Leicestershire became the first county to secure a last-four place in the Cheltenham and Gloucester Trophy here yesterday – and did so with such superiority that none of the other semi-finalists will relish being drawn against them.
Unbeaten in one-day matches since early May, Leicestershire have in their sights a limited-overs double, with every prospect of becoming the first name on the knockout trophy under its new sponsor, as well as landing the Norwich Union League title.
At the heart of yesterday's emphatic triumph – a disappointment for a New Road crowd who had seen their own side reel off an impressive six consecutive wins in all games – was Shahid Afridi, the wrist-spinning Pakistan all-rounder whose accidental recruitment as a Leicestershire player threatens to have a profound influence on the remainder of their season.
The accident was the one that befell Leicestershire's contracted overseas player, Daniel Marsh, 17 days ago, when a depressed cheekbone fracture suffered while fielding ruled the Australian out for the season. Shahid had not returned home following the NatWest Series, and Leicestershire, having been granted permission to replace Marsh, moved so swiftly that Shahid was tracked down and signed within 24 hours.
Two important wickets on his debut delivered Shahid an immediate return, as his new side eliminated Nottinghamshire from the last 16 of this competition. But it is what he has done with the bat over the last three days that has encouraged Leicestershire to believe so strongly in their prize-winning potential.
Having smashed an extraordinary 70 off 32 balls against Kent last Sunday, he came up with another fantasy of one-day batsmanship yesterday, hitting 67 off 44 deliveries in an awesome exhibition that damaged Worcestershire in more than just a metaphorical sense – the first of his four sixes piercing the slate roof tiles above the New Road stand and lodging itself in the crater.
This, against a shellshocked Alamgir Sheriyar, came in only the fourth over of Leicestershire's innings, after Vince Wells had won the toss and decided to let Shahid loose from the outset. The peak came in the 15th, when an unfortunate Stuart Lampitt conceded 28 from eight balls, including a wide and a no ball, in which Shahid's five scoring strokes went 4-6-4-4-4-3. A couple more sixes off Matthew Rawnsley's left-arm spin raised more thrills before a leading edge had him caught at cover.
"I just try to play positively," he said, somewhat understating his startling approach, adding that he considered himself "on a learning curve", which from a 21-year-old is probably an accurate assessment. Given that he already possesses the world record one-day international century – off 37 balls against Sri Lanka four years ago – one can only wonder at what might be to come.
As a consequence of his efforts – although Trevor Ward's 35 off 38 balls at least merits a mention – Leicestershire were 108 for 2 from 15 overs, and 150 by the time he was out in the 20th, the game effectively in the bag, even if their final total of 297 for 9 was less than once seemed probable. Worcestershire can take a little consolation from that, although some of Leicestershire's other batsmen may consider they got themselves out carelessly on a largely blameless pitch.
However, any chance that Worcestershire might emerge from the carnage victorious was effectively strangled at birth by the restrictive new-ball bowling of James Ormond and Stuart Boswell, who saw off Anurag Singh and Graeme Hick cheaply, the noose tightened by Phil DeFreitas, who dismissed Vikram Solanki and David Leatherdale with consecutive balls.
When Philip Weston, batting with a runner after damaging a knee, succumbed for a brave 40, Worcestershire were 89 for 6 in the 24th over. Only a gritty half-century from wicketkeeper Steve Rhodes delayed Leicestershire.