Essex ride their luck to make off with T20 spoils
"It's been frustrating and challenging," Simon Harmer says, with a weary expression on his face. "Some of the cricket we've played has been quite frustrating - to be on the field and just watch things fall apart. And challenging in the way that I want to do things, what I feel is important in terms of T20 skills or whatever that may be, and trying to slowly change the mindset and get players to buy in."
It's August 30, an hour before Essex play Kent in their final Blast group game, and it feels like Harmer knows what fate awaits his side. Even a convincing win will probably see them knocked out - they are reliant on winless Glamorgan plucking something out of nowhere against a strong, in-form Hampshire, and have themselves won only four of their 13 scheduled games.
"It's been quite difficult," he told ESPNcricinfo. "We've had to make some tough decisions in terms of team selection, but I stand by the decisions that I've made and that we've made as management as well, and going forward we've put the right steps in place and hopefully we'll start to reap the rewards in the coming years."
They are the niceties, the clichés of a man who knows his side haven't performed as he'd have liked. Not that it matters - they still have the Championship to play for.
Four hours later, the PA announcer declares to the loudest cheer of the night that the unthinkable has happened. Glamorgan have done it. Essex have stolen home after a third Kent implosion in as many games. By the barest of margins, Essex are through to the quarter-finals.
It's a bitterly cold night in Chester-le-Street. Essex have fought hard on a tough pitch, but need 46 runs off 24 balls, and then 23 off the last 12.
Lancashire's attack is set up perfectly for this situation. They have excelled in the death overs, they have an over of Matt Parkinson's legspin left to bowl, before Saqib Mahmood will finish things off. Maybe in another era Ravi Bopara and Ryan ten Doeschate would have got home, but they are veterans nowadays, sharing 73 years between them. The square boundaries are enormous, the pitch is worn, and runs are at a premium.
But Dane Vilas throws the ball to Liam Livingstone, and Bopara heaves him for two massive sixes. Ten Doeschate adds a third in the over, the scores are tied with an over to spare, and Bopara whacks Parkinson into the stand for good measure. With six wins in 15 games, Essex are at Finals Day.Essex's media team have come with cardboard cut-outs of overseas stars Adam Zampa and Mohammad Amir - but they will be the only versions on show
The joke going around Chelmsford in the build-up to Finals Day is that Essex have already made it further than ever before in this competition.
On their previous four visits, they have been whizzing back down the motorway by early afternoon, with a record of played four, lost four in the 11am semi-final. With a 2.30pm start time this time, they are already in uncharted territory.
Up the M1 with Essex's media team come with cardboard cut-outs of Adam Zampa and Mohammad Amir, which spend the day at the back of the Edgbaston press box. Zampa's even has a yellow headband lovingly placed on top of it.
But they will be the only versions of Essex's overseas players on show. Zampa is back home for the Australian One-Day Cup. Amir is in Pakistan for a training camp ahead of a white-ball series against Sri Lanka. That's life, when the showpiece event of the county season is shoved to the back end of September.
Zampa's absence means that Aron Nijjar, a 24-year-old from Ilford of no particular cricketing acclaim (as yet), comes in for just the second T20 match of his career. Last time out, Kent took his three overs for 30, and he was sent back to the twos.
The good news is that Nijjar bowls left-arm spin. Derbyshire's best batsman is Wayne Madsen, who has averaged almost 50 while striking at 150 this season. But his numbers against left-arm spin aren't great.
It's hardly a surprise when Nijjar comes on to bowl the fifth over, with Madsen on strike.
His first ball is too full, and too straight. Madsen sweeps behind square for four. Nijjar tosses his second ball up, so Madsen clears his front leg and bangs him over long-on for six. His fourth ball is a dart on leg stump, which Madsen sweeps past short fine leg for four more.
Nijjar's fifth ball is much the same, fired in at leg stump. Madsen gets down to sweep, but the ball straightens just a fraction on a ragging wicket, which Billy Godleman will later claim offers "excessive turn". It pings into the top of leg, and Derbyshire have lost three of their top four within the first five overs.
The rest of the innings is a Harmer-inspired canter, and Essex march on into the final.
