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Northamptonshire Steelbacks all-rounder David Willey produced a tremendous innings to condemn Leicestershire Foxes to a cruel two-wicket defeat in a NatWest T20 Blast floodlit thriller at Wantage Road.
In a match reduced to 18 overs, the Foxes posted an imposing 176-4 as captain Josh Cobb (70, 45b) and Greg Smith (56, 37b) shared 113 in 12 overs for the second wicket.
Scott Styris then smoked 27 off just 13 balls to ensure the reigning champions would need to produce a high-quality chase if they were to claim the two points.
First things first - there's not an awful lot you can do when someone strikes the ball as cleanly as Willey did. The opener’s 95 came from only 45 balls and included eight fours and six maximums, all of which comfortably cleared the rope.
But as terrific as Willey’s innings was, the Foxes will know in their heart of hearts that they would have won if chances had been taken in the field.
Willey could have lost his wicket on a few occasions, and while they were by no means straightforward opportunities, the Foxes really ought to have ended his innings at an earlier point.
Graeme White (11*, 4b) was also put down at long-off in the final over and had he been dismissed, the Steelbacks would have required four runs from three balls with one wicket left.
But NatWest T20 Blast games often have ‘what if’ moments, so the Foxes needn’t be too hard on themselves. The team will be far better served by taking the positives from another strong performance rather than dwelling on the outcome.
There was heavy rain in the area before the start but it eased around 6pm and umpires Mark Benson and Martin Saggers inspected at 6.45pm. The groundstaff did well to ensure play was able to start at 7.15pm with both sides losing two overs.
Leicestershire are still yet to win a toss in 2014 and they were invited to bat by Kyle Coetzer. The team showed two changes from the one that beat Derbyshire Falcons as Michael Thornely and Alex Wyatt came in for Matthew Boyce and Jigar Naik. The Steelbacks were unchanged from their opening day win at Yorkshire.
Cobb and Niall O’Brien got the Foxes off to a flying start. Cobb struck two consecutive fours over mid-off and through point in the second over bowled by Olly Stone, and O’Brien (15, 9b) then hammered fours in the third over through cover, down to fine leg and back past the bowler. But the ‘keeper was then caught by Willey at deep mid-wicket of Ian Butler (4-0-29-2).
Cobb and Smith combined to devastating effect in the YB40 against Somerset last season and they again gave a demonstration of their batting chemistry.
Smith cracked over cover and down the ground off Steven Crook in the fourth over as boundaries continued to come. Cobb smashed over mid-on to pick up four in Muhammad Azharullah’s opening over and Foxes had registered 50 by the end of their five-over powerplay.
Smith swept White for four in the next over before Cobb smashed Azharullah over cover in the seventh over. Smith reverse swept for four before launching the first six of the innings as the pair recorded their 50 partnership in just 30 deliveries.
Only five came off the next over from Crook but Cobb struck a four and six over mid-on as Matthew Spriegel entered the attack. Cobb hit a four over extra to take the score into three figures and another boundary brought up a splendid 31-ball 50 (7x4, 1x6).
A six from Cobb was well held by a spectator in the executive boxes as the Foxes pushed on to 123-1 with five overs to go. Smith stepped across his stumps at the start of a productive 14th over to hit down to fine leg before picking up a single to record his own half-century (33b, 5x4, 1x6). Cobb then produced a ramp shot to pick up three while Smith also cracked over cover as 15 were scored in total. The alliance was now into three figures and the Foxes had 138-1 on the board.
Northants dragged things back by conceding 11 in the next two overs and dismissing both set batsmen. Smith lost his off-stump to Butler in the 15th over and Cobb holed out to Crook at deep extra off Azharullah (4-0-43-2) in the antepenultimate over.
Styris played himself in before pulling a four in the 17th over. The innings ended in style as 19 were plundered from the final six balls, including a Styris maximum over mid-wicket and the cleanest of sixes over cover that almost cleared the stand. Styris then struck a four down to backward square leg before he found Stone in the deep.
The Steelbacks were immediately behind the rate as only four came off Wyatt’s (3-0-23-0) impressive opener. Richard Levi (17, 10b) then hit down the ground for four and over mid-wicket for six before planting another leg-side stroke to the ropes. Buck (4-0-42-2) landed revenge by bowling him off the last ball of the over.
It was an important breakthrough for the Foxes but Willey was happy to take over the role of aggressor. The all-rounder launched a huge six onto the roof of the Lynn Wilson Centre in the 3rd over and Coetzer (15, 10b) struck two fours through the off-side in the 4th.
The Steelbacks took 12 off the final over of the powerplay as they moved to 48-1. Included in that total was a four through the covers from Willey, while Coetzer was fortunate to pick up a brace when a loose drive just evaded Buck’s grasp at mid-off.
Northants put themselves in the driving seat by taking 19 off the sixth over, including a Willey glance for four and two powerfully pulled sixes. The hosts built on that by gathering 13 from the next over as Willey twice found the fine leg boundary. He also had a let-off after skying Rob Taylor but Ned Eckersley and substitute Boyce appeared to lose the ball in the floodlights and left the chance to each other.
A Willey six registered a sensational 24-ball 50 but the left-hander had another scare when he struck towards Boyce in the deep. The fielder made a diving attempt but the ball was dipping sharply and he couldn’t quite cling on.
Cobb did not have to wait long to claim a wicket as he trapped Coetzer lbw. Willey clattered his fifth six, this time off a no-ball from Taylor (2.3-0-35-1), and Rob Newton (8, 9b) cut for four as the score passed 100 in the 9th over.
Willey drilled a four back past Cobb (4-0-35-2) in the 10th over but the skipper continued his fine game by taking a return catch off Newton. That left a target of 66 off eight, so the Steelbacks still appeared to have things under control.
But another wicket came as Crook hit a full toss from Buck straight to Eckersley. Willey hit Cobb for four before launching Ireland for six, but the Foxes missed another opportunity to claim his wicket at an important stage of the game.
Willey clouted Ireland high into the night sky and the bowler’s instincts took him towards the ball. Eckersley may have had a better chance of getting underneath it coming in from backward point, but these split-second decisions always look easier with the benefit of hindsight.
The left-hander rubbed salt into the wounds by hitting two consecutive fours off Cobb as the target came down to 31 off the last four overs. Northants looked to be heading towards victory but there was another twist as Willey again hit Ireland in the air. This time it was a stroke that looped towards the backward point region and Eckersley took the catch.
Northants needed 24 with three overs to go but they halved that target in the next over, with Butler hitting an important four off the last ball. This fascinating contest continued to ebb and flow as Ireland (4-0-44-2) had a tremendous start to the penultimate over. The seamer had Ben Duckett (15, 17b) superbly caught by Eckersley and Ireland also kept his cool to play his part in running out Spriegel (0, 1b) next ball.
Three runs came from the next three balls to leave nine required off seven balls and White smashed a crucial four off the last ball to leave five to win. That looked to be the telling blow but there was yet another response from the Foxes as Taylor took a stunning return catch to remove Butler (9, 7b).
A Stone single left four to score off four balls before Taylor carved out another opportunity. White drove high towards long-off and although Ireland looked like he was underneath it all of the way, the ball agonisingly squirmed out of his grasp.
White managed to sneak back for a second run to add insult to injury and the spinner then hit the ball to the cover boundary off the next delivery to seal a dramatic win in a game of very small margins.
The Foxes were understandably gutted at the end but they were a whisker away from beating the champions and will be able to take lots of confidence into the next game against Birmingham Bears on Sunday, June 1 (2.40pm start).