The bookies can hardly separate the four sides and there appears to be no more than a hare's breath between them...Lef previews Twenty20 finals day.
Essex, Middlesex, Kent and Durham will make up the Finals' Day in 2008 and it's already looking like a much stronger line-up than 2007 when an off-key Lancashire, Kent with Malinga/Walker instead of Kemp/Mahmood and Gloucestershire and Sussex, who could only muster 3 wins out of 20 between them in the 2008 group stages, made up the final four.
Much has been made of "fortress Chelmsford" but Essex have been a pretty dominant one-day side over the past five years - wherever they play. Napier, Masters and the improving Chambers and Ten Doeschaete make for a functional and effective one-day bowling unit and they even have an "X-Factor" in Danish Kaneria who could really mess with a Kent side who struggle to play spin. It has been Essex's batting that has made the headlines and with Pettini, Napier, Bopara and Ten Doeschate, they have the players to put anybody to the sword. Will Napier and Co. be found out away from Chelmsford or will their momentum see them roll on to victory?
If it weren't for an 8-over-slog against Kent and a 6 run defeat against Hampshire, Middlesex would have a 100% record in this year's Twenty20. It's because they have a perfectly suited bowling attack with the leading wicket-taker in World Twenty20, Tyron Henderson, highly effective spin options with Kartik and Udal, and very reliable and consistent options in Murtagh, Finn and Nannes. Middlesex's batting has also more than pulled it's weight and with Owais Shah, Dawid Malan, Ed Joyce, Eoin Morgan and Billy Godleman they certainly have the players to put on big runs. Middlesex have been pretty poor in all the previous Twenty20s so there must be an element of doubt about whether they have completely turned it around or whether Saturday is the day they finally run out of steam.
The reigning champions have had a stuttering campaign but are undoubtedly a stronger side than the side that took the title in 2007. With batting down to eleven (although no.11 is very rarely needed), Kent are a side with matchwinners throughout the side. Whether's it's a fifty from Key or Denly at the top of the innings, a sparkling cameo from Kemp or Mahmood, some strangling mid-innings bowling from Stevens and Tredwell or some potent swing bowling from Yasir Arafat, Kent can never be counted out. Question marks remain over their ability to post scores over 180 and any side that can post this score against Kent will feel quietly confident, on the other hand, any side who allows Kent to post 180+ will feel very concerned.
If titles were awarded on paper then Durham would have swept the board this season. You will find more International players residing at Chester-le-Street than anywhere else in the country and Durham have a lethal combination of power-hitters, proper cricketers, all-rounders, fighters and lethal quick bowlers to unsettle any side in the world - county or International. Durham have been installed as the bookies favourites but we must remember that the same happened in the Friends Provident trophy before they were upsurped by Kent, there has also been another fault in Durham's line-up that has flown under the radar in that they are a slightly immobile fielding unit. Durham will need to use their braun, guile and experience to bully their opponents at Twenty20 Finals' Day.
Lef's tip - I tipped Durham for the FPT and I still tip them for the County Championship but at Twenty20 Finals' Day, I can see Kent prevailing in an eventual 'Champions League' match against Middlesex. Kent have so many match-winners in their line-up and have priceless experience from their win last season.
Lef's 2nd tip - Don't bet any money on this, it's too close to call!