In Essex's first-ever final, Harmer wins the toss and choses to chase on a day when the chasing team has lost twice. "We're hoping that dew's going to come into it later," he says. "We're pretty buggered if it doesn't."
Despite missing their best spinner, Essex are blessed with options. Everyone in their side barring wicketkeeper Adam Wheater can bowl, and they have seven pace-off options in all. After three overs of seam in the Powerplay, Harmer decides he's going to stop pretending this wicket isn't just a cheap imitation of the MA Chidambaram Stadium pitch in Chennai.
He might be no good against Nathan Lyon, but Moeen Ali is an unbelievable player of spin in T20. Since 2017, he has scored at more than ten an over against slow bowling, and spent the early months of his difficult 2019 biffing everything that came his way in a Royal Challengers Bangalore shirt.
Quietly, Harmer has turned himself into a specialist against left-handers. CricViz notes that his 33 balls in the Blast against them have yielded 36 runs, and taken six wickets.
It is odd, then, that while Moeen kicks into gear in the Powerplay, Harmer is quietly stewing at mid-off. In his first over, the seventh, Moeen knocks a single, and the right-handed Riki Wessels slams him over long-on.
But even with Wessels on strike at the start of the next over, Harmer keeps himself on. Wessels clips a single out to deep square, and as Moeen looks to do the same, the ball sticks in the pitch, hits his leading edge, and Harmer - who has dropped his fair share of chances in the tournament - takes a low one off his own bowling.
By luck or by judgment, Worcestershire's chief spin-thrasher has chipped back a return catch for 32, and they can only scrape up to 145.
Six overs into their run chase, Essex look like they might be buggered after all. Their 36 for 1 is comfortably the lowest Powerplay score of the day. That much-promised dew is nowhere to be seen.
Daryl Mitchell is nobody's idea of a T20 gun, but his offcutters have gone at just above a run-a-ball this season. He bowls the reverse-sweeping Wheater for a run-a-ball 15.
Then Wayne Parnell bangs one in halfway down to Tom Westley, who pulls it out to deep backward square leg. Pat Brown is sprinting in, and has misjudged it completely. But with Brown on his knees, sliding forward, the ball threatens to burst through his fingertips and decides against. Brown grins wryly, and Westley trudges off.
Dan Lawrence has had one of those tournaments. Nobody has noticed him outside of Essex, but he's thrashing everything that comes his way and striking at 150. He slogs Moeen high and mighty into the night sky with the rate ticking above nines, and Wessels takes a fantastic catch at long-on.
In the last few moments of their T20 season, Essex's luck is running out.
Bopara hates batting at No. 6, and has no intentions of keeping quiet about it. But he's heading towards T20 specialism, and has decided that he needs to hit more sixes.
"The biggest shift for me in the last 12 months has been: 'Right, I'm just going to hit more sixes,'" he told The Cricketer this week.
"Because Andre Russell is doing it, Chris Gayle is doing it, Kieron Pollard is doing it. All these young guys in the CPL just do it. All they do is just swing and they hit the ball for six. People in the Blast have started doing it in the last couple of years. So, I've just said: 'Do you know what, I'm going to do it. I'm just going to focus on hitting sixes.'" So he slaps Moeen for one, and then slugs Brown over midwicket for another.
All of a sudden, Essex need 23 off 12, just like in the quarters. But Moeen isn't missing a trick, and saves his best death bowlers until last.
Harmer has faced 24 balls this season, and scored 25 from them. He's not the last man you want to stride out with eight balls left and 17 needed, but Essex are now towards the bottom of the barrel.
He belts Brown for four, then steals a single to start the final over on strike. One more, followed by a single to Bopara. Harmer is not the quickest mover, but steals a pair of twos off Parnell, then slugs him down the ground for four to move to 14 off six. The dew's doing its thing now and suddenly fortune is smiling again.
Essex need one to tie, and that will be enough. The field comes up. Harmer squeezes it through point, and charges away in celebration.
Lucky? You bet. But who cares about that when there's a trophy to lift. There will be no crazy night on Broad Street with a Championship to play for in barely 36 hours' time, but somehow, after two wins from their first ten games, with cardboard cutouts instead of overseas players, through fortune or through planning, Essex have gone and won the thing.