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AB De Villiers 88* inspires Middlesex win - but is anyone watching?

  • 8/4/2019 6:17:26 PM

Middlesex 215 for 4 (de Villiers 88*, Malan 56) beat Somerset 180 (Sowter 4 for 29) by 35 runs

It is a question that has troubled students of metaphysics since time immemorial: if AB de Villiers hits nine sixes in 35 balls, but the only way to watch is a temperamental, fixed-cam live stream, did the ball really sail into the trees?

If there was ever a game that epitomised everything that's right and much of what's wrong with the T20 Blast it was this.

The scorecard was studded with superstars - de Villiers, Eoin Morgan, and Babar Azam - and starlets in Tom Banton and Mujeeb ur-Rahman. Beer flowed as easily as boundaries in front of a packed ground that had been sold out for weeks. Tom Lammonby, a 19-year-old allrounder in his fifth professional game, was crunched for an enormous six by England's World Cup-winning captain, then held his nerve to dismiss him with his next ball.

And yet - there is always an 'and yet' with the Blast - it felt at times as though it might not have happened at all.

This sell-out was not at Lord's, but at Old Deer Park, a quaint club ground at the far end of the District Line.

Nor was it televised. It would be foolish to demand every game in a 133-match competition is televised, not least with an Ashes Test running simultaneously, but if you had tried to tune into Middlesex's stream of the game, you would have seen an ominous buffering circle interspersed with a Benny Hill-style sped up version of everything you had missed.

The competition's official social media account would hardly have helped you either: as de Villiers walked off at the interval, its most recent tweet was seven hours previously.

None of this is to throw all the blame at Middlesex. There is merit, of course, in their attempts to bring their games to a wider audience than they get at Lord's, which are dominated by a post-work, corporate demographic. They can hardly be blamed for the temperamental nature of their Wifi connection, not least at a ground they only come to once a year. As Tim Wigmore detailed for ESPNcricinfo in 2016, the club's situation is unique in that they lack a true 'home' - every staging decision they make is impossible to understand without a swathe of contextual background.

But it is impossible to imagine any of this happening anywhere else; so much as hinting at this turn of events to an administrator in the IPL or the Big Bash would rightly be met with derision.

Even leagues that have started from nowhere, like the Global T20 in Canada, have managed to push their product substantially more successfully: cricket fans in the UK could watch Brampton Wolves vs Vancouver Knights on TV on Sunday evening, but not de Villiers going beserk in their own domestic competition.

In essence, the Blast's neglect by the ECB has left it resembling a stray cat: the odd county might leave out a bowl of biscuits or a saucer of milk to keep it going, but its survival owes more to good fortune than investment of time or money. The governing body will point out that many of the shortcomings detailed will be solved by The Hundred from next year - but what chance did they ever give their current competition of succeeding?

In the event, this was Middlesex's first win against Somerset in five attempts, a result which owed much to a collapse of five wickets for 28 runs in the middle overs of the chase.

From the moment de Villiers had nailed his second ball for a towering six over midwicket, things had looked ominous for Somerset. Paul Stirling and Dawid Malan had set the platform early on, but it was de Villiers who turned a competitive total into an enormous one as he peppered the midwicket and long-off boundaries.

Richmond is a small ground, with the straight boundaries no bigger than 55m, but many of his sixes would have reached the second tier in the more familiar surroundings of the M Chinnaswamy Stadium. The pick were a straight drive nailed over the press tent at long-off and an lusty smite over midwicket off Jamie Overton; the only shame for Middlesex is that their superstar only has one game left on his lucrative, but brief contract.

It was curious that Somerset did not bowl their spinners out - they went at 8.57 runs an over, compared to 11.77 for their seamers - and as it has since the days of Alfonso Thomas, death bowling proved their Achilles heel.

They had looked well set at 81 for 1 with a ball left in the seventh over of their chase, as Banton started with a typically flamboyant cameo, but after James Hildreth chopped a Steve Finn slower ball on, they lost wickets regularly.

Nathan Sowter, the spiky Australian legspinner, proved to be the improbable star of Middlesex's defence, removing Banton, Eddie Byrom and Tom Lammonby in the space of six balls to derail the chase, and despite the punchy Tom Abell's efforts to bat with the tail, the total proved insurmountable.

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