Final countdown for in-form Essex
Essex are ready to make their first appearance at the Twenty20 finals day a winning one as they prepare for what could be a memorable occasion at Trent Bridge this Saturday.
Batting coach Graham Gooch, the former England and Essex player who spent his formative years with Ilford CC, believes that the county can win the competition despite the presence of Leicestershire and Surrey, who have reached the last four in each of the four years of the competition.
"We have nothing to fear, yes there are teams who have past experience to fall back on but the way that we've been playing, I don't think that we have anything to fear," he said.
"The squad have all worked hard to reach this stage and there is a very positive mood amongst the players. People who have watched our games in the competition this season will know that we have a talented bunch of players with a number who are capable of winning matches in their own right. There is also an all-round depth to this Essex squad. In our batting for example, Darren Gough has been batting at number three although he tends to bat at 11 in the championship. Gough has also been highly impressive forming an outstanding opening attack with Andy Bichel where their experience has served us well. The pair have been exceptional with the new ball and have regularly put the opposition on the back foot early on to give us the initiative.
"But throughout the team, everyone has been making vital contributions and we have become a very effective unit in one-day cricket. Of course, it will be a question of how we perform on the day but if we play well, I think we have a really great chance."
Essex meet Leicestershire in the first semi-final starting at 11.30 a.m then Nottinghamshire and Surrey contest the second tie with the winners meeting in the final in the evening.
This is the furthest that Essex have reached in the competition having been eliminated by Leicestershire in 2004 at the quarter-final stage but Ravinder Bopara echoed Gooch's positive beliefs that Essex could be in the verge of lifting the title.
"I don't see why we can't win the competition," said the Manor Park-based 21-year-old all-rounder. "We have been playing some awesome cricket this year in the limited-overs game and there is so much self-belief amongst the players.
"I think that winning the totesport League last year in such convincing fashion gave everyone so much confidence and we also attracted a lot of respect from other counties.
"We can win games from any situation and rather than fear any of the other teams left in the competition, I think they will look at us and know that they will have to be at the very peak of their game to cause an upset.
"But there is some outstanding talent throughout our team and if we do ourselves justice, then I'm confident that we can put our name on another trophy."
Essex prepared for Twenty20 finals day with two successive wins at Garon Park, Southend to maintain their 100 per cent record at the ground since making the move from Southchurch in 2005.
Somerset were beaten by 211 runs in the County Championship and it was teenage fast bowling prospect Mervyn Westfield who earned the accolades. The 18-year-old, who plays for Wanstead Cricket Club, scored 32 as night watchman in the second innings before producing figures of 4-72 in a performance that had captain Ronnie Irani praising the youngster to the hilt.
"He was outstanding and that's the best piece of fast bowling that I've ever seen in my career," he enthused. "His pace and accuracy were superb and I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised with his performance because he maintained a high level of performance throughout his 18 overs and that's some achievement for a young bowler. He's top quality and looks destined to go all the way to the top."
Westfield remains a modest and unpretentious character off the field although that belies his aggressive attacking persona with the ball. He was appearing in only his second County Championship match but was naturally delighted with his contribution. "It was nice to get some wickets and I was delighted to get an opportunity to show what I could do," said the former Barking College-educated youngster.
Whilst admitting he was totally unfazed when asked to bowl, he did reveal that his calm manner was overtaken a little by nerves. "I was a bit nervous when I went out to bat as night watchman because I knew that I had a responsible task to perform and I knew that I had a particular job to do and didn't want to let anyone down," he revealed.
Having played at various England age groups, the former MCC Young Cricketer of the Year for 2003 already has two targets in sight. "I'm hoping that I get another chance to play in the Essex first team soon but beyond that, I'm hoping to gain selection for the England under-19's tour to Sri Lanka this winter."
Both look distinct possibilities.
The second victory of the Garon Park festival occurred on Sunday when Middlesex were thrashed by nine wickets in a Pro40 match to leave Essex topping the Division One table.
Gough and Bichel wreaked havoc with the new ball as half the visitors batting line-up had made the brief trip to the middle and back by the 12th over having capitulated to 29 for 5 wickets.
Although they eventually limped to 144 all out, their hosts made light of their victory target winning with more than 21 overs to spare.
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