Lancashire Lightning showed why they are top of the north section as a terrific comeback led to a 18-run NatWest T20 Blast win at Grace Road.
Lightning were 114-7 after 17 overs as the Foxes seamers got things off to a tight start before Jigar Naik (4-0-30-3), Josh Cobb (3-0-18-2) and Scott Styris (4-0-26-1) built on their work.
Things were looking under control but late cameos from Jordan Clark (20*, 16b) and Kabir Ali (19*, 8b) saw the visitors up to a competitive 151-7.
The Foxes were looking good on 50-1 after their powerplay with captain Cobb en route to an excellent 60 (51 balls) but the Lightning struck back.
Lancashire had a lovely blend to their attack; slow bowling strangled the Foxes in the middle overs and the seamers gave a vintage display of death bowling to finish the job.
Steven Croft (4-0-31-3) took three important wickets with his variations and three catches – including a stunner to dismiss Styris – while Andrew Flintoff returned 3-26 and Stephen Parry (4-0-16-0) was a model of consistency.
The Lightning won the toss and elected to bat on a humid evening at Grace Road. Both sides were unchanged from their respective victories against Derbyshire Falcons and Worcestershire rapids on Sunday, so Flintoff made his second Lightning appearance in his second spell with the Red Rose county.
For the Foxes, the game was a microcosm of the season, with the team competing for large periods before it slipped away.
Given Birmingham Bears meet Yorkshire Vikings next Friday, the Foxes' qualification hopes were ended when the Bears completed a derby win against Worcestershire Royals under the floodlights at Edgbaston.
Charlie Shreck started with a terrific over that cost just two and Anthony Ireland (3-0-32-1) followed that up by conceding four. Ben Raine (3-0-23-0) went for five as the seamers continued to impress.
There was an eventful fourth over, starting with Tom Smith (10, 9b) hitting the first ball for the first boundary of the innings over mid-off. The opener looked to make it two but perished to Ireland’s next ball, Greg Smith taking a well-judged catch running backwards from cover.
Ashwell Prince had struggled to get going up to that point but then took responsibility. The batsmen crossed at the dismissal and Prince clattered his first four over mid-wicket next ball. Another two fours followed at the end of the over as Prince struck over extra cover and edged down to third man.
Shreck bowled three dots in the fifth over but Karl Brown then whacked over cover point for four. Another boundary followed at the start of the 6th over as Brown flicked away, Lightning moving to 38-1 by the end of the powerplay.
An athletic piece of work by Matthew Boyce saved Naik a six but a fluky inside edge from Prince went for four. Prince then produced much more authentic shots to find the boundary at cover and mid-on in Cobb’s first set.
A second wicket came at the end of the ninth over as Brown (13, 14b) skied Naik miles into the air and Ned Eckersley took a brilliant diving catch running away from his mid-wicket station. Only five came from Styris’ opener as Lightning were restricted to 66-2 at halfway.
Skipper Paul Horton reverse swept a four at the start of the 11th and a set of five wides also helped the visitors’ cause. Naik kept his cool and had Prince (41, 35b) nicely held by Shreck at long-on.
That brought Jos Buttler to the wicket and he played two of his scoop strokes off consecutive deliveries to collect boundaries. Another improvised stroke found its way over short third man in the next over and a four clubbed to long-on off the last ball of the 13th took the score to 100.
Buttler (20, 12b) was being a nuisance but he went for one shot too many, caught off a switch hit by Cobb off Naik. The skipper then took another catch, this time off his own bowling, to dismiss Horton (16, 15b).
Lightning were not exactly flying on 109-5 with five overs to go and Styris had a huge lbw appeal against Croft turned down. The medium pacer did not dwell on it; he had Croft (3, 7b) smartly caught behind by Niall O’Brien, who was standing up, and only two came off a superb over.
Flintoff (1, 4b) came in to rapturous applause but batted for only four balls as Cobb trapped the batsman lbw. The over from the skipper went for three, and Lightning had gone from 100-3 after 13 to 114-7 after 17.
Clark and Kabir then added combined to frustrate the Foxes with a stand of 37 in just three overs. Kabir somehow flicked his first ball behind square for four and Clark then pulled over-mid-wicket as ten came off Styris’ last over.
Fourteen came off the next from Shreck as Clark hit a super shot through extra in the penultimate over to collect another four while Kabir hit the first six of the innings over mid-off. Both batsmen edged streaky fours down to third man off Raine as 13 arrived off the last over.
Cobb and O’Brien opened the innings and the captain drove through mid-off for four in Kabir’s first over. O’Brien pulled Tom Smith’s (1-0-8-0) first ball to the ropes as another eight came off the second over.
Flintoff’s first set only went for five but Cobb smoked Junaid Khan’s first ball over mid-off and O’Brien crunched a drive through extra. O’Brien then smashed Flintoff for six over mid-on before stroking the ball through cover point for four. The bowler got his revenge when O’Brien (24, 16b) pulled to Prince in the deep.
Cobb smashed Kabir down the ground for four and the 50 came up after 5.5 overs. Four were gathered off Parry’s first over before a huge six for Cobb in Croft’s opener. The slow bowler responded by bowling Greg Smith (5, 9b), and the wicket started a purple patch for
Although Eckersley (5, 3b) drove Parry over backward point for four, he was then caught behind by Buttler after playing a reverse sweep off Croft. The same duo combined to dismiss Boyce (1, 2b), who got a tickle to a leg side delivery. The Foxes were 76-4 at the halfway stage, so the Lightning had dragged themselves back into the game.
The next two overs went for five as the spinners continued to squeeze, but the return of pace helped the Foxes. The skipper smashed a quick ball from Junaid for a huge maximum over deep backward square-leg while Styris glanced to the ropes as 12 came off the over.
A sweep from Styris took the score into three figures and a beautiful four from Cobb through the covers took him to a 41-ball 50. Fourteen came off Croft’s last over but another fine over from Parry ended his fine spell of 0-16.
The target was now 43 off 30 balls and the game was in the balance. Lightning gave themselves a big boost as Styris (14, 16b) fell to a stunning piece of work by Croft.
The fielder not only stopped a six by parrying the ball on the longest boundary of the ground towards the manual scoreboard, he also returned to the field to complete the catch off Flintoff. Another wonderful piece of work by Croft stopped Cobb picking up four – this was top stuff from the Lightning’s premier fielder.
Junaid then struck a key blow as Cobb was pocketed by Prince at deep extra cover and the Foxes now needed 34 off 18 balls with Tom Wells (3, 6b) and Raine (11, 8b) at the crease. Flintoff finished his fine night’s work by having Wells caught by that man Croft at long-on, and Junaid then bowled Ireland.
Raine smashed a six off the last ball of Junaid’s spell (4-0-34-2) to leave 20 needed off the last over. The left-hander became Croft’s third catch, this time at long-off from the bowling of Kabir (2.4-0-16-1), and Shreck (0, 0b) was run out without facing to end the match.
The Foxes next game, the final home match of the group stages, comes against Durham next Friday night (5.30pm start).
* Thanks to Ed Melia for the photo of Josh and Freddie.