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Leicestershire Foxes were left to rue a poor performance with the bat as Nottinghamshire Outlaws defended 121-9 in the NatWest T20 Blast game at Trent Bridge.
Atif Sheikh, in just his second career T20 appearance, dismissed England T20 openers Michael Lumb and Alex Hales as part of a terrific spell of 2-11 that set the tone for a great performance in the field.
The left arm seamer would not have envisaged being part of the highest stand of the chase given he was down at eleven on the scorecard, but that was how things panned out as the Foxes were dismissed for 90 - the lowest total in their history.
The Outlaws deserve credit for a fightback led by Luke Fletcher dismissing leading scorers Josh Cobb and Greg Smith in the second over as part of a double wicket maiden.
But the Foxes will have been desperately disappointed to lose a grip on the game as five batsmen were dismissed in the powerplay, and the cause was not helped by three avoidable run outs.
After Cobb won the toss and elected to field in front of a crowd in excess of 10,000 on a warm afternoon, Lumb and Hales looked ominous.
The left-hander cracked down the ground and through backward point as 11 came off the first over and although Sheikh’s opener cost three, Hales struck through the covers, mid-off and straight mid-wicket to record boundaries in the third over.
However, there was no further boundary for 71 deliveries as the Foxes really got their claws in. Sheikh picked up a maiden Foxes wicket by disturbing the stumps of Lumb (12, 9b) and Shreck then made another key breakthrough by trapping the in-form Riki Wessels (1, 5b) in front in the 4th over.
Samit Patel (44, 36b) went on to anchor the Outlaws innings but he could have gone first ball after clipping the former Nottinghamshire seamer towards Tom Wells at mid-wicket. The ball just evaded the fielder’s grasp and Patel survived another half-chance when Matthew Boyce’s throw at the end of the 5th over nearly run him out.
It was now all Leicestershire as Hales (18, 18b), who would have been beaten had Raine’s throw hit the wicket after he was sent back by Patel, followed the path of his opening partner after attempting to smash Sheikh through the leg-side.
The score was 37-3 after the powerplay and the ever-economical Scott Styris (4-0-13-1) conceded three in his opener. Sheikh finished his brilliant spell by going for four – after being 28-0 after three overs, the Outlaws had now recorded 16-3 in the last five overs.
Five were gathered from the 9th over and Jigar Naik came on to bowl the 10th. A glance for three by Patel took the score to 50 from the off-spinner’s first ball, but only three came from the rest of the over and Styris continued to stifle the batsmen by conceding three in his third offering.
Naik (4-0-27-1) went for four in his second over and something had to give. The batsman lost out; former Fox James Taylor had worked hard to get to 12 from 22 balls, but he tried to reverse-sweep Styris and was pinned in front. Only two came from the all-rounder’s last over with the Outlaws looking for inspiration on 64-4 with seven overs to go.
The skipper introduced himself and kept a hold on proceedings as Patel and James Franklin gathered five singles between them. Patel hit the first six of the innings in the 15th over from Naik – the first boundary of any description since the 3rd over – and 11 came from it in total.
Patel then struck Cobb over mid-wicket for four but the off-spinner had Franklin (9, 13b) held by Raine, who was running in from long-off. The score was 88-5 with four overs remaining.
Chris Read (6, 4b) and Patel both nudged Shreck down to the third man boundary as 13 came from the 17th, the second of those fours registering the 100 at the end of the over. Naik returned to snare Read leg before as part of a good last over, and Patel was then run out by a direct hit by Niall O’Brien in the penultimate over after trying to regain the strike.
Steve Mullaney (10*, 8b) edged Shreck over short third man as the bowler continued to have no luck – he bowled much better than figures of 4-0-36-1 may suggest. The Foxes did not let things slip at the end; only five came from the first four balls of the last over, and Cobb then had Ajmal Shahzad (4, 4b) caught by Sheikh on the reverse-sweep before seeing Fletcher (0, 1b) held in the deep by Boyce.
Chasing 122 on a pitch where the batsmen were struggling to time the ball was never going to be a breeze, but the run rate was in hand. The Foxes knew that keeping wickets in hand was going to be key, so would have been incredibly frustrated to slip to 25-5 by the end of the fielding restrictions.
Cobb (5, 4b) struck the first ball of the reply from ex-Leicestershire bowler Harry Gurney to the point boundary but he and Smith (0, 5b) both nicked Fletcher to Read in the second over. O’Brien (6, 8b) glanced Gurney for four at the start of the third over but then pulled the left armer to deep square leg, where Franklin ran around to his right to take a decent catch.
Ned Eckersley (2, 6b) thought his stroke had avoided Mullaney in the fifth over only to see the fielder grab the ball, swivel and knock over the stumps. When Styris was adjudged lbw to Shahzad (4-0-19-1) in the final over of the powerplay, the Outlaws were in the box seats.
A stand of 21 developed between Boyce (20, 18b) and Wells (8, 18b) but the duo fell in the 11th over. Wells clubbed Patel to Hales at deep mid-wicket, and Boyce was then run out after a mix-up with Raine.
Naik (0, 2b) became the third wicket to fall in the space of seven balls after offering Mullaney (4-0-22-1) a return catch, the Foxes now in desperate trouble on 51-8. Patel finished his fine game by taking 1-18 from his allocation before the Foxes’ lower order enjoyed themselves.
Shreck (10, 13b) smashed a six off Gurney (3-0-19-1) but was the third player to be run out as Raine turned down the call for a single in Mullaney's last over. The last pair showed good spirit in adding 26; Mullaney had only conceded ten before Sheikh clouted the two of his final three balls for maximums over cover and extra cover, and Raine (20*, 23b) hit two successive Shahzad full tosses to the cover boundary in the 18th over.
Sheikh’s innings of 14 (9b) was ended as the impressive Fletcher (3.1-1-11-3) hit the stumps midway through the 19th over. It was fitting that Fletcher had the final say given his earlier excellence had put his side right back in the game.
The Outlaws are now looking to secure a home quarter-final berth while the Foxes' final NatWest T20 Blast game comes against Birmingham Bears at Edgbaston on Friday evening (5.30pm start).
* Thanks to Ed Melia for the photo of Atif Sheikh.