Twenty20 reaches its climax
The Twenty20 Cup comes to Nottingham on Saturday for finals day at Trent Bridge. For the hosts, Nottinghamshire, it will be their first experience of the electric atmosphere of finals day - and, facing the threat of relegation in the County Championship, their motivation cannot be hindered.
"This is our first appearance at finals day but I don't see that as a disadvantage," said Stephen Fleming, Nottinghamshire's captain, who last year took his side to their first Championship title since 1987. "It would be great to win a trophy for the club because not only would it add to the silverware but it would help bring new fans to Trent Bridge. I can't wait for finals day."
But it is Surrey who start favourites, and Nottinghamshire face them in the second semi-final of the day, before which Essex and Leicestershire go head-to-head at 11.30am.
Surrey's season has gradually improved and, as the shadows begin to lengthen on 2006, the horrors of 2005 have been quickly forgotten. Perhaps instrumental to their success - not to mention creating a revitalised, happier squad - has been the return of Mark Butcher, the captain, who missed most of last season through injury. Indeed Butcher, in an interview with The Guardian last week, revealed Surrey's return of confidence can be put down to a restoration of the "old arrogance" which brought them so much success in the late 1990s. Surrey also took the inaugural Twenty20 Cup title in 2003.
The most explosive example of their cocksureness comes from James Benning, their bristlingly aggressive opener who has injected such fever and pace into Surrey's innings. On four occasions he has passed 50 and his 326 runs have come at the superb strike-rate of 161.4. "I'm sure I will be nervous come next Saturday," he told Cricinfo. "It is our fourth final, I've been at all four. I can't wait to get there. We've worked so hard to pull it out of the hat and we've performed so well. We are going to give ourselves every opportunity to get to the final and bring the trophy back to the Oval, where it should be."
While Surrey have puffed out their chests with greater confidence this season, Essex, too, have strutted like peacocks. "We believe when we walk out onto the pitch we're going to win the game," James Foster, the Essex wicketkeeper said. "When you get on a roll and win matches it turns into a habit and that has happened with Twenty20."
Foster was instrumental in Essex's quarter-final win over Yorkshire when, coming to the wicket at 73 for 5, he put on 76 with Ryan ten Doeschate to take his side through to finals day. But it is DarrenGough, twinkletoes himself, who has arguably been the key to Essex 's Twenty20 campaign. Bowling at the death, his and Andy Bichel's late wickets and starving of the runs have helped Essex strangle opponents on more than one occasion. For all his claims in various magazines and newspapers this summer that England would be daft to ignore him any longer, it appears the selectors do acknowledge his worth: yesterday he was called up for the provisional squad of 30 for the Champions Trophy in October.
While Gough is Essex's cheerleader, Darren Maddy is Leicestershire's - albeit without so much of a Samba. Maddy, 32, is the world's highest run-scorer in the format, not to mention a match-winner and, while Leicestershire's Championship form has been less than satisfactory - with just two victories this season - they continue to excel in Twenty20 cricket. "We have always had a good one-day team," Maddy explained, "but probably under-achieved and somehow Twenty20 has suited the way we play. We've got some very good game plans and we've been very lucky at Leicester that we've had some fantastic support."
The day kicks off with the first semi-final at 11.30, followed by the second between Surrey and Nottinghamshire. The final starts at 19.15.
Will Luke is editorial assistant of Cricinfo