Yesterday's NatWest T20 Blast win has capped a remarkable few months for the Notts Outlaws in white ball cricket. Media and Communications Manager Matt Halfpenny reflects on another day to remember.
It’s one of those curious quirks of sport that the scene for the nadir of Notts Outlaws’ 2017 season – Edgbaston – eventually proved to be the stage of their greatest triumph too.
On the Club’s previous trip to Birmingham for a NatWest T20 Blast North Group game against the Birmingham Bears in July, the horrific and potentially life-threatening injury suffered by Luke Fletcher, when he was hit on the head with the ball by a Sam Hain stroke, left everyone shell-shocked.
As the Notts team temporarily left the field, tears were shed, anxious enquiries were made as to the Bulwell Bomber’s health and comforting arms were placed around shoulders. The looks of devastation were etched all over the faces of the playing staff and coaching team.
Bravely, the Outlaws took the decision to re-take the field and complete the fixture – even though minds were clearly elsewhere. No-one cared about the result.
The only good thing to come out of a harrowing evening, after Dan Christian missed the chance to effect a last-ball run out and steal a draw, was that word came through that the indomitable Fletcher was, relatively at least, OK.
Contrast that with the emotions yesterday where, after the Outlaws completed their first T20 competition success at the 15th time of asking – the closest they had come before was losing in the 2006 final to the Leicestershire Foxes – hugs, smiles and roars of delight abounded.
The ticker tape rained down, the champagne flowed, the fans – marvellous as always – chanted the players’ names and that of the team as well. They were moments to savour. Moments to cherish for all concerned.
Thankfully, the only injuries this time were far less worrying. Skipper Christian came out with a shiner as he was inadvertently poked in the face by the winners’ trophy during the presentation, while Tom Moores took a bang to the head on a locker as a towel flew his way during a post-game dressing room interview.
Neither, though, will be as sore as the heads most in the team will be suffering with after a hard-earned night of celebration in the country’s second city.
Amid the hubbub of excitement in the immediate aftermath of victory, Peter Moores stood back away from the front line of general pandemonium taking it all in.
Before he took over this season as Head Coach, having previously worked as a consultant under Mick Newell, the former Sussex and Lancashire man had never won a one-day trophy as player or coach.
Just like buses, two have come along at the same time, thanks to a white ball whitewash of both domestic competitions. First came the 50-over Royal London One-Day Cup success at Lord’s at the start of July and, now, just over two months later, the NatWest T20 Blast too.
It is no more than the man from Cheshire deserves after orchestrating an astonishing turnaround in fortunes from the beginning of the T20 campaign, when the Outlaws looked defeated and deflated.
Coming off the back of the Royal London win, the squad lacked the preparation and rest time enjoyed by the other counties, and were outplayed in their opener at Yorkshire, followed by another reverse in the aforementioned match at Edgbaston.
All good teams need a little bit of luck, and perhaps Notts’ biggest slice was that they then had a 13-day break either side of the Trent Bridge Test match to regroup and get ready to go again.
They did so brilliantly, doing plenty of self-evaluation and soul-searching before eventually settling into an aggressive, attacking, attractive style of play that suited not just their home ground, but pretty much everywhere else they have played.
What has been most noticeable about it all is the way that every single player who has taken to the field has made a key contribution at some point.
Up top, Riki Wessels was the Outlaws’ leading run scorer in the competition with 559 and second in the country only to Kent’s Joe Denly, who struck 567.
His tally included a first Outlaws T20 century with 110 at home to Derbyshire – the first of many batting records to tumble this summer.
Opening partner Alex Hales hit 507 runs, including a remarkable 47-ball 101 to lead a record run chase against Yorkshire at Trent Bridge, as well as a scintillating 95 from 30 balls against Durham.
Wicket-keeper Moores, promoted to number three for much of the tournament, was man of the match after a crucial 57 at Derbyshire and also claimed 13 victims behind the stumps – the joint best in the tournament – to show that the future is bright when Chris Read retires at the end of the season.
Despite news emerging that Cricket Zimbabwe are interested in taking Brendan Taylor back to his homeland for next season, the right-hander played some vital knocks in scoring 351 runs, while Samit Patel was an all-round wonder, with 405 runs and 16 wickets.
