A fight to the finish
This year's Wild West-themed Twenty20 Cup Finals day might just be the most explosive yet, says Ian Ward.
Last Updated: 18/08/09 2:53pm
If there is one occasion that sums up cricket's recent revolution it is Twenty20 Finals day.
One-day finals at Lord's will always be special, but there is a buzz and excitement around the climax to this competition that is unique.
Much of that is down to the sensational crowds it attracts. It is another sell-out occasion at Edgbaston this Saturday and you can bet that there won't be a seat to be had come the final whoever makes it through.
The drama is heightened these days as there is so much more at stake for the players than when I played for Surrey in the first Finals day in 2003.
There is now a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in the form of a place in the Champions League plus the chance of a lucrative Indian Premier League contract for anyone who is able to put in a stellar performance.
I think the teams who contest the second semi-final, which this year is Kent and Somerset, have a slight advantage on the day because their players spend less time hanging around.
For either Sussex or Northamptonshire the euphoria of victory will dissipate while they wait to learn who their final opponents are and, lest we forget, while the Mascot Derby is run! Factor in the final itself and it all adds up to one incredibly long day.
But if you win the second semi-final it's a case of 'well done, boys, let's get up for the final' and away you go - the momentum is with you and there's not quite as big a lull to fill.
Despite that, you cannot rule Northants out of the final equation because they have three South African players competing under here under the Kolpak ruling who are fantastic one-day cricketers.
Captain Nicky Boje is a fine leader who offers a great spin option and time and again in this country we've seen how crucial slow bowling can be in deciding the final outcome in Twenty20 cricket.
Johan van der Wath can bowl genuinely quickly, has good changes of pace and can definitely whack it. He reminds me of comments made by Adam Hollioake when we first started playing Twenty20 cricket in this country: this game is about hitting the ball out of the park and taking wickets.
The second part of that equation was borne out during this year's ICC World Twenty20, in particular by the wicket-taking exploits of Lasith Malinga, Umar Gul and the spin of Ajantha Mendis.
The Steelbacks also have Andrew Hall, who does much the same job as Van der Wath; he's a very good bowler at the death who bowls fantastic yorkers and a good mix of slower balls.
The bookies will probably say Northants have the least chance of winning but it's dangerous to write them off because Saturday will be their first taste of Finals day and they will be well up for it.
Their opponents, Sussex, travel to Edgbaston with a bit of unfinished business to put right after they lost at the same ground to Kent in the 2007 semi-finals.
I know the players who tasted defeat on that day feel they didn't perform anywhere the levels they are capable of and are very keen to right the wrongs.
The feeling is that they were too frenetic two years ago so they intend to go into Saturday's opening clash in a calmer state of mind rather than waste all of their emotion beforehand.
The Sharks have played some very good one-day cricket this season, making it to the Friends Provident Trophy final on the way, and their Twenty20 form has been excellent too.
The statistics will say that the bowlers have done the job for them in this competition but they also bat an awfully long way down too.
Chris Nash, who opens in the County Championship, bats at eight and has adapted his game well to find plenty of ways to get it to the boundary.
Plus with the likes of Murray Goodwin and Michael Yardy, who has had a great season, the Sharks have plenty of experience in their ranks.
Rory Hamilton-Brown is a very good cricketer and his 4-15 underpinned a fine performance against Warwickshire in the quarter-finals. It's just a shame, for Sussex and the crowd, that Matt Prior will play no part following his back spasm but with the Ashes still undecided his absence is understandable.
The glamour semi-final is Somerset against Kent but this, in my view, is the more intriguing game.
When's all said and done, though, I really struggle to look past Kent as favourites because they have it all: wicket-takers, a strong batting line-up, good spinners and in Rob Key an inventive captain.
It was very noticeable during England's clash against the Netherlands in the World Twenty20, when things were coming down to the crunch, that Key was itching to make a couple of suggestions.
He reads the game so well. I kept a close eye on him at the time; he was standing out at deep square leg saying 'I can see this is going to happen, that's going to happen'. That's no slight on the way Paul Collingwood conducted himself but it underlined to me that captains can make a difference in Twenty20 cricket.
They have got to be ahead of the game and so sharp because the windows to make an impact as captain are small and few - but they are there. If Key can get his side to put it all together on the day then I think they will win the trophy.
That's not to write off Somerset's chances. How can you when they have Marcus Trescothick and Justin Langer, who keeps on pumping up James Hildreth's tyres as a future England batsman?
We saw how effective Craig Kieswetter and Peter Trego can be against Gloucestershire earlier on this Twenty20 campaign when they put on a remarkable partnership to take Somerset to victory. Alfonso Thomas is a very experienced bowler too so it's a very good side.
