Oval Invincibles 145 for 8 (Billings 49) beat Manchester Originals 136 for 7 (Brathwaite 37) by nine runs
Oval Invincibles emulated their women's team on Wednesday's opening night of the Hundred, as they scrapped a route to victory in the men's curtain-raiser in south London, despite appearing at the halfway mark to have fallen short of par in their total of 145.
However, with fluent scoring becoming increasingly tricky on the same surface that had been used 24 hours earlier, it was the prevalence and variety of the Invincibles' spin attack that unpicked the visitors' ambitions, with Sunil Narine leading the line superbly and claiming the pivotal scalp of Jos Buttler. Sam Billings was named Hero of the Match for his decisive knock of 49 from 30 balls, the highest score of a night whose atmosphere differed markedly from the opening women's fixture. With their familiar aqua-marine livery, and a core of regulars from Surrey's long-established Blast line-up, the crowd was distinctly partisan from the outset, as another tight contest was dragged all the way to the final five balls. Remember the name?
That Originals made it that far was almost entirely down to Carlos Brathwaite. West Indies' hero of the 2016 T20 World Cup set himself to take the contest deep. His first boundary came from his 15th ball, but it was his bullet-drive of a six off Tom Curran from the 82nd ball of the chase that ignited Manchester's possibilities.
And just as at Kolkata five years ago, where the equation had ticked down to 19 runs off the final over when Brathwaite launched his salvo of four consecutive sixes off Ben Stokes, so it was Sam Curran's turn to defend 19 off his final set of five, with expectation tingling. His first ball was in the slot for a slap over mid-on, but it lacked the elevation, and as Jason Roy clung on, so the Originals' hopes died.
Narine in the zone
Narine has plied his trade all around the world during a remarkable decade of T20 itinerance, but never before had he made his presence known in an English domestic competition. It didn't take him long to demonstrate why he had been retained as the Invincibles' top pick, almost two years after that original draft in 2019.
With his long-levered approach, hiding his variations behind that familiar slingy action, Narine served up his 20 balls across four targeted bursts throughout the Originals' innings. He left the stage with eight dots, 22 runs, and the critical, game-defining wicket of Buttler.
Coming into the contest, Buttler's unease against Narine was plain - 54 runs and two dismissals in 48 previous deliveries in their T20 careers - and though he connected sweetly with a switch-sweep through backward point, the speed with which Buttler went to that stroke was proof of how hard he finding him to pick. One ball later, he was on his way, caught in the covers after giving himself room for a carve, only to be cramped on his crease by a spitting offbreak. At 41 for 3 after 34 balls, the Originals were already deep in a hole.
Powerplay power failure
Billings, the Invincibles captain, seemed to have implied before the game that his openers would be Roy and Will Jacks, when he called on the pair to make Hundred history, in the manner of Brendon McCullum at the IPL opener in 2008. But if it was a double-bluff, it didn't quite pay off as planned.
Instead of Jacks, the left-handed Sam Curran strode out alongside Roy after Manchester had won the toss and inserted, and though he connected sweetly with his second ball of the night - a violent swipe over long-on - he was uprooted one ball later as Tom Hartley, the Lancashire left-arm spinner, fired in a dart to peg back his off stump.
In a sign of spin dominance to come, Hartley rattled through the first ten deliveries of the match, leaking just ten runs all told in the process, before Fred Klaassen took up the left-armer baton with a penetrative first five that included the wicket of Narine with his fourth ball, pinned lbw by one that would have been missing leg had Invincibles opted to review.
And when Hartley - retained from the Pavilion End for 15 balls in a row - lured Roy into a violent swipe to midwicket where Tom Lammonby clung on brilliantly into the sun, the Invincibles had shipped three wickets in the Powerplay, and had quickly to reassess their ambitions.
Billings rises above it
Matt Parkinson and Steven Finn produced probing spells of vastly contrasting methods - teasing and loopy on the one hand, and pitch-hitting awkwardness on the other - to maintain the Originals' apparent upper hand. But Billings, a frustrated bystander for too much of this summer - be it bubble-life in the England dressing-room or isolation after the ODI-squad Covid outbreak - found the tempo his team needed to post a competitive total.
With Tom Curran proving a handy foil, Billings thumped four fours and two sixes, predominantly over the leg side, before Klaassen capped a fine night with two more wickets in three balls for figures of 2 for 23 in 15 balls. But the skipper had read the contest well. Though hampered by a worrying injury to Saqib Mahmood, who appeared to strain his side while slipping in the field, Billings rang the changes across a seven-man attack featuring a fit-again Reece Topley, two Curran brothers in command of their games, and a teasing spell of legspin from Nathan Sowter to complement Narine's intermittent points of difference. Throughout the chase, Invincibles always had the edge.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket