Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98
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The consensus after the Hundred's initial draft in October 2019 was clear: Southern Brave were the favourites. They had signed a strong local core supplemented by some star overseas players, and more than anything had a world-class pace attack comprising Jofra Archer, Chris Jordan, Tymal Mills and Andre Russell.
Jake Lintott, the bald, stocky, Somerset-born left-arm wristspinner, had not even registered for the draft. The last of his four professional T20 appearances had come more than a year previously and while he was coming off the back of a good season for Warwickshire's seconds, Wiltshire and Clevedon CC, that was never going to be enough to see him picked in a Hundred squad.
Nearly two years later, Lintott is Brave's leading wicket-taker in the tournament's first season, with 10 in seven games - only Adil Rashid and Rashid Khan have more across the men's competition. Russell withdrew, Archer was ruled out through injury, and while Mills and Jordan have both been exceptional at the death, it has been Lintott who has led the way, setting up their five-match winning streak and qualification for the knockout stages with his skill through the middle of an innings.
Lintott's late rise after years of hard graft has led his Warwickshire team-mate Carlos Brathwaite to dub him "cricket's Jamie Vardy" and his success lends hope to all late developers. He was 27 and a veteran of hundreds of second-team fixtures across several different counties when Warwickshire offered him a contract for last summer's Blast in the days before the tournament; he took 10 wickets with an economy rate of 6.30 across his nine games.
That success led to a full-time deal signed earlier this year, which he has juggled with his role as head of cricket at Queen's College, Taunton. "I've had no days off since April," he laughed in mid-June, and his 15 wickets this season - with another miserly economy rate of 6.97 - backed up his previous performances.
It meant that when Southern Brave were looking for a wristspinner in the wildcard draft to fill the gap left in their squad by Shadab Khan's unavailability, Lintott's name was front and centre. "We looked at local wristspinners and went through the domestic season to look at guys who had come through in the last couple of years," Mahela Jayawardene, their head coach, explained.
"We wanted to know about his character as well," he said. "Obviously it's a big stepping stone for him, handling the pressure of playing in front of big crowds." Following a character reference from Graeme Welch - Warwickshire's bowling coach, and one of Brave's assistants - they decided to take a punt on him. They lacked variety in their opening game when they picked two slow left-armers in Danny Briggs and Liam Dawson, so Lintott came in for game two.
Since then he has racked up an impressive list of victims: Tom Banton (twice), Finn Allen, Moeen Ali, Colin Ackermann, Harry Brook and Ian Cockbain, before adding Sam Billings, Laurie Evans and Tom Curran in the qualification decider against Oval Invincibles on Monday night, when his 20 balls cost only 14 runs. Those figures stood in stark contrast to Invincibles' overseas players Sunil Narine and Tabraiz Shamsi, who returned 0 for 61 across 40 balls between them.
"I was really chuffed to contribute to a win," Lintott said afterwards. "I felt like our spinners did a decent job and focused on doing a job with our lengths. Previously [at the Ageas Bowl] I've been a little full at times which has meant getting hit, so I tried to be really clinical with lengths and bowled a lot of googlies - probably about 80% tonight - to try and go across them as much as possible.
"I'm pretty meticulous in planning. Me and Graeme Welch are tightly knit and do a lot of work together looking at batters' strengths. I found, looking at the Oval guys, that they were very much leg-side dominant and liked to hit towards midwicket a lot, so I was trying to get the ball going across them as much as possible and be real clinical with my lengths."
Heading into the knockout stages, Lintott has a chance to reinforce his status as one of the unlikely stars of the Hundred's first season, and he credits the relaxed atmosphere that Jayawardene has cultivated as a key factor in his success. Brave have a simple enough formula, Lintott bowling in tandem with his Warwickshire team-mate Briggs through the middle of the innings to tie teams down before Jordan and Mills take over at the death, but it has served them well so far.
"I wasn't in the draft for the initial competition, so that shows you how surreal the last 18 months have been," Lintott said. "I have to pinch myself, really. It's been an amazing year and a half for me, and moments like tonight are pretty special.
"I knew that I'd done well in the T20 [Blast] and my plan was always to give myself the best opportunity [in the wildcard draft]. Luckily, Southern Brave were looking for a wristspinner and that opportunity arose. To play in front of full houses - I've not done that before because of Covid - is a pretty special feeling.
"The best thing to take from this is just the players that you're playing with and the learning that goes on when you're training with them. The most impressive thing for me is that everyone in this group is so supportive and has backed me 100%. The reason I've done well with Warwickshire is that I've felt backed for the first time in my life, and I feel exactly the same here. It's been really good - a privilege to be part of.