The Graves digger buries the Blast - but Essex and Surrey far from 'mediocre'
Surrey 170 for 8 (Azhar Mahmood 42, Sangakkara 32, T Curran 32, Quinn 4-35) beat Essex 162 (Westley 46, ten Doeschate 36, Mahmood 4-38, T Curran 3-21) by eight runs
Debate continues to ferment over the future of England's T20 competition, which whatever the outcome is unlikely to survive in its current form, but the last thing the NatWest Blast needed on its opening night was for the Colin Graves, the ECB chairman, to deem it "mediocre" before a ball had been bowled.
Record attendances last season; record advance ticket sales this. The NatWest Blast might be in for a revamp, but a noisy full house for the TV match at Chelmsford - ultimately silenced as Surrey stole an eight-run win in an engrossing, fluctuating contest - was another salutary reminder that this competition has its fans.
It has angered many around the counties that the "Graves digger", whether by accident or design, almost buried the competition before it had begun.
Surrey's victory came from the unlikely position of 80 for 6 in the 11th over as one of T20's ancients, Azhar Mahmood, combined with the up-and-coming allrounder Tom Curran to steel Surrey with both bat and ball.
Mahmood smashed 42 off 22 balls as he put on 65 in seven overs in a bright and breezy seventh-wicket stand with Tom Curran to spark a mid-innings revival.
And Mahmood had barely removed his helmet than he had reduced Essex to 26 for 3 with the key wickets of Jesse Ryder and Dan Lawrence in successive balls - Ryder outwitted with a slower ball, Lawrence strangled down the leg side. He ended with four for 38.
New Zealand quick Matt Quinn had claimed career-best T20 figures of 4 for 35 in his first appearance for Essex only to finish on the losing side.
Ravi Bopara's decision to bowl in his first match as Essex's T20 captain broke the Chelmsford habit and the second-wicket pair of Jason Roy and Kumar Sangakkara raised 50 b y the fifth over. Bopara was forced to recall Quinn, who had already dismissed Steven Davies, and he removed Roy at mid-off. Four balls later, he caused Sangakkara to miscue a hook.
By the time Ryan ten Doeschate claimed a third catch, diving in on the deep square leg boundary to dismiss Sam Curran, Quinn had four wickets and, at 90 for 6, seemed to have settled the contest in Essex's favour.
But Tom Curran responded with 32 off 26 balls until he played over a slower ball from Napier. Mahmood went in the last over, toe-ending Bopara to Ashar Zaidi.
Essex's reply got off to the worse possible start when Bopara departed to the sixth ball, hooking Sam Curran high to Mahmood at square leg for one.
Tom Westley held them together with 46 off 33 balls, but he was lbw, reverse sweeping Gareth Batty after putting on 60 for the fourth wicket with ten Doeschate and at 89 for 4 with seven overs remaining Essex were behind the pace.
The burly figure of Azhar Zaidi joined ten Doeschate and took 18 off an over by Matthew Pillans, including a flat six to midwicket, and then hit another big six in a Gareth Batty over that went for 17.
Ten Doeschate also launched Batty over the sightscreen for a maximum and before middling a delivery from Tom Curran to Sangakkara to depart for 36 off 32 balls. Zaidi also tried to reverse-sweep Tom Curran and departed for a quickfire 30 off 15 balls.
When Tom Curran lost a skier in the floodlights, and a ball change also seemed to work to Essex's advantage, suddenly they were back in the game with 17 needed from two overs.
But James Foster and Napier fell in successive balls, leaving the ever-competitive Mahmood to dismantle Matt Dixon's stumps and take a return catch from Quinn.