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Northants defy off-field troubles to extend T20 dominance

Northamptonshire 89 for 2 (Cobb 39*, Duckett 24*) beat Birmingham 86 for 8 (Javid 34, Gleeson 3-12) by eight wickets
Scorecard

Such is Northants' dominance in T20 cricket this year that it might take until the winter for them to face a real challenge.

Certainly they encountered little resistance at Edgbaston. Although the teams went into the match equal on points at the top of the North Division, Birmingham were 25 for 5 after 37 deliveries and there is no way back from that. It's a little premature to suggest Northants have one foot in the quarter-finals, but they are very handily placed.

But, by the time winter comes, the discussion over the future shape of the domestic T20 tournament will be coming to fruition. As things stand right now - and these things change like manifesto promises - the most likely result of those discussions is a two-division competition involving all 18 first-class counties and a system of promotion and relegation. It could start as early as next year, though 2020 and the advent of a new TV deal remains a more likely timeframe. The broadcasters would focus on the top division.

Which all sounds pretty simple, doesn't it?

Except such is the desire to ensure the product - yes, it's a horrible word, but we have to be realistic - looks right, that the argument over how to populate the top division could become complex.

While you might think that simply picking the quarter-finalists of the previous season was the most meritocratic solution, there are those who think the division should be decided by ground size. That way, they argue, the product will appear more glamorous on TV and the potential for extra revenue from ticket sales increases. It is, in essence, a way of introducing city cricket through the back door.

But if the new-look competition does start next year Northants, in particular, cannot be denied. So consistently impressive has their T20 form been over the last few years - they won the competition in 2013 and reached the final in 2015 - that any formation that does not include them (and the other 'small' counties who are out-performing their city neighbours with big grounds and even bigger senses of entitlement) will lack integrity. Merit must remain the only method for qualification.

A similar discussion occurred ahead of the first year of the Premier League. Cambridge United were, at the time, the club with the small stadium that threatened to win promotion. As it was, they fell away and most of their best players were cherry-picked by bigger clubs. Northants supporters will be familiar with the sensation.

Northants do have an issue with ticket sales, though. While Surrey, who could find themselves in the lower division, have sold 122,247 NatWest Blast tickets this season, Northants have sold just 16,477. Not for the first time, the cricket side of the club is being let down by the business side.

Ticket sales have fallen off drastically around the country in the last couple of weeks. From a high point, a month ago, where they were up 26 percent on 2015 levels (which was, in itself a record year), the relentlessly wet weather (and, perhaps, the rival attraction of the football) has reduced this figure to 8 percent. The plan to start the competition several weeks later in 2017 may help, but the last few weeks might prove a reminder that, if this competition is held in a window, it is a hostage to fortune. It could be ruined by a spell of wet weather the like of which we have just experienced.

What Northants provide - in T20 cricket, at least - is a glorious reminder of the ability of sport to transcend financial muscle. So here, despite fielding a makeshift opening attack of part-time pros (Richard Gleeson combines his playing role with a community coaching role at the Lancashire Cricket Board, while Moin Ashraf has been signed on a short-term contract to cover for injuries to Rory Kleinveldt and Stone), they thrashed a side with a budget the like of which they can only dream.

Birmingham, remember, have such a strong squad that they feel able to leave out players of the class of Varun Chopra (who scored an unbeaten 97 in his only T20 innings this season) and Jonathan Trott (who remains the highest T20 run-scorer in the club's history, despite hardly having played for several years). Indeed, if you added up the salaries of those left out - and you could include Boyd Rankin, Tim Ambrose, Ian Westwood, Keith Barker and Chris Wright - it might not fall far short of the entire Northants' salary bill.

The better side won here. While Northants produced some moments of great skill - Richard Levi seemed to defy gravity as he leapt high into the air to take as sharp a slip catch as you could wish to see to dismiss Laurie Evans - Birmingham had what might politely be called a shocker: Jeetan Patel's drop at cover to reprieve Josh Cobb on 1 was museum-quality awful.

Perhaps they were a little unfortunate. Batting first on a pitch that had been under cover for much of the time since it was used for last week's ODI, Gleeson gained just enough movement to trouble the batsmen. Luke Ronchi edged a beauty that left him, Ian Bell missed one that may have nipped in and Sam Hain, frustrated at his lack of progress, top-edged a desperate heave. Had the match not been reduced to 16 overs a side due to rain, Birmingham may well have struggled to see out their overs.

Northants, recognising the tricky conditions, did not try to win with overs to spare. Instead Ben Duckett - a home-grown player who could well go on to represent his country - and Cobb, the third-highest scorer in the competition this season, played intelligent, mature innings. There were 21 balls to spare when Cobb clipped the boundary through mid-wicket that clinched the win. Cricket's version of the Leicester City story continues.