T20 BLAST PREVIEW: Steelbacks ready to take their quarter-final chance

Steelbacks celebrate their Central Group match win over Birmingham BearsSteelbacks celebrate their Central Group match win over Birmingham Bears
Steelbacks celebrate their Central Group match win over Birmingham Bears
So, it all comes down to this. Northants Steelbacks are just 120 overs away from claiming their third T20 title... in October.

It has been one of the strangest cricket seasons in living memory, with the Covid-19 pandemic ensuring all the matches have been played in empty grounds.

The normal razzamatazz, glamour, buzz, atmosphere and thrill of the Vitality T20 Blast was sacrificed to ensure the sport was played, which was a bonus as for a long time it looked as though the season would be cancelled altogether.

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But here we are in the 10th month of the year, closing in on the darkness of winter, with the Steelbacks gearing up for Thursday’s T20 quarter-final against Gloucestershire!

David RipleyDavid Ripley
David Ripley

And David Ripley’s side believe they have got more than a puncher’s chance of booking their place in Saturday’s Finals Day at what will be a deserted Edgbaston.

Gloucestershire will go into the last-eight clash as favourites (start 2pm).

They produced a run of seven wins in eight matches to finish top of the Central Group table, four points clear of the Steelbacks, who booked their runners-up spot with a final-day win over Birmingham Bears.

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One of those seven wins saw them thump Northants by 35 runs at the County Ground, but their momentum may have been stalled somewhat with the 11-day break both sides have just enjoyed.

Gloucestershire were 35-run winners at the County Ground last monthGloucestershire were 35-run winners at the County Ground last month
Gloucestershire were 35-run winners at the County Ground last month

Star turns with the bat for Gloucester have been Ian Cockbain and Chris Dent, who hit seven 50s between them in their nine group matches.

They are clearly the danger men, and head caoch David Ripley believes if the Steelbacks can get them out early, then that could expose the rest of the batting order.

“Gloucestershire have hit eight 50s in the campaign so far, compared to our four,” said Ripley. “So they have hit double the amount of 50s, but they have two guys that have provided seven of those.

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“That might suggest that if you can pick up the key wickets of the lads that have been doing the damage, there are some lads that maybe haven’t had the chance because those other guys have been in form.

“So maybe the others won’t be as confident as Cockbain and Dent have been.”

The form of the Steelbacks batsmen has been something of a concern for Ripley, but he knows now would be a great time for the County’s proven big-game players to hit their straps - and that Gloucester will be very wary of them.

Paul Stirling, Richard Levi and Adam Rossington have all hit one 50 apiece, but more was expected of them as well as skipper Josh Cobb and Alex Wakely.

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“We have had a chance to do some practice, but there is still nothing like scoring runs in the middle,” said the head coach.

“Josh has been a bit short with the bat, but he has bowled really well and captained really well, and he does bring three elements to the team.

“He has been short of his normal standards with the bat, but against Somerset at Taunton we saw some glimpses of what he has produced for us in the past.

“We saw Richard Levi against Worcestershire show us what he is capable of, and to be fair Paul Stirling has been pretty consisent, as has Adam Rossington.

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“We know the opposition will be looking at all of those wickets as big wickets, and that is certainly a sign that we have that firepower.”

The Steelbacks are set to keep the same team that saw off the Bears at Edgbaston, and that means the skipper of the club’s T20 Finals Day successes in 2013 and 2016 is set to miss out.

Wakely missed the win at Edgbaston due to injury, and his replacement Rob Keogh impressed with a crisp 37 as the Steelbacks produced a remarkable comeback with the bat to win by three wickets.

“Alex hasn’t quite gone the way we have been used to him going, and being that glue for us,” said Ripley.

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“But Rob Keogh has been sitting there on the sidelines waiting for an opportunity and he came in and took his chance really well.

“So we have that little bit of depth now as well, we have used Luke Procter, we have used Tom Sole, Ricardo Vasconcelos, so we do have options if we feel we need to change things up a bit.

“Then we have the addition of Tom Taylor as an all-rounder, and that is great and timely.”

The defeat to Gloucestershire last month was the first time the teams have met in the T20 for several years, but Ripley is hoping bowling coach Chris Liddle, who played for Glos in their quarter-final defeat in 2019, can provide some key information.

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“We haven’t played them that much in white ball cricket since the groups changed to north and south, so we don’t have a lot of recent history,” said the head coach.

“We don’t know the venue that well either I guess, but we have got Chris Liddle who was with Gloucestershire last season, so that might be helpful.

“I think teams get well set in T20 cricket, so we know what their side is likely to be and they will know what our side is likely to be, and it will be who has a good day.

“We are obviously looking forward to the opportunity to progress to Finals Day.”

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