You could get odds of 33/1 on Worcestershire winning last year’s T20 Blast at the start of the tournament, and they were outsiders going into both their semi-final and the final against Sussex. If any side is used to coming out victorious against the bookies’ predictions, it is them.
And Pat Brown, their breakout star from that campaign who topped the wicket-taking charts with 31 scalps and returned 0 for 15 from his four overs in the final, sees their status as underdogs ahead of Friday night’s sold-out semi-final at Hove as being about as accurate as it was last year.
“I suppose with them having home advantage and topping their group, they’d be seen as favourites,” he tells ESPNcricinfo. “But obviously we beat them in the final last year, so I think amongst our guys there will be confidence that we can do it again.
“I don’t think we’ll see ourselves as underdogs. I’m sure the outside world will – maybe rightly so given where we both finished in the groups – but like I say, that doesn’t matter to us, and we don’t feel like underdogs going into it.”
If Brown’s comments suggest a certain siege mentality within Worcestershire’s squad, then there is good reason behind it. Despite a group stage that has been interrupted by three red-ball games – the Cheltenham festival, a tour match against the Australians, and the bizarre mid-August round of Championship fixtures – Worcestershire have won more games than anyone else over the past two Blast seasons, and have made a point of reminding themselves of last year’s success.
“We spoke about it at the start of the season,” says Brown. “We didn’t want to be afraid of labelling ourselves as champions, and acting like it. What comes with that is the expectation to at least get to the knockout stages. We faltered a bit towards the end of the group stages, so to still get to the knockouts and be in a good place is a good achievement.”
The memories of last year’s final are there – although Sussex have undergone some level of transition since, not least in their bowling attack, with Jofra Archer (England duty) and Tymal Mills (injured) two notable absentees from last year’s side.
And while Brown doesn’t think that the result will have too much of an impact, he thinks it could be the sort of marginal factor that helps Worcestershire feel at ease going into the game.
“Everyone knows it’s a new game and under completely different circumstances, so we know that that it won’t have any bearing on the result really,” he says. “But it might give guys that extra bit of confidence, our batters have faced their bowlers before and been successful, that kind of thing. It might just give that extra bit of confidence that helps.”
A look at the leading run-scorers and wicket-takers in this year’s competition will throw up few Worcestershire players – Riki Wessels is 17th in the runs charts, with Brown himself joint-18th in terms of wickets – but if anything, he sees that as evidence of the team’s strength.
“It’s a good thing,” Brown argues. “We’ve still got to this position without having any outstanding individual seasons, which kind of just proves that at some point – and Mo [captain Moeen Ali] has talked about this – everyone’s found a way to be a hero, to win us a game.
“That doesn’t mean you have to do it every week, but if we can have guys that can stand up consistently and stand up when we need it in big games, it means we don’t rely on anyone too much, whereas a team with two of the leading run-scorers… if you get them two out, the others probably aren’t as confident, whereas our lads are all confident that they can stand up at any point and win a game for us.”
Take Ben Cox, for example. He had scored only 175 runs in 12 innings going into Finals Day last year, but with unbeaten innings of 55 off 34 in the semi and 46 off 27 in the final, managed to drag Worcestershire over the line. After another reasonably lean campaign so far, he is exactly the sort of player that they hope will pull something out of the bag.
Another unheralded star has been Daryl Mitchell, whose cutters and slower balls – he has rarely breached the 70mph mark this season – have seen him go at just 5.66 runs per over, and thus become the tournament’s most parsimonious bowler.
“He’s not come off the long run just yet,” laughs Brown. “He’s had some funky fields at time, and I think through bowling for so many years, bowling to so many different players, he knows where he needs guys and where he doesn’t, what their strong suits are… he’s just found a way. I don’t want to give anything too tactical away, but I’d say he’s found a method that’s worked for him this year which is great for him and great for us to be able to restrict from his end, and then the guys from the other maybe get the rewards that he’s earned us.”
From a personal point of view, a glance at the bare statistics might suggest that Brown has suffered from a sophomore slump of sorts. But in truth, his record at the death is still impressive – he has a strike-rate of 9.17 and an economy of 9.08 at that stage, compared to the tournament’s averages of 11.14 and 9.18 respectively – and he has hardly been helped by the weight of expectations and some difficult situations.
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“I could have done better, but as a death bowler, especially after last year which was so incredible, it was never going to be quite the same,” he reflects. “Every death bowler in the country gets taken down at some point in a couple of games. We’ve played four or five games at home on pitches on the edge of the square and a small boundary, and I’ve been tasked with bowling the death overs to the short legside boundary, which isn’t ideal for any bowler, but certainly not for my style of bowling.
“So if I factor that sort of thing in, and think about the fact I’m more known after last year… I’m still Worcester’s leading wicket-taker, and my economy and average and still pretty good. From a personal point of view, I’ve been fairly happy – there’s been room for improvement, and games or balls or spells in overs where I’ve not quite got it right, but it’s T20 cricket and that’s going to happen.”
Worcestershire will be without an overseas player on Friday night, with Callum Ferguson returning home for personal reasons, and Hamish Rutherford summoned by New Zealand to replace the injured Martin Guptill, both of whom had played in the Blast group stages.
With Moeen back – “his leadership and his calm demeanour, it really has a positive effect on the group” – and Brown himself ready to catch the eye ahead of England’s five-match T20I series in New Zealand this winter, the stage is set for their homegrown players to star and drag them through to a second Finals Day appearance in as many years.