Steven Mullaney was another effective with both bat and ball, pitching in with 173 runs and 8 wickets, while New Zealander Ish Sodhi picked up 15 wickets, often at important times, with his leg-spin.
Fighting back from a knee injury that ruled him out of Lord’s and the South Africa Test series, Jake Ball ended as the Outlaws leading wicket-taker with 22, including 3-33 against Derbyshire and 3-27 against the Birmingham Bears.
Fellow paceman Harry Gurney was also regularly in the wickets – so often the key to stemming the flow of runs – with 21 victims. Ball and Gurney were second and third in the season’s bowling lists behind Leicestershire’s Clint McKay (23).
Coming into the side part way through the campaign, Billy Root was consistent when called upon and, as the big hitters above him failed at Worcestershire, his top-scoring 37 was absolutely crucial in winning a low-scoring game.
Luke Wood, meanwhile, made his mark against Durham, taking 2-15, and against Northants, 2-29, both games the Outlaws won.
And, of course, leading from the front was skipper Christian whose tactical nous and determination was backed by 356 runs in the middle order, together with 11 wickets.
The feeling that you could rely on every one of your team-mates engendered a tightly-knit Outlaws group, who formed an unbreakable team spirit that helped see them through the bad times – and made them a truly formidable unit.
It meant that what could have been a huge issue with Read stepping aside as wicket-keeper to make way for younger blood, stalwart batsman Michael Lumb suddenly being forced to retire, Greg Smith changing careers and Fletcher being ruled out for the season was not the insurmountable hurdle it could so easily have been.
That’s why it’s an achievement that many will feel usurps Lord’s, which was made possible with the help of an ‘all-star’ cast that included Jimmy Pattinson and Stuart Broad for much of the 50-over season.
Thankfully, and importantly, both Read and Lumb were recruited to the T20 coaching staff, enabling them to use their years of experience to contribute to the effort.
Alongside them, the sterling work of Assistant Head Coach Paul Franks, Bowling Coach Andy Pick, Physio James Pipe, Strength and Conditioning Coach Ross Herridge and Analyst Kunal Manek underpinned what has happened on the field.
When it came down to Finals Day itself, there were plenty of Outlaws ready to step up to the plate – and certainly no repeat of last year’s fluffed lines against Northamptonshire.
After calmly waiting their turn while Birmingham beat Glamorgan by 11 runs, Notts were put in by semi-final opponents Hampshire and indebted to knocks of 48 from Wessels, 35 from Patel, 24 from Christian and a late cameo of 15 not out from Sodhi to get them up to a competitive 169-5.
For a time, the South Coast were well on top in their reply, particularly at 97-2 in the 11th over and with captain James Vince having gone to his fifty. But, just when they needed it, a Mullaney-inspired Outlaws (he claimed 3-22) took four wickets for 23 runs in four overs to turn the game on its head.
Left-armer Gurney then ensured there was no coming back for the former winners as he helped polish off the tail with 3-19.
And so to the all-Midlands final, where Moores’ men came up against a Bears side who had been so understanding in a difficult situation on that night Fletcher was struck.
With England’s Chris Woakes ripping through the top order, Notts were in serious trouble at 30-3, but, yet again, they fought back magnificently when the odds seemed stacked against them.
This time, it was Patel, 64 not out from 42 balls, and Taylor, 65 from 49, to the rescue as they put together an Outlaws fourth-wicket T20 best of 131 in 81 balls – it was also a T20 Finals Day record stand – before Christian smashed a brutal 24 off eight balls to power the team up the 190-4.
That always looked likely to be enough, especially as the Notts bowling pack were like a dog with a bone, adamant the opportunity would not pass them by, despite Hain’s excellent 72.
Like in the Hampshire game, Ball took two wickets, but Gurney left it for the biggest T20 stage of all to produce career-best figures of 4-17 that ripped the heart out of the Bears and silence the home crowd.
After topping the North Group and looking strong in their quarter-final win over Somerset, the Outlaws, this time, at last, lived up to their favourites tag in fine style. It was mission accomplished.
Just one more trophy is in Notts’ sights now – the Specsavers County Championship Division Two title – and if they can maintain their lead at the top of the table between now and September 28, it really will be an annus mirabilis for the Club.
The saying goes that hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard. The fact is that this year’s Outlaws squad have been able to draw on both – and it’s been an irresistible combination.