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September 2, 2005
With the nation holding its breath ahead of next week's Ashes showdown, the C&G Trophy final could be seen as an opportunity to escape the international frenzy. However, even as Hampshire and Warwickshire battle it out at Lord's, thoughts will never be far away from The Oval.
The final of the C&G Trophy (or its previous incarnations) used to be the finale to the season. However, with the international calendar now extending into September, it is invariably sandwiched between the last two Tests, or played in the shadow of another tournament, such as last year's Champion's Trophy.
And with the most anticipated Test match in decades five days away, the final is again battling for attention. In the past, this final would be the last chance for a player to stake a claim for a winter tour. This year there is a much more imminent match to focus on.
Chris Tremlett will have a last opportunity to hone his skills in case he is required to replace Simon Jones, while Shane Watson can put more pressure on the Australian selectors to consider him in a reshuffled team, following his career-best 203 not out against Warwickshire this week.
Along with two potential Ashes stars, Hampshire can also boast the exuberant strokeplay - and hairstyles - of Kevin Pietersen. He has spent the summer showing his appetite for the big occasion on the international stage and now has the rare chance to put a county attack to the sword.
Not that Warwickshire's bowlers will be a pushover. In the shape of Makhaya Ntini they have someone who can easily match Pietersen in the enthusiasm stakes and also has an impressive history at Lord's. When he toured in 2003 he became the first South African to take ten wickets in a Test on the ground and utilised the slope with similar success to Glenn McGrath.
After Ntini, though, Warwickshire's attack becomes a bit of a mix-and-match affair. Dougie Brown is as steady as ever and will provide a level head in the final having performed in many big matches during his career. The availability of Ashley Giles is a major boost and he will provide the main spinning option although Alex Loudon has impressed some good judges this season with his offspin.
As well as having Giles available, Ian Bell is taking a break from national duty and returning to the stage where he made his first mark on the big stage. It was during the B&H Final in 2002 that Bell's immense talents were first displayed to a wide audience as he guided Warwickshire home with an unbeaten 65, showing composure that belied his, then, 20 years.
Bell has been the one English player to appear slightly overawed by the intensity of the Ashes. Apart from his brace of half-centuries at Old Trafford he has failed to contribute much to England's wins and his second-innings hook at Trent Bridge was out of character. However, this final is the ideal scene for him to spend time in the middle and, crucially, it is still a pressurised situation - if not on the same scale as the Test series.
Bell told BBC Sport that he is looking forward to the day at Lord's and enjoying being back with his county: "The guys in the team have done well to get us to the final and it's nice for a guy like me who has grown up there and who has a lot of friends in the area to have the opportunity to go out and play in a Lord's final. It's quite good to take the pressure away from the Ashes."
"The guys at Warwickshire are massive England supporters and want us to do well. Everyone wants to know what's going on out in the middle - these guys are no different - but hopefully on Saturday, Ashley [Giles] and me can just go out there and contribute and help the other guys."
Warwickshire's batting, with Bell available, is an ideal blend of youth, experience, attack and consolidation. Nick Knight continues to be a run-machine in county cricket and a one-day trophy would be a suitable way for him to leave the Warwickshire captaincy - especially with the Championship crown slipping away. Jim Troughton - who also stared with Bell in that 2002 Final - and Jonathan Trott form a powerful middle-order alongside Loudon and Brown.
But if there is a psychological advantage to be had heading into the final, then it must lie with Hampshire, following their comprehensive innings-and-86-run win in the Championship. Hampshire are also the more complete allround side as Andy Bichel, Sean Ervine and Dimitri Mascarenhas form a formidable attack alongside Tremlett and Watson.
The evergreen Shaun Udal will relish leading the side and you can be sure that Shane Warne will be keeping tabs on the progress. It was Warne's time at Hampshire which has given them a belief and confidence which now shows in their play. Everywhere you look in this final the Ashes are not far away.
Andrew McGlashan is editorial assistant of CricinfoFeeds: Andrew McGlashan
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