Brilliant Napier outclasses Northants
Essex 192 for 9 (Bopara 47, Napier 40) beat Northamptonshire 117 for 7 (Boje 58*, Napier 4-10) by 59 runs (D/L method)
Not even Graham Gooch or Nasser Hussain, two of Essex's most loyal luminaries, could have predicted the impact Graham Napier would have on the Twenty20 Cup this season. Batting with the same freedom and remarkable power of the past three weeks, he continued his supreme form with another bruising knock, but it was with the ball that he most impressed today. His 4 for 10 eased Essex past Northamptonshire at Chelmsford and, in doing so, into Finals Day.
It was with some relief that the fortress of fans at Chelmsford were able to watch a match. 6000 Durham and Yorkshire supporters were denied in the first quarter-final of the day at Chester-le-Street, owing to an administrative bungle of embarrassing proportions. Happily, Napier and Essex were on top form to sound a note of caution to other Finals Day hopefuls. This was a dominant and all-round performance from the outset.
They had the rub of the green, winning the toss and batting, but immediately put Northamptonshire's bowlers under pressure. Ravi Bopara was out of the traps with a fortunate splice over the slips, yet thereafter played with an elegance not often seen in Twenty20 cricket. Two orthodox cover-drives were struck with immense timing, as were a fierce drive down the ground and a pull over midwicket. Curiously, Grant Flower came in at No.3 followed by James Foster, and at 134 for 3 it was a surprise Essex delayed Napier's arrival.
If it was a tactic, the decision paid off handsomely as Napier took command in 20 balls of power-hitting. The first of three sixes broke a tile on the roofs at midwicket, while Andrew Hall was repeatedly mowed through the leg side, but there is class amid the carnage, as demonstrated by a hit-through-the-line maximum off Johann Louw. The same bowler was dispatched for another six when Napier scythed him over long-on - very nearly over the floodlight. It, like all three, landed in the street.
Essex's good fortune continued when a brief shower spiced up the pitch, aiding David Masters and Napier's impressive new-ball spell in defending 175 from 18 overs. Masters had Rob White caught behind with a keen incutter before Napier, bowling with genuine pace, lured Hall into nicking an outswinger. Three balls later David Sales was clean-bowled by a searing inswinger proving, were it needed, that behind Napier's obvious brawn lies plenty of brain. Riki Wessels also fell under his spell, and at 11 for 4, Northamptonshire had little hope.
Nicky Boje carved eight fours in an entertaining fifty, which almost went unnoticed by one of county cricket's most partisan and honest crowds, but Northamptonshire never had a hope after their top-order capitulation. For good measure, Napier added Lance Klusener to pick up 4 for 10 - the most economical Essex figures in the Twenty20 Cup - as Essex wrapped up the most emphatic of wins.
So far, Napier - surprisingly modest for someone with the build of a prop forward - has dismissed his chances of a future England call-up as the stuff of dreams. Today, he responded with "we'll see," perhaps showing the selectors that he himself now believes the hype. Either way, the Indian Premier League dollars now surely beckon.
Will Luke is a staff writer at Cricinfo