But although their boundary-hitters are mightily impressive, I feel Kent have a better balance in their side.It all adds up to a cracking day. I'm completely converted to Twenty20 cricket. I definitley has its place on the circuit. I wouldn't want the domestic schedule to solely be a diet of Twenty20 cricket, but there's no doubt this is a very special product.
You've heard Wardy's view - now find out which team each of Sky Sports' hard-hitting commentary team is backing...
David 'Bumble' Lloyd: Somerset
There are three cracking teams in action and an outsider. I've backed Somerset from the off even though I think Sussex and Kent are a danger to them, they should have too much. But beware - there is always an unfashionable team in this competition who is ready to spoil the party and this time Northants are cast in that role. Always beware the outsider!
I've had quite a substantial bet on Somerset at 7/1. I'm not supporting them mind you - I just thought that it was good value bet. Justin Langer, Marcus Trescothick, James Hildreth, Craig Kiewswetter, Peter Trego, Zander du Bruyn - how can that lot go wrong? The only thing worrying me is that they don't travel that well but they have got a good attack, are very well led and I think I am getting good value.
Paul Allott: Kent
As Bumble says, Northants are clearly the underdogs but that won't worry them too much. Looking at the line-up, I like Kent but Sussex are going to be very strong challengers as well. It will be interesting to see the Rob Key-Joe Denly partnership going again, particularly now that Key is back in the headlines ahead of the fifth Ashes Test. He's a proven, quality performer in this type of cricket and as a team Kent have got the experience. This is their third consecutive Finals Day and losing to Middlesex last year must have hurt. They've also got some good finishers too - Ryan McLaren and Azhar Mahmood - and off-spinner James Tredwell is a dangerous customer.
Experience does count for a lot now because with a Champions League place up for grabs the stakes are high. That pressure can sometimes do funny things to individual players. Sussex have played in a big final already this year and come out second best. They won't want to go to another big, grand day like that and come away empty handed.
Nick Knight: Kent
I agree with Walt. No matter how hard I look, Kent are the standout side on paper for me. They are the side I keep coming back to. They bat so deep and have got plenty of options, as have my other team Somerset, but only one can make it to the final. Northants have got one of the best death bowlers in the competition. Andrew Hall is about as good as it gets in those crucial last couple of overs and underlined his worth with bat and ball with a great all-round display in the quarter-final victory over Hampshire.
Johan van der Wath is a similar type of player who whacks it out of the park and, as a fairly brisk bowler, is capable of getting early wickets too. And don't forget about Monty Panesar, who presumably will play, either. It's a massive Finals day for him and there's absolutely no reason why he can't turn in a performance of note and turn the game towards the Steelbacks. I'm also a big fan of Niall O'Brien, a very gutsy, determined lad whose striking can be very effective so Northants do have the cricketers - there's no question about that. They are often there or thereabouts in the group stages; as a player you knew they would always give you a good game. They know their Twenty20 cricket and in Nicky Boje have a captain more than capable of leading by example.
Nasser Hussain: Somerset
I backed Somerset at the very beginning of the season and I see no reason for changing now! They are a good all-round package. I wouldn't want to be facing Kent in the last-four and I reckon the overall winner will come from that semi-final. But the beauty of Finals day is that you just never know. Sussex have had a very good one-day season. They made Friends Provident Trophy final and they will view this as their big chance to get their hands on a trophy. The Sharks have got a very long batting line-up with plenty of people who can whack it out of the ground, including the explosive Luke Wright. Murray Goodwin and Michael Yardy are very capable cricketers and in Yasir Arafat and James Kirtley they have two good death bowlers but losing Matt Prior will be a big blow.
As for Somerset, they are packed with talent from Marcus Trescothick and Justin Langer at the top through to the likes of Peter Trego in the middle-order and down to Alfonso Thomas, who is tough to face at the death. Tres hasn't fired on television recently and perhaps Somerset play their best cricket at Taunton but if they can travel to Edgbaston well they have a very good chance. Captaincy is very important throughout Finals day. Rob Key tells me it is an advantage to play in the second semi-final because you can lose a bit of momentum if you play in the first. At the end of the day it is a one-off occasion and whoever handles the pressure best will come out on top.
Mike Atherton: Kent
They have got a very strong record in the competition - quarter-finalists in 2006, runners-up last year, winners in 2007. They had a terrific win-loss ratio in the opening stages of this year's competition so they are very much a form team. Rob Key is an important man in terms of captaincy, which is an important facet of Twenty20 cricket. Trying to stay calm when it is all going off around you is a must, as is having the nous to attack. Wayne Parnell's return is a huge boost because he's a terrific performer, as we saw in the World Twenty20.
Durham might not be as good a one-day outfit as they are a Championship but they are still an impressive team and to dispose of them as Kent did in the quarter-finals bodes well for the Spitfires. Geraint Jones' time has probably been and gone in the Test arena but he remains a very combative wicketkeeper-batsman who adds a lot to the teams so he'll be one to watch out for.