Stevens powers Kent to quarter-finals
Kent 183 for 3 beat Essex 168 for 9 by 15 runs
Kent booked their place in the quarter-finals of the Friends Life t20 with a 15-run win over Essex in front of a packed house at Chelmsford. Allrounder Darren Stevens was Man of the Match after starring with both bat and ball, striking a brutal 41 and following that up with four cheap wickets to derail Essex's middle order, but the night was not without controversy.
Stevens entered the fray in the 13th over after the departure of Azhar Mahmood with Kent well-placed at 95 for 2, but didn't get off the mark until the seventh ball he faced and had just 5 to his name when he uppercut Ravi Bopara to third man, where Scott Styris creaked in from the rope impressively quickly and showed he still retained the class from his international days with what appeared to be a diving catch, scooping the ball into his fingers millimetres from the turf.
The umpires thought that the catch warranted a second look, however, and Styris reacted angrily when Stevens was eventually given not out. Essex have suffered disciplinary breaches more than once this season, and though captain James Foster managed to keep his cool Styris, who had claimed the catch as clean, trotted in for an extended chat with the umpires at the end of the over before being gently ushered away by team-mate Tim Southee.
Kent had initially struggled to force the pace on a sluggish pitch that didn't aid strokeplay, with Essex taking pace off the ball, but Stevens made full use of the reprieve to dominate the bowlers. He mowed Ryan ten Doeschate out of the ground and into the River Can, requiring a change of ball, but the harder, newer ball came on more easily to the bat and Stevens immediately thrashed another six, over long-off.
Joe Denly, who chugged along at more or less a run a ball in the first half of the innings but accelerated as he passed fifty, departed soon after, swiping ten Doeschate to Tim Phillips, running in from deep midwicket. Essex might have had a second wicket in the same over when Stevens toe-ended a hoick at ten Doeschate, the ball looping agonisingly over the bowler, who sprinted back and got a hand to it but couldn't complete the catch.
Essex's death bowlers did all that was asked of them but the luck was with Kent, as pinpoint yorkers were repeatedly inside-edged and squeezed down to the short boundary at fine leg. There were some good shots too, with van Jaarsveld peppering the leg side and Stevens going past 2,000 runs in domestic Twenty20s with a paddle to fine leg from the last ball of the innings as Kent reached 183 for 3 after 32 runs had come from the last 12 balls.
If anyone was going to find swing in the placid conditions, it was going to be Charl Langeveldt, who opened with a slip in place and curved several deliveries past the outside edge of Mark Pettini's bat in the first over. Mahmood also found some help with the new ball and slipped an inswinger under Pettini's bat to rattle the stumps with the score at 9.
Owais Shah repeated Stevens' earlier feat with the shot of the match, an elegant checked-drive that sailed out of the ground and required another change of ball to kick-start Essex's chase and by the third over of the innings, the movement through the air had vanished
Essex reached had reached 48 for 1 at the end of the field restrictions, but the introduction of Stevens in the seventh over turned the match as Adam Wheater ran past his second delivery - a slow cutter - and was easily stumped for 27. The required rate had crept above 10 an over when Shah lifted his second six over midwicket off Stevens, who barely touched 70 miles an hour all evening, in the ninth over but Stevens soon got his own back, disturbing Shah's stumps after the batsman had stepped to leg to give himself some room
Stevens struck for the third time in the 11th over as Bopara drove too early at a slow offcutter and popped back an easy return catch. Essex had slipped to 77 for 4 and the rate was fast climbing towards two runs a ball with James Tredwell also finding considerable grip and turn off the spongy surface
Stevens had made canny use of the slower ball in his first three overs, but it was a quicker one that brought him his fourth wicket as he snaked one in between ten Doeschate's bat and pad to leave Essex tottering at 87 for 5.
As had been the case at The Oval on Thursday night, Wahab Riaz was far more effective at the death than he had been at the top of the innings, whipping the ball in at a slippery pace and targeting the blockhole. He pegged back Foster's middle stump with a dipping full toss after he had scratched around for boundary-free 12, and Essex's hopes were rapidly fading at 120 for 6 in the 17th over.
Kent, perhaps feeling a little too assured of victory, slipped dangerously in the closing overs, both Langeveldt and Riaz no-balling and repeated lapses in the field keeping Essex in the hunt as Graham Napier raced to 26 with five boundaries before he picked out Alex Blake on the midwicket boundary. Styris enlivened the Essex massive with a towering six off Mahmood in the final over, but there were simply too many needed, and the result was sealed when he lifted a slower ball to long-off.
"I've got to be careful [what I say], with recent histories," Foster said after the match. "But [Stevens] went on to play a crucial knock and turned out to be a match-winner. It's frustrating, but you never know, someone else could have come in and scored runs. I don't blame Steve-o, the umpires told him to hold fire and stay there until they'd had a look. [Umpiring] is a tricky job, I don't know how many of us guys will go into it after our careers because it's very difficult."
"I turned for the second run, Ravi was in my line [of sight] so I asked the umpires if it carried or not, and they went to check it," explained Stevens.
Kent will now face Leicestershire at Grace Road in the quarter-finals of the competition.
Liam Brickhill is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo