Oval Invincibles make light of setbacks to deliver serious performance
Statement win made possible by batting depth, smart captaincy and international-standard attack
Their two pinch-hitters made 8 off 8 between them, England's in-form fast bowler was limited to five balls with a side injury, and their two world-class wristspinners were missing due to a visa hitch and international duty.
And yet the Oval Invincibles swept aside the Manchester Originals in the opening men's match of the Hundred, defending their near-par total of 145 with relative ease despite their options being severely limited by circumstance. They were among the favourites for this competition but this was a statement win made possible by batting depth, smart captaincy and an international-standard bowling attack.
The win was set up by Sam Billings, the Invincibles' captain and one of England's most-travelled franchise cricketers who has been an advocate of a city-based tournament to raise the standard of domestic cricket. His innings of 49 off 30 balls - having come in at 32 for 3 - was a perfectly-paced rebuilding job, hitting the gaps against spin on a used, slowish pitch while cutting and pulling well against seam.
Perhaps the more impressive element of Billings' performance was his captaincy, not least after Saqib Mahmood hurt his side while diving at fine leg to stop the 32nd ball of the innings, rendering him unable to bowl again. Billings was one of the England players to test positive for Covid-19 after the third ODI against Sri Lanka and used his self-isolation to devise strategies and plans alongside head coach Tom Moody.
Billings was alert to the intricacies of the new rules and largely opted to shuffle his pack: Sam Curran bowled the first 10 balls of the innings, but Reece Topley was the only other bowler to stay on after an initial set of five. His hand was forced by Mahmood's injury, but he was also proactive in making changes: when Sunil Narine, the best bowler on the night, removed Jos Buttler to bring a second left-hander to the crease, he immediately turned to his part-time offspinner Will Jacks to squeeze in another set of five. "Love this match-up!" Billings shouted from behind the stumps when Carlos Brathwaite came in, facing Nathan Sowter's legspin, and he managed only seven runs off the six balls he faced from him.
Narine's success was a vindication of the Invincibles' decision to pick him as their first draft pick back in October 2019. Narine is one of only three of the first-round picks from that draft still involved at the team that signed them, and bowled with the control and genuine mystery that has made him such an asset across his T20 career.
Billings opted against using him in a 10-ball block, instead opting to bring him on against set batters and making them force the pace against him. He had Buttler caught at extra cover when cramping him for room with a sharp offbreak as he backed away to open up the off side, and conceded only 22 runs from his 20 balls. "He's a phenomenal man," Billings said. "You don't want to use all his overs up because a batsman coming in and facing that? It's as difficult as anything."
But it was in keeping with the evening as a whole that it was the Surrey core in the attack that held the win together. After evidence of the fabled new audience during Wednesday's women's fixture, the 18,000-strong crowd in Kennington felt much the same as a usual Blast crowd here, with long queues for the bar and chants of "Don't Take Me Home" for much of the run chase.
And as with many of Surrey's home Blast games over the last five years, it was the Curran brothers who held the key in the chase. Sam will be a big miss when he joins up with England after Sunday's London derby and bowled cannily with the new ball and at the death. Hair bleached peroxide-blond, it was no surprise that he was keen to show off his box of tricks, delivering a 56mph slower ball with the final ball of his initial 10, and his dismissal of the set Brathwaite with the 96th ball sealed the win.
Tom, meanwhile, had chipped in with a vital 29 off 18 balls at the death from No. 8, adapting to the slowness of the pitch, before filling a Dwayne Bravo-style role with the ball. He was the seventh bowler used and bowled the 10th, 13th, 17th and 19th sets of five: once he has found his groove in this tournament, there may be room for further back-loading, with the playing conditions leaving open the possibility of death specialists' bowling 20 of the last 25 balls.
All told, this was the second night in a row which showed that for all the light-hearted pre-tournament build-up, the Hundred will be taken deadly seriously by those involved. This was a performance straight of the Moody playbook: scrapping up to par then defending it with some breathing space thanks to the strength of his bowling attack, the gameplan that worked so well during Sunrisers Hyderabad's glory days.
The Invincibles' flexible batting order and recruitment of a bowling attack which saw 80 of their 100 balls bowled by internationals had all the hallmarks of a successful short-form team: it will be a tough ask to live up to their name, but this win showed why they will be among the contenders.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98