The build-up to tonight’s T20 Blast quarter-final between Nottinghamshire and Somerset has rightly focused on the hosts’ destructive opening pair of Alex Hales and Riki Wessels.
With 962 runs between them in the competition, the duo have excelled at Trent Bridge in particular, which has become something of a batsman’s paradise in the past few seasons: the average score batting first there in 2017 is a mammoth 203.
And while Samit Patel, Dan Christian and Brendan Taylor have all weighed in with 240 runs or more at averages above 30, it is clear that Nottinghamshire’s chances of a second Finals Day in as many years rely heavily on their two openers.
Somerset’s task, therefore, is to stop Hales and Wessels from cashing in against their inexperienced bowling attack – which has enjoyed mixed success this season – by getting them out in the first couple of overs.
However, tempting as it may be to open the bowling with the fiery pace and aggression of Craig Overton or Paul van Meekeren, this would be a grave error.
In Nottinghamshire’s games at Trent Bridge this season, opposition sides have opened the bowling with seamers on five occasions, and the hosts have scored six, nine, thirteen, nine and two runs off those first overs. Only one seamers (Birmingham’s Olly Stone) has taken a wicket in those five overs, and the hosts’ average score after the first set of six is a shade under eight.
Conversely, the two teams that have opened with spinners – Derbyshire and Worcestershire – have enjoyed much more success. Hales and Wessels combined to take only five runs off each of those overs. Against Derbyshire, Hales was dismissed by off-spinner Wayne Madsen, and although Notts still went on to win that day, against Worcestershire, Mitchell Santner’s strong start set the tone for a professional performance with the ball: the hosts fell thirteen runs short of their target.
While both batsmen are handy players of spin, and these sample sizes are small, Somerset should take encouragement from this, and continue with their ploy of opening the bowling with leg-spinner and leading wicket-taker Max Waller.
Incidentally, Madsen’s own experience against Hampshire’s Shahid Afridi on Tuesday – the off-spinner was hit for sixteen runs in his opening over, and did not return to the attack – should not deter Jim Allenby (or whoever captains in his absence if the all-rounder fails his fitness test). Waller is the best chance of a first-over wicket that Somerset have, and therefore must be used to combat the explosive duo of Wessels and Hales.
It is unusual for teams to open the bowling with a leg-spinner, especially in England, but Waller has done so in the visitors’ past three games with some success, conceding six, five and six off his three first overs. In the Taunton side’s drubbing of Hampshire, which stole them a quarter-final place that had looked unlikely at the start of the final round of matches, Waller also bowled opener Calvin Dickinson.
Somerset’s best hope of stopping Hales and Wessels is for Waller to repeat the trick in his first over tonight. It is a low-risk strategy: he is no more likely to get targeted than one of the visitors’ seamers, and even if it does not work, there will still be seven overs of high-quality spin available to Allenby in Waller and Roelof van der Merwe.
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