T20: Essex Eagles entering unknown territory says Bopara
PUBLISHED: 07:00 04 September 2019
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Essex Eagles enter unknown territory when they face Lancashire Lightning at the Emirates Riverside in the quarter-final of the Vitality T20 Blast tonight (Wednesday) as underdogs and with the weight of history pressing against them.
Lancashire have borrowed Durham's Chester-le-Street home while Old Trafford hosts the fourth Ashes Test, starting this morning, and Essex all-rounder Ravi Bopara said: "We've never played there before in T20 cricket. It'll be interesting to see what it's like."
It is like home from home for Lancashire, though, as they are unbeaten in their last seven visits, including one of their eight wins in 10 T20 matches played this season that helped elevate them to the top of the North group.
The Eagles, meanwhile, soared from next to bottom in the South group less than a week ago to qualify by winning three of their final four group games, the other being a tie.
"That was easily the most incredible qualification of my career," said the long-serving Bopara, whose 176 runs for only twice out in that stunning finale was a key contributory factor.
"At halfway we were nowhere and with the rain as well we thought, 'No, we aren't qualifying'. But I think the rain helped us. It gave us a little break from all the bashing we were getting and allowed us to regroup.
"The way we did made a big difference. It's probably the best thing that ever happened. We picked up four points just from the rain!
"We had a chance mathematically, but if we're being brutally honest there was no chance, really. In our minds we were like, 'It's going to take ridiculous results to go our way'.
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"The fact that it happened is just unreal. I think the guys just went, 'Look, it doesn't matter now, let's just go out and express ourselves, and go for it'. We've snuck in through the back door."
Bopara's runs this season have come from number six rather than his favoured position two wickets down and the switch to the middle-order finally came to fruition in the past fortnight.
His first four T20 innings of the campaign mustered just 13 runs and he was dropped briefly, but he added: "I've always said to the management that I feel if I get myself in, I can hurt a bowling attack. Sometimes I think if you chance your arm early and it comes off, great; if it doesn't you waste a batsman.
"It was nice to be back in good touch. Sometimes you just need luck in T20 cricket: you need the odd ball to land in the middle of nowhere, the odd one to go over the fielder's head for six rather than holing out on the line. You need those things and if it's going your way, great; make hay while the sun shines."
The sun will need to shine through the floodlights on Essex tonight, though, with history not on their side.
They have not won a white-ball knockout game in nine attempts - three of them T20 quarter-finals - since they beat Nottinghamshire Outlaws in the last eight to qualify for finals day back in 2013.
The sorry sequence started when they were beaten in the semi-finals by Northamptonshire and Essex will face Lancashire without Pakistan pace bowler Mohammad Amir, who claimed 10 wickets in his eight outings, and bowled his overs at a commendable economy rate of 7.44.
Amir's already extended contract expired after the group stage but Bopara looks to Dan Lawrence, Essex's top scorer in the competition with 346 runs, as his player of the season to date.
"Dan has really emerged this season," he added. "He's turned himself into a really strong, powerful player. I know he has been around for a while, but he has really nailed it this season."