Rikki Clarke starred for the Birmingham Bears as the NatWest T20 Blast north group leaders opened up a four-point gap between themselves and second-placed Worcestershire with an eight-run victory over the Leicestershire Foxes at Grace Road this afternoon. For the Foxes, it was their first home defeat in this year’s competition.
Following Brendon McCullum’s outrageous 158 not-out in last night’s crushing win over Derbyshire the Bears made it two wins in less than 24 hours, after Leicestershire were unable to beat the 160-8 that their opponents had set them, falling eight runs short and finishing with 152-4 in an exciting game.
Leicestershire went into today’s game hoping to bounce back from a disappointing defeat at Durham last night in front of an enthusiastic crowd at Grace Road, where there was a party atmosphere throughout the match.
Birmingham looked under pressure early on when, having won the toss and electing to bat, they lost captain Varun Chopra for 9 as he was trapped lbw by Ben Raine’s first delivery in the second over. McCullum, the star of last night, soon followed as he could only pick out the grateful hands of New Zealand team-mate Grant Elliott off the bowling of Clint McKay for just 6 runs. Tom Lewis then fell for 13, with Raine collecting the second of his three wickets with another lbw, leaving the visitors 42-3. A 60-run partnership between Tim Ambrose and Rikki Clarke, though, saw the Bears recover to 102-3 before Ambrose’s reverse sweep was caught at point off the bowling of Jigar Naik for 34. This was an important breakthrough for the Foxes, who had been unable to stop the free-scoring Ambrose and Clarke, the latter picking out the boundary with a combination of delicate and powerful shots. It was another powerful shot, heading for six, that eventually culminated in Clarke’s dismissal. After he luckily escaped earlier in the 18thover when Ollie Freckingham’s waist-high delivery was called a no-ball, Clarke was then caught on the boundary when Tom Wells took a simple catch.
Before this though, the Bears had lost their fifth wicket when Laurie Evans (6) was caught by Elliott, who claimed his second catch of the afternoon, providing spinner Rob Sayer with his first wicket. Ateeq Javid, who came in following Evans’ dismissal, scored a quick-fire 28 including a rather fortuitous six over Foxes’ wicketkeeper Ned Eckersley, but was clean bowled by McKay in the 19th over as he came down the wicket but mis-timed his big hit.
In Raine’s final over, the Bears felt that they had to try and pick up as many runs as possible but this resulted in Jeetan Patel being caught by Wells for just 3. A well-run two off the final ball meant that the Birmingham Bears set the Foxes 161 to win, with Raine finishing with bowling figures of 3-24 from his four overs.
In response, the home side were unable to challenge a manageable score set by the Bears, struggling with the absence of Irish duo Kevin and Niall O’Brien. After a steady start Oliver Hannon-Dalby was hit for 16 in the third over, which included a huge six and two fours in three balls from the bat of Leicestershire captain Mark Cosgrove, whose participation in the match was threatened by the imminent arrival of his first baby. Cosgrove’s fellow opener, Eckersley, was bowled when he could only get an inside edge onto Clarke’s delivery in the fourth over, sending the ball crashing into the stumps and falling for just 5 runs.
Cosgrove continued to score impressively with an array of big hits consolidated by steady singles and was accompanied in the middle by Ben Raine, but the star bowler could only make 17 before he was outwitted by the spin of Jeetan Patel in the ninth over, leaving Leicestershire on 57-2.
Next in to bat was Grant Elliott and together with captain Cosgrove, the pair put on a stand of 65 and looked to be building some momentum as they clawed themselves back into contention. Having fallen 22 runs behind the Bears after 12 overs, the pair put on 47 runs in the next four overs to tie themselves with Birmingham’s score of 122 after 16 overs. This left Leicester requiring 39 from the final four overs, just under 10 per over, which wasn’t impossible by any means. But in the 17th over, Elliot played a casual sweeping shot which was caught by Evans, dismissing the New Zealander for 23 and all but ending any chance of a home victory.
Recordo Gordon and Hannon-Dalby bowled out the final four overs excellently, with just three coming off the 17th over, before Hannon-Dalby was fortunate to limit his penultimate over to nine runs as Cosgrove drove straight into the opposing stumps, denying a certain boundary. Another quality over from Gordon left the Foxes requiring 19 off the final over to claim victory. Their chances were completely buried when a laboured second run by Cosgrove saw the Australian run-out for 74, confirmed by the third umpire. Wells, who had come in for Elliott, and Andrea Agathangelou could only add another eight in the final five balls, meaning that the Birmingham Bears won the match by eight runs.
The result leaves the Bears top of the Northern T20 Blast group, with 16 points from 10 games, whilst the Foxes are in fifth with 10 points from 11 games, still with a chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals with three games remaining. Leicestershire will be hoping to recover from a terrible weekend with a win over Lancashire on Friday night at Grace Road, whilst Birmingham will be looking to continue their current run with a strong performance against second-placed Worcestershire.
After the game, man of the match Rikki Clarke admitted that the Bears did not hit peak form today. He said: “We weren’t at our best but we got the two points and we’re enjoying it.” When asked about the impact of McCullum’s early dismissal, he confidently responded that there was “no panic.”
It is this confidence amongst the squad which the Birmingham Bears will hope to carry right through the rest of the tournament, with the aim of concluding with victory in the final at their home ground, Edgbaston, on 29th August. For the Foxes, meanwhile, it is a case of recovering from two disappointing defeats and hoping to push on in the final three games to clinch a spot in the quarter-finals.