By Richard Clark
Sparks made it over the line in the end – just about – but this was nothing less than an enthralling cricket match, in which both sides might have felt they held the upper hand at various stages, albeit never for very long and never with any degree of conviction.
Maybe the shorter forms of the game do offer less room for ebbs and flows, twists and turns, but these two teams gave the lie to that notion in a tussle that went right down to the bone.
Ultimately Eve Jones played the pivotal role – her 71 off 55 balls contained three 6s and seven 4s, and as much fluent strokeplay as one can reasonably expect inside twenty overs. Coming on the back of her fine Hundred form and then another half-century in last week’s victory against Vipers, there can’t be any batter in the country in better form right now.
Jones’s innings was almost enough to see Sparks home, but when Sonia Odedra prised her out trying to flip the ball over short fine leg for a boundary that would have put the home side within two runs of victory with seven balls left to get them, only to find the grateful hands of Yvonne Graves, the complexion of the game changed once more.
A spearing yorker from Odedra cleaned up Emily Arlott next ball, leaving Issy Wong and new batter Chloe Hill to find a run a ball off Grace Ballinger’s final over. The pair traded singles from the first four balls, the sprawling Hill somehow escaping a vociferous run out appeal along the way, before Wong lifted the tension by fair clobbering the penultimate ball through mid-on for four.
Had things turned out differently, Odedra may well have been taking the plaudits. Her four overs brought figures of two for 14 and were a model of precision, conceding only one boundary and consistently giving the batters nothing to which they could free their arms. Lucy Higham’s off spin, too, was impressive, yielding just 19 runs.
The one-time England seamer had returned to the attack with Sparks needing 31 from 30 balls with seven wickets in hand, and conceded just two from the 16th over as Thea Brookes struggled to get her away. Kirstie Gordon’s next five balls brought just another two runs, and a game that Sparks had well within their grasp was suddenly sliding out of it.
One ball can so often change things, though, and Jones lofted Gordon’s sixth over long off. Shackles broken, nerves calmed. Despite the loss of Brookes, Jones and Wong collected 11 from the next over, leaving just enough breathing space to collect 10 off the final two overs.
Earlier on, Odedra (22) and Beth Harmer (26) had built what seemed an imposing platform as 53 runs came from the power play. Essex’s Harmer took a particular liking to Wong, driving her through the off side for back-to-back fours, before seizing on a short ball next up and pulling it some way beyond the rope at deep midwicket.
But both went quickly and although Abbey Freeborn (33), Higham (22), and Theresa Graves (14) all made useful contributions, none could maintain that initial scoring rate as wickets began to fall. A total of 136 for 8 wasn’t quite one thing or the other, but certainly wasn’t what Lightning would have been hoping for from 72 for 2 at the mid-way point.
Sparks’ reply began in harem scarem style, Sophie Munro’s opening over containing a boundary each for Jones and Marie Kelly, four leg byes down to fine leg, a couple of wides (one legside, one off), a scampered two, and finally the wicket of Kelly who, unable to repeat her Hove heroics, hoicked one up in the air to Harmer rushing in from cover.
When Milly Home went three balls later, Sparks were 17 for 2 it was Lightning’s turn to have a spring in their steps. But Jones found solid company in Gwen Davies (15) and Brookes (17), and Sparks were always ahead of the DLS par until those see-saw final exchanges got them home.
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