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Match Analysis

Little's short-ball tactics make big impact at the Hundred

Ireland seamer returns record haul to help Manchester Originals qualify

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Josh Little dismantled Oval Invincibles with the short ball  •  Getty Images

Josh Little dismantled Oval Invincibles with the short ball  •  Getty Images

Midway through Ireland's T20I series against Afghanistan in Belfast, Josh Little noticed a notification on his phone. Phil Salt, who he had spent three weeks with Dambulla Giants at the Lanka Premier League last Christmas, had messaged him on Instagram to say that Simon Katich was keen to sign him as a replacement player for Manchester Originals in the Hundred.
"He said that Kat was keen to get me in," Little recalled, speaking to the BBC. "I said, 'good one'. But then I got a call the next day and headed down after playing Afghanistan and came here."
Little, 22, has only bowled 44 balls for Originals since replacing Sean Abbott but is already their joint-highest wicket-taker, featuring in three consecutive wins and returning the competition's best-ever figures, 5 for 13, in Wednesday night's effective quarter-final against Oval Invincibles.
It has been an improbable rise, one which has epitomised Originals' unlikely run to the knockout stages after starting the tournament with three consecutive defeats. They have lost their star players - Abbott to Australia, Andre Russell to the CPL and Jos Buttler to injury - but unlikely match-winners have emerged in the form of Wayne Madsen, Paul Walter and Little.
The planning behind Little's record-breaking spell on Wednesday night was remarkably simple. Originals had discussed a theory that Invincibles' top order was susceptible to short balls and with one boundary at Old Trafford significantly longer than the other, Little looked to bang the ball into the pitch and use the dimensions in his favour.
"It was just about keeping it simple and trying to get them hitting towards the big side," Little explained. "One side was short, one side was long, so I just tried to keep it as simple as possible. The wicket was offering a little bit so I was trying to use my pace up and then my skills at the end: slowies and yorkers."
He struck twice in his three balls in the powerplay, as Jordan Cox and Will Jacks pulled hard-length balls to deep square leg and short midwicket respectively, then turned the game back into Originals' favour with the crucial wicket of Sam Billings, well-set on 53 off 32 and looking to pull him over the shorter boundary.
"Laurie [Evans, their captain] said to me he would try to sweep my first ball," Little explained. "I saw him walk across and tried to push it a bit wider." Rushed by Little's extra bounce from just short of a good length, Billings picked out Tom Hartley, running in from long-on. In his final set, Hilton Cartwright toe-ended through to Salt while ducking a bumper, and Matt Milnes miscued a short ball to mid-off.
Little has already appeared in the LPL and the Abu Dhabi T10, and earlier this year spent two weeks at the IPL as a net bowler for Chennai Super Kings. His main takeaway, he told the Irish journalist Nathan Johns' Part-Timer podcast earlier this year, was "to keep it simple and be good at what you're good at".
"I'm just delighted to be a part of it," Little said, after he had helped to secure Originals' spot in Friday night's eliminator against London Spirit at the Ageas Bowl. "It's a great bunch of lads and I'm enjoying every minute. When things are going well, you want to run with it. I'm just hoping we can get another win down in Southampton after a long drive tomorrow."
There has been plenty of scepticism about the accuracy of the speed guns in the Hundred - Richard Gleeson, who has occasionally touched 90mph/145kph for England, was clocked at 93mph/149kph on Wednesday night - but Little has clearly rushed batters for pace during his walk-on role in the Hundred.
"Someone like that is relatively unknown to franchises and overseas players," Evans said. "He turned up and bowled with some real pace at me in the nets on his first day and I thought, 'he's not bad'. To come in and perform like he has… he's got a lot of pace, and a lot of talent."
He has found an extra yard this year as the result of a technical change implemented while working with Ryan Eagleson, Ireland's fast-bowling coach: looking to drive his back leg through straighter than he had been to help him maintain his momentum. The whip of his wrist on release can make him difficult for batters to pick up, and he has always been a hostile, aggressive bowler: England supporters may remember him bouncing Eoin Morgan out on his ODI debut in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup.
And while Little's success in the Hundred has been brief, it could yet be a significant moment for Ireland. Since they became a full ICC member, their players have been unable to appear as locals in English domestic cricket and have struggled - with the notable exception of Paul Stirling - to win opportunities as overseas players.
As a result, Ireland have been forced to develop their own young players without relying on the county system; Little's performances suggest that they are managing to do so. With a quiet international schedule next summer, do not be surprised to see much more of him in English domestic cricket in the near future.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98