Lancashire 134 for 4 (Jennings 46) beat Kent 133 for 9 (Billings 37, Parkinson 3-27) by six wickets
Only one score lower than Kent’s 133 had ever been successfully defended in a T20 tie at Canterbury, but the overwrought faces on the Lancashire bench were a reminder that nothing would be automatic now the knockout stages in the Vitality Blast were spreading anxiety into every corner of this grand old ground.
Lancashire had stiffened their ranks with two top-order England batsmen, Jos Buttler and Keaton Jennings, but Buttler was stumped first ball for a duck, Jennings (46 from 50) got out with the chase not quite broken. Sam Billings was a highly-resourceful captain and Kent fielded tigerishly. Although Lancashire took this quarter-final by six wickets with eight balls to spare, it felt closer.
Memories of a horrendous collapse in the group stages against Durham at Old Trafford, culminating in three wickets lost in the final over, lurked below the surface. “Never again,” they had vowed in a dressing room inquest which burned the paint from the walls. There will be another occasion one day, there always is, but at least for Lancashire it was not to be this night.
Lancashire hit one six all night and it as good as settled matters. When Jordan Clark swung Mitch Claydon over midwicket, the requirement was reduced to 11 from two overs. Only four more balls were needed as Clark and Dane Vilas stretched their unbroken fifth-wicket diving and scampering to 50 from 33 balls.
Buttler will not be the first high-profile England player to be propelled into a county cup tie as if slightly disorientated. His emotions this week have been consumed by a maiden Test hundred at Trent Bridge and a heavy England defeat: vice-captain these days as well, remember. Too often, England players fail in high-profile county games and psychologically in such a crowded fixture list it is easy to understand why.
It was a night when Lancashire could not believe their luck. They had bowled 52% of their overs in the group stages with spin bowling, with legspinners Matt Parkinson and Zahir Khan two of the most influential players in the tournament. By failing to win a home quarter-final the danger was that their spinners might be negated, but instead they found themselves on a Canterbury slow turner. They could not have planned it better themselves.
“The worst we have batted all summer,” said Billings. “We certainly didn’t want to prepare a turning wicket like that against Lancashire with all their spin.” That he could smile at the irony was a measure of the man.
It has been a hot summer, county squares are heavily used and tired, and TV gantries can limit the choice even more. Quarter-finals can be hard to plan for. All that said, Kent could not have been more accommodating. Parkinson, with 3 for 27, took his competition tally to 23 wickets, second only to Worcestershire seamer Patrick Brown. “It spun more than we thought,” he said.
Billings rose to the challenge with a run-a-ball 37, but even this was an innings constrained by circumstance. Parkinson dominated with 3 for 27 and, although Zahir was clearly frustrated by his own inaccuracy, the final ball of his spell was a resounding one – a big chinaman from around the wicket, delivered from wide out, which turned back to strike Billings’ off stump.
Kent lost three wickets in the Powerplay before the spinners showed their hand. Daniel Bell-Drummond sacrificed himself to Joe Denly’s optimistic call for a single to square leg, second ball. Bell-Drummond might have made it without hesitation, he certainly had time to send Denly back; instead he courteously spared his partner and was run out by yards.
Worse followed when Heino Kuhn was caught at the wicket, trying to guide Toby Lester to third man and Denly gave Buttler a second keeper’s catch when he tried to cut Jordan Clark.
Billings has supervised a fine Kent season since returning from IPL and sporadic England limited-over duties: a more professional set-up, with not as much universal supremacy for the captain, has helped. Kent were runners-up at Lord’s in the Royal London Cup final, they lie third in Division Two of the Championship, and were in a quarter-final of the Blast. But plugging holes in an innings feels much the same whatever the details.
The next three Kent wickets belonged to Parkinson, fair hair tightly cropped. Sean Dickson came in at No 5 as a stabilising influence, helped add 40 in six overs and then advanced down the track but holed out at long off. Australian Marcus Stoinis made a third-ball duck. Alex Blake’s potential for devastation ended quickly at deep midwicket.
Stoinis had recovered from a hamstring strain and Kent chose not to risk him in their last two group matches for fear of a recurrence. The danger remained, though, that he would be rusty. Parkinson beat him second ball with dip and turn and then replicated the delivery to have him caught at slip. Billings’ departure made it 102 for 7 with four overs remaining and a packed Canterbury crowd took refuge in ironic cheers for some late-over scrambling.
Lancashire took a long time to recover from the loss of Buttler, stumped by Billings off Joe Denly’s leg spin. Aaron Lilley’s pinch hitting at No 3 was silenced by the pace of Adam Milne and Alex Davies’ fraught innings was not that of a batsman boasting an average of 63.75 in the competition: he tried to tick along, but survived a return catch to Imran Qayyum, might have been thrown out by Billings at the non-striker’s end when he dawdled a single on the last ball of the Powerplay, and finally chipped Qayyum down the ground.
Jennings, coming in at No 4, assessed the target calmly before he, too, was stumped off Qayyum, another spinner to have a good night. But Lancashire saw it through. On the bench, their injured captain, Liam Livingstone, looked as if it would be act of mercy to pass him fit for Finals Day even if his broken thumb is in three pieces.