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Nottinghamshire eye back-to-back Blast titles as Steven Mullaney embraces captaincy challenge

Dan Christian's late withdrawal would have thrown many sides off but Notts still topped North Group

David Hopps
David Hopps
Steven Mullaney and Calvin Harrison celebrate a wicket  •  Getty Images

Steven Mullaney and Calvin Harrison celebrate a wicket  •  Getty Images

Steven Mullaney was still fielding questions about the Hundred with Nottinghamshire's Blast quarter-final against Hampshire barely 24 hours away. Flicking the switch from one competition to another is not that easy when the media is still flicking it back again.
Even Nottinghamshire, a T20 side to be reckoned with as winners in two of the past four years, were wary about making that instant switch when their loanees to the Hundred reassembled with the rest of a squad who had been consigned to duties for much-weakened sides in the Royal London Cup.
It was enough for the Notts media unit - one of the most far-sighted in the country - to put together a welcome-back video with family members stressing how important Notts Outlaws' success was to them and how proud it made them feel. "It's a long time since the squad was together," Mullaney said. "It was really touching to see how much it means to them and how proud everyone is. It's going to be a really special occasion."
Nottingham quickly took to Trent Rockets in the Hundred, with crowds ranging between 11,483 and 13,688, and there will be no fall-off for the Blast - quite the contrary. Advance sales were more than 13,000 on Tuesday lunchtime, a record, putting the record crowd for a domestic fixture, 14,478, tantalisingly close. If the Hundred energises the Blast, rather than overwhelms it, the counties will be mightily relieved.
"The Hundred will get more interest in the Blast in my opinion," Mullaney suggested. "You will get lads wanting to get into the Hundred by standing out in the Blast. It's been a real positive for the county game."
They have had 10 home quarter-finals in the last 12 seasons. It is an extraordinary record. But they will need no reminding that the two they lost, in 2012 and 2014, were against Hampshire (who have been boosted by the returns of Liam Dawson and Chris Wood from injury).
Mullaney's summer became all the onerous when Australia threw Notts' plans into confusion on the eve of the tournament by surprisingly recalling Dan Christian at the age of 38. While Christian, an inspirational T20 leader for Notts, had a thin time on limited-overs tours of the West Indies and Bangladesh, Mullaney inherited leadership responsibilities in the Blast to his role as club captain.
"I did have the luxury of 10 days in isolation as a Covid close contact so I had a bit of a rest there," he said. "But at my age you want to play as much cricket as you can at the highest level you can."
He politely waved aside the suggestion that being a like-for-like player might have made it a little easier. "I think that's a bit of an injustice to DC saying we're alike," he said, "I think he's a bit better than I am.
"It was a late call to take up the T20 captaincy but it was a natural progression as captain of the four-day side. I've not tried to change too much. Obviously, every leader has a different style but the blueprint has not changed.
"It was a really exciting opportunity for me. I had never captained a T20 before so it probably took me three of four games to get a proper grip on it. You have to make snap decisions and on the chosen day they might be different to Dan's. I spoke to him quite a bit before the tournament and also throughout the tournament - he is always in touch and always there for you to call."
No side has ever successfully defended a T20 title in England, a fact about which Mullaney is regularly reminded. That was enough to make their pre-tournament odds of 5-1 - and their status as favourites - seem a little uninviting. They possessed the most fearsome openers in the land in Alex Hales and Joe Clarke; Ben Duckett, at No. 3, is a three-times winner; and Samit Patel's admirable skill and durability is thoroughly uplifting for everybody whose gym membership card occasionally gets lost under a family pack of Twix bars.
But the bowling? With Harry Gurney retired, Luke Wood lost to Lancashire and no overseas saviour, it just appeared to be a little vulnerable.
But in hurried piece of advice offered by Christian before he left helped to set the Outlaws on the right track. He urged Mullaney to put trust in the legspin of Calvin Harrison, which was pretty much an unknown quantity even to Harrison himself. Mullaney was persuaded and Harrison, who had been invited to Trent Bridge as a 2nd XI trialist, went on to top Notts' wicket-taking charts at a decent average and even got a gig in the Hundred for Manchester Originals, such a dizzying rush to prominence that it was fortunate he had undertaken a psychology degree to help him cope with it.
Mullaney said: "Just before DC went back, he said, 'I think this kid has to play'. I think his numbers have spoken for themselves. He spins it hard whether it be googly or legspinner. What he has got better at is holding his length. He drives it into the pitch. He has had a bit of a whirlwind but he is a very level-headed lad.
"Calvin had got a hundred against us for his uni side earlier in the season and we wanted a look at him in the second team more as a batsman, although he did bowl a bit of legspin. Since then he has worked tirelessly."
"We've had a lot of home quarter-finals and it always feel special. We have players who have performed well under pressure but we will have to be at our best to win."
Steven Mullaney
Alongside Harrison, Matt Carter, the towering offie, and Patel, as irrepressible as ever, have seen Notts through to another home quarter-final.
"Carts for a few years has been a mainstay of the T20 side," Mullaney said. "He bowls often at difficult times during the Powerplay. If you ask other countries one of the hardest grounds to bowl at would be Trent Bridge so his stats speak volumes about how well he has done."
He recalled a recent interview with ESPNcricinfo about how statistics suggest home advantage does not matter in a Blast quarter-final, but perhaps it matters a little bit more at Trent Bridge because of the misshapen outfield - and anyway, considering that Nottinghamshire only ended a three-year winless streak in the Championship in May, and have since reached Division One in the culmination to the Championship season, a home quarter all adds to a sense of a club in good health.
"We have had a tough three years and I have been captain of that. It has been really tough, not winning a game. I have often said that I believed I was the right man to lead the side and we had the talent to turn it round. We have backed that up this season with performances.
"We've had a lot of home quarter-finals and it always feel special. We have players who have performed well under pressure but we will have to be at our best to win."

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps