, 56.
There is an aura of all-round excellence – and they will be more than a handful – but they are not unbeatable.
Gareth Berg; Steven Finn; Billy Godleman; Tyron Henderson; Murali Kartik; Ed Joyce (c); Dawid Malan; Ben Scott; Eoin Morgan; Timothy Murtagh; David Nash; Owais Shah; Shaun Udal.
Route to The Rose Bowl
The weather presented Durham with a couple of points for the abandoned matches against Nottinghamshire and Lancashire and their opening game at home to Derbyshire was decided by Duckworth-Lewis because of the prevailing meteorological conditions. Shaun Pollock hit the winning runs in crepuscular light after Paul Collingwood turned in one of the best bowling performances of the competition, taking four wickets for just 14 runs. Thus launched, Durham did not lose their sense of purpose. They had entered this year's competition as the only county never to have progressed beyond the group stages and it was a record they were clearly determined to rid themselves of. Their one defeat in the North Division was early on against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge. Thereafter their most disappointing result was the tied match with Yorkshire at Headingley. They completed the double over Derbyshire and Leicestershire and sailed into the quarter-finals as the top team in the division, ahead of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Then came the confusion over who their opponents should be. They were originally scheduled to play Yorkshire at The Riverside, but the match was called off dramatically minutes before the start by the England and Wales Cricket Board after it was discovered that Yorkshire had fielded an ineligible player, Azeem Rafiq, in a group match against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge. After a hearing and a subsequent appeal, it was ruled that Glamorgan should replace Yorkshire as one of the two best third-placed teams and Durham then had to squeeze in the fixture a fortnight later. And having been put in to bat they scored what proved to be far more runs than Glamorgan could muster, Will Smith leading the way with a half-century.
England have released Collingwood, who claimed a career best 5 for 14 in the opening group game against Derbyshire. He also has a highest score of 79 in this format, playing for England. But Durham managed perfectly without him for the bulk of their journey to Finals Day. Shivnarine Chanderpaul, the West Indies Test batsman, has arrived in time to join in the fun, but will he be necessary? Phil Mustard and Dale Benkenstein have been full of runs and have displayed consistency throughout the 11 matches played so far. Will Smith is another who has passed 200 runs on the way to the semis. Pollock brings his vast international all-round experience. His nagging accuracy, which has produced miserly returns in a format in which runs are hard to keep down, is certain to frustrate batsmen and put them under added pressure. In addition, Durham are an excellent fielding side.
This is uncharted territory for Durham and their lack of experience may count against them on the big stage. However, that did not stop them winning last season's Friends Provident Trophy at Lord's, and stages do not come much bigger than that. There is plenty of individual talent and no real discernible weaknesses, although Glamorgan is the only team they have bowled out.
Mustard has enjoyed comfortably his best season in the competition. His captain, Benkenstein, is another who has piled up the runs. Smith has passed the 200-mark for the first time and the now departed South African Albie Morkel also contributed usefully with the bat. The bowling has perhaps lacked a little bite: Plunkett and Pollock have been the pick of the bunch.
This season: Mustard, 288
Overall: Mustard, 882.
This season: Plunkett, Pollock, 13
Overall: Gareth Breese 36.
Cannot be written off as possible finalists, if only because of their collective sense of purpose, but they will all need to come good to overcome Middlesex.
Dale Benkenstein (c), Gareth Breese, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Paul Collingwood, Michael Di Venuto, Ben Harmison, Stephen Harmison, Neil Killeen, Gordon Muchall, Phil Mustard (wkt), Graham Onions, Garry Park, Liam Plunkett, Shaun Pollock, Will Smith, Paul Wiseman.
Rose Bowl Schedule 11.30am Essex v Kent; 3pm Middlesex v Durham; 7.15pm Final. Television Live on Sky Sports 1. Radio Five Live