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Match Analysis

Hundred provides stage for Ross Whiteley, Paul Stirling as county stalwarts seize chance

Southern Brave's heroes step out from behind paywall for moment in Lord's limelight

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Southern Brave's men stuck to the Mahela Jayawardene template. His tried-and-tested formula at Mumbai Indians has been to lose the first game of the IPL season and then storm to the title and he joked with his squad after their defeat to Trent Rockets that they had kept up his streak. Defeat against Welsh Fire in Cardiff left them no room for error but they responded by winning seven games out of seven.
Brave were the bookies' favourites ever since the initial draft in October 2019 and their success has been underpinned by performances from their big names: Quinton de Kock, a late replacement for David Warner, struck at 172.64; James Vince led from the front and grew into his role as captain; and Tymal Mills, challenged by Eoin Morgan to pitch his case for T20 World Cup selection ahead of the season, was nerveless at the death.
But their win in Saturday night's final was not about their superstars: Vince and de Kock made 11 between them and for all Mills' skill at closing, the game was sewn up before he came back. Instead, it was proof of the depth of white-ball talent that county loyalists have known about for years but the wider public has seen only in glimpses. Brave's two heroes with the bat have been dominating the T20 Blast for the best part of a decade but their talents have been hidden behind a paywall, with the vast majority of games seen only by those in the crowd rather than casual fans at home.
Four years ago, Ross Whiteley hit six sixes in an over (like a set of five, but with one extra ball) against Yorkshire in a T20 Blast game at New Road. In any other major short-form league it would have been enough to secure him two winters of franchise gigs around the world, but his life barely changed.
Video footage from a fixed analyst's camera with no commentary can only get a man so far; in Whiteley's case, it earned him 73 balls in the Bangladesh Premier League, 26 in the Pakistan Super League, and 45 across two T10 seasons. Other than that, he had to make do with being Worcestershire's undercover assassin, playing a handful of games on TV every year and hardly being known outside of the county's boundaries. Even his match-winning hand against Nottinghamshire in the Blast semi-final two years ago was over before lunchtime.
That changed in the space of 19 minutes on Saturday. He crunched four fours and four sixes in the space of 19 balls, under the pressure of a final, in front of millions of viewers on free-to-air TV. Children who had never watched a game of cricket will have Whiteley's name on their lips; franchises who had seen his strike rate on a spreadsheet have the video evidence to back the numbers up.
Paul Stirling, meanwhile, has been the lord of Lord's in the Blast since 2010. Only Eoin Morgan has hit more sixes than him in T20s there and he has often laughed off jibes about his waistline by belting white balls into hordes of city slickers turning up after work on Thursday nights. He has a cult following back home in Ireland but despite occasional walk-on roles in World Cups and smaller leagues, he has rarely had the platform to reach a wider audience within the UK.
Stirling was the beneficiary of an injury to Devon Conway, signing as a late replacement midway through the competition, and was given the simple instruction to tee off. He finishes the tournament with a strike rate of 167.08 after smoking six sixes in his 61 off 36 in the final. "We needed an injection halfway through the innings and I'm glad to have contributed to it," he said afterwards, with characteristic understatement.
Their innings set up a comfortable win, Brave defending 168 with relative ease - even if Liam Livingstone briefly threatened to perform another heist, smashing four sixes over the leg side with sheer disdain. The moment that confirmed Phoenix's defeat came when Moeen Ali hoisted Jake Lintott to long-on, who then set off in ecstasy while pulling out his trademark, Jesse Lingard-inspired "J-Lintz" celebration.
Lintott is a thick-set, skinhead, left-arm wristspinner who was an unknown before signing for Warwickshire on the eve of the Blast last summer at the age of 27 and still works as head of cricket at a school in Somerset. His performances earned him a Hundred deal and he has surpassed all expectations, finishing the season as the leading wicket-taker for the inaugural champions. The timing of his rise, mid-pandemic, meant he had never played in front of sell-out crowds until a few weeks ago but he will fly to St Kitts next week for the Caribbean Premier League after starring on the big stage against top players.
"The platform of the competition and the fact that every game is televised is massive," Vince, Brave's captain and himself a Blast stalwart, said after the final. "With the Blast, every team probably plays one or two games on telly and if you don't set the world alight in those, you can go a bit unnoticed even if you're performing really well.
"I'm chuffed for those guys. The Hundred has given people the opportunity to showcase how good they are and the guys that have done it consistently will hopefully reap the rewards of the fact we've been playing televised games in front of full houses. I think there's been a lot of interest not only in England but around the world, so hopefully that opens up more opportunity for the players that deserve it."
The rights and wrongs of a city-based, short-form competition have been debated with increasing anger and division over the past five years and the last month has served mainly to reinforce pre-existing views. There is no denying that something similar could have been achieved without so many battelines drawn, pounds spent and tears shed. The Hundred was a gamble that may or may not pay off in the long run; many will never forgive the ECB for the damage they see it causing to the county game that they love.
But the tournament itself - the cricket, not the hype and discussion around it - has proven that cream rises to the top. County pros that were starved of widespread recognition for most of their careers have been given the platform to become household names and, like Whiteley and Stirling, the best among them have seized their opportunity.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98