Matt Roller from Lord’s
A remarkable Ashar Zaidi fifty saw Essex beat Middlesex by five wickets at Lord’s and edge closer to a T20 Blast quarter-final spot.
Set 127 to win in sixteen overs on a slow pitch, Essex were in trouble at 54-4, but Dan Lawrence’s 36 and a 24-ball 59 not out by Zaidi saw the Eagles home in the final over.
The all-rounder reached his third Blast fifty of the 2016 season off only 21 balls, including four fours and five sixes, to leave the away team a two-point cushion over Surrey, Sussex and Kent heading into the final round of games on Friday.
He sealed the game with a straight six into the pavilion, a blow which summed up his outstanding innings.
Nathan Sowter and Ollie Rayner had threatened to squeeze the life out of the run chase with combined figures of 1-37 in six overs, but it was not to be for the hosts, who are now set for an away draw in the quarter-final.
Earlier, after winning the toss and choosing to field first with one eye on the weather, Essex recovered well from an untidy powerplay.
David Masters (0-16) and Matt Quinn were inconsistent with their line early on in the hosts’ innings, and Dawid Malan and Nick Gubbins both rotated the strike with ease.
However, once Essex brought on medium-pacers Ryan ten Doeschate and skipper Ravi Bopara (0-27), scoring became tougher and Middlesex’s boundary count was noticeably low; they struck just eight fours and two sixes in their sixteen overs.
Young spinner Lawrence, labelled his side’s “secret weapon” by coach Chris Silverwood, bowled a tight line to take 1-15 in his two overs, as he picked up the wicket of Gubbins (13), the first of four batsmen to be caught at long-on or long-off.
Ten Doeschate (2-18) dismissed James Franklin (10) and George Bailey (7) to ensure that Middlesex could not successfully build any substantial partnerships, and the experienced Graham Napier bowled a fantastic 14th over to get rid of John Simpson (7) and Ryan Higgins (0).
Quinn bowled a superb penultimate over which went for only seven runs, but Napier (2-25) let the hosts recover the situation with a couple of wayward deliveries that Toby Roland-Jones slammed for four.
Nonetheless, Essex looked to be favourites at the halfway stage, as Malan ended unbeaten on 68.
The left-hander would have liked to have had more freedom to accelerate towards the end of the innings, but the regular wickets that fell at the other end suffocated his scoring somewhat.
Jesse Ryder has had a poor T20 Blast season for his high standards, and fell early on in the reply when he miscued a heave off Ollie Rayner to fall for just one.
Tom Westley (6) soon followed him on his way back to the pavilion after picking out Nick Gubbins on the mid-wicket boundary; it was a rare failure for the county’s top T20 run-scorer this season, and Essex looked in a spot of bother at 13-2 after three overs.
The rebuilding job was left to Lawrence and Nick Browne, who found the boundary four times between them to leave the visitors 34-2 after the five-over powerplay.
However, with Middlesex keen to introduce spin into the attack as soon as possible, leggie Nathan Sowter trapped Browne in front lbw for 15, and Essex were made to work hard for each and every run. At 47-3 at the halfway stage, the required run-rate was already at ten.
With Dan Lawrence just starting to find some fluency after reverse-sweeping Sowter for four, Bopara was run out in embarrassing fashion to leave the Eagles in all sorts of trouble at 54-4.
Ashar Zaidi arrived at the crease with a black bat and an attacking intent that had not been seen before in the innings and partnered Lawrence brilliantly. The pair took twelve runs off James Harris’ only over, and the Karachi-born all-rounder then spanked a six and a four off consecutive balls from Sowter to keep the required rate in check.
Having broken the back of the run chase, the pair faltered against the medium pace of Higgins and Franklin; they managed just ten runs in two overs against them, and Lawrence fell for his joint-top T20 score of 36 as he was caught by Finn at short-fine leg.
Zaidi held the key for the visitors, and slammed a four and six off Higgins to pull Essex back into the game. With 23 needed off the last two overs, the left-hander carved a huge six and a deft cut for four off consecutive Roland-Jones balls, before launching an enormous blow into the Mound Stand to leave four needed off seven deliveries.
Despite hitting his batting partner Ten Doeschate, who contributed four to the pair’s unbeaten partnership of 42, in the helmet, Zaidi launched a huge blow into the members to send the away balcony into rapturous celebration.
Speaking exclusively to LastWordOnSports after the game, 19-year-old Essex all-rounder Dan Lawrence told us “in the middle [overs] it became a little bit trickier to score if you took the pace off; the pitch was pretty used.”
“[Zaidi] is brilliant. He’s obviously a fantastic signing this year and to have people that can win games for you like that is special, and tonight was one of the best knocks I’ve ever seen.”
Regarding Essex’s final group game, against Glamorgan at Chelmsford tomorrow, the right-handed said “we’re just starting to find a little bit of form in the Twenty20 stuff. It’d be quite easy to get sucked into the run-rate tomorrow but we’re still there to win the game, and try to guarantee a quarter-final not through net run-rate but purely through winning the game.”