Finals Day fever hits Freddie
Andrew Flintoff will return to the top of the bill on Saturday desperate to end his long wait for success with Lancashire in the frenzied atmosphere of Twenty20 Cup finals day at Edgbaston.
The 29-year-old all-rounder is the headline act among many top performers including Sri Lankan fast bowler Lasith Malinga, Rob Key, Mushtaq Ahmed and Muttiah Muralitharan battling for success in county cricket’s most popular competition.
As one of England’s biggest stars, the majority of the near capacity 21,000 crowd at Edgbaston will be keen to witness how Flintoff’s recuperation from another ankle operation is faring ahead of an anticipated international return in the NatWest Series against India in just over a fortnight.
But the priority for Flintoff is to claim some silverware again for Lancashire, eight years after his only previous trophy with his beloved county when they lifted the predecessor to the current NatWest Pro40 league.
Other than that triumph, Flintoff’s only other successes with Lancashire came the previous year when they won the NatWest Trophy and Sunday League double and he is eager to change that record when he lines up in the first semi-final against Gloucestershire.
"We haven’t won anything for a while at Old Trafford,” admitted Flintoff, who was a member of the Lancashire side who lost in the Twenty20 semi-final against Surrey in 2004 and the final to Somerset two years ago.
“We’ve got to semi-finals and finals but for a club with a tradition of winning trophies, especially in one-day cricket, it would be nice to win one on Saturday night.
“I think everyone was sceptical about Twenty20 cricket to start with but now it’s a really competitive tournament. It’s a great atmosphere at Edgbaston and it’s a great venue to play on a day like that.”
Flintoff’s presence will add considerable power to a line-up already including hard-hitting opener Mal Loye, who is hopeful of being named in England’s final 15-man squad for the ICC World Twenty20 on Monday, and prolific off-spinner Muralitharan.
Their formidable line-up is the reason Gloucestershire coach Mark Alleyne believes how Lancashire deal with the pressure of being favourites may decide the outcome of the first semi-final.
“There’s a lot of pressure on the household names of Lancashire,” stressed Alleyne. “I’m sure they are desperate for a trophy of some sort - they haven’t won anything for a while, so I’m sure they’ll want to win something.
“I’ve been really pleased with what my players have done so far in the competition. They’ve played as a really good unit and won some important games against some really good sides. Lancashire’s another one of those and we hope to do a bit more of the same on Saturday.”
While Lancashire and Gloucestershire battle out the first match of the day, Kent and Sussex will both be preparing for their first appearance at this stage of the competition.
Kent have recently added exciting Sri Lankan paceman Malinga, who is known as “The Slinger” for his round-armed action, to their squad as a replacement for Andrew Hall, who is required by South Africa for a training camp.
He has reason to be confident against Sussex, against whom he claimed 5-79 in a tour match for Sri Lanka last year against a line-up including four players - Carl Hopkinson, Chris Nash, Luke Wright and James Kirtley - who are likely to be involved.
They also have a considerable advantage for having this week off to prepare while opponents Sussex have had a hectic schedule in the championship.
Sussex’s victory in three days over Lancashire in Liverpool, which returned them to the top of the championship table, at least gave them an extra day to prepare having been confronted with successive away championship matches at Hampshire and Lancashire and a NatWest Pro40 match at Edgbaston in-between.
Sussex coach Mark Robinson said: “I know Kent have been off all week and that’s just the luck of the draw.
“It’s frustrating, but it’s not going to distract us from what should be a fantastic occasion for us all.”
The schedule has also limited their chance to try and simulate Malinga’s unique action in the nets and Robinson is just hoping his batsmen are in the right frame of mind.
“It’s going to be down to the batsman’s individual skills,” he added. “It’s going to be the mental capacity of the players which will be important.
“I think a few of our lads played against him last year in a tour match but he can only bowl four overs and you just hope he’s not on song.”