RHF TROPHY: Sparks v Thunder – A Big Start Beats A Big Finish

Having won the toss and elected to bat yesterday against the Thunder, Central Sparks skipper Eve Jones walked out to open the batting at New Road with the world at her feet. Sparks were top of the table after 3 rounds, having beaten both last years finalists, Diamonds and Vipers, and the much-fancied Storm – they couldn’t have asked for a better start to 2021.

Five-and-a-bit overs later, things were not looking quite so rosy. Poppy Davies got a good ball first up and was LBW; but Milly Home and Gwenan Davies (no relation) had only themselves to blame – both running themselves out, as Sparks spluttered to 17-3.

Eve Jones rebuilt, in partnership with Steph Butler (25) and Clare Boycott (17), but (rightly, given the situation) all the focus was on staying in rather than scoring runs, and both Butler and Boycott finished with strike rates well under 50. By the 35 over mark, Sparks were alive, but barely – 116-5, and heading towards a total of around 160/170.

It took the nonchalance of youth to inject a bit of life back into the Sparks innings, in the shape of Issy Wong. On paper, 18 off 22 balls – a strike rate of 81 – doesn’t sound like much, but in the context of the game, it suddenly looked like Shafali Verma had sneaked out of quarantine in Southampton and hitched up to Worcester for a knock!

Wong’s innings also seemed to change the way Jones was playing, with Jones’ personal Manhattan showing a distinct up-tick in the last 15 overs.

That paved the way for Sparks to finish on 203 – a 20/30 run bonus, which definitely felt defendable, especially on a dodgy pitch, with Sarah Glenn bowling into the rough left over from a 4-day men’s Championship game.

Sparks opened with pace, and Issy Wong immediately had a very literal impact – hitting Emma Lamb on the lower arm, as a delivery reared up from nowhere out of that rough. Fortunately Lamb was able to continue after treatment; and her and Georgie Boyce set about their business.

After taking a few overs to get a feel for the pitch, Boyce and Lamb really took charge. Overs 6-10 went for 3.8 runs (7.6 per over), by far the most productive period of the game, as the pair used the pace of Wong and Liz Russell to make hay. After 12 overs, Thunder were very-much on top at 66-0; and… in a way… that was the game won.

There was a long way to go, of course – Thunder still needed 138 more runs, but with 10 wickets in hand to get them, the pressure was all on Sparks from that point. Thunder didn’t need 138 runs; Sparks needed 10 wickets – that was the only way Sparks were going to win the game.

The introduction of Glenn and Georgia Davis, who bowled 20 over straight between them, did have the potential to tilt things back towards the home side; and the spinners did their job, taking 5 wickets between them. But with both of them bowled out at 30 overs, all the Thunder’s tail had to do was cling on – and cling on they did!

The epitome of this was Danielle Collins, who came in at 9, and finished 8 not out off 22 balls. That’s a strike rate of “only” 36, but it didn’t matter, because if she stayed there, Thunder were going to win the match, thanks to the platform Boyce and Lamb had set. And that’s exactly what happened – Alex Hartley eventually hitting the winning runs with 2 overs to spare – a big start beating a big finish by 2 wickets.

As a result, Sparks slip back to third in the table, behind Vipers, who got a bonus point win at Storm, and Diamonds, who Gunned down Stars; but Sparks shouldn’t be too disheartened – the format of the competition means that no one will remember who won the “group” stage – the key is to finish in the top 3 and give yourself a shot at the final, and Sparks remain very-much still in the fight to do that.