By Matt Somerford
Tom Westley is determined to cash in on his good form and send Essex Eagles to a fifth finals day in nine years.
The 25-year-old has been the surprise package of a blistering NatWest T20 Blast campaign for the Eagles as they topped the South Group to earn a home quarter-final against Birmingham Bears on Saturday.
Westley has overshadowed his higher-profile team-mates such as Ravi Bopara, Jesse Ryder and Ryan ten Doeschate to be the competition’s third-highest runscorer.
He heads into the knockout stages as arguably the form batsmen of the Blast too, having struck a pair of centuries this month, including a career-best unbeaten 109 from 58 balls in their final group game against Sussex Sharks.
It is a remarkable turnaround after Westley had been told before the season that he was unlikely to play much Twenty20.
Westley told ecb.co.uk: "I was speaking to Ryan ten Doeschate in Cape Town this winter about T20 cricket and he said: 'You're probably not going to start and might be second or third in line to get into the team'.
“So taking that early opportunity and getting some runs has been very pleasing.
"Then it was overwhelming to finish the group stage with a couple of hundreds. I'm fairly surprised, to be honest, but I'm very pleased for Essex that we secured a home quarter-final."
Despite his breakthrough campaign, Westley remains humble about his achievements.
His 58 fours in the group stage rank him second in the competition – just one behind Surrey's Jason Roy – although he joked he had an ulterior motive for finding the ropes.
"I'm not the fastest of runners between the wickets so if I can hit some boundaries I'm going to be running a little bit less,” he said.
"It's not too bad when I'm batting with Jesse but when it comes to batting with Ravi and Tendo, who are pretty quick between the wickets, it gives me a bit of a breather if I can hit boundaries or try and clear the rope.
"I try to bat with good intent and we as a club try to bat with positive intent to get the guys off to a flier in the first six overs.
"If that means improvising, moving around the crease or doing something a little bit uncomfortable, then we're prepared to do it because we want to get off to the best possible start, and I think that's shown through our performances.
“We've scored a lot of runs in the powerplays. That's definitely been a goal of ours."
While Westley is in storming form heading into their Bears clash the same can not be said for his side.
The Eagles were first to book a quarter-final place after winning 10 of their opening 11 games, but lost their three remaining group-stage matches thereafter.
By contrast the Bears won their final three games to sneak into the last-eight and they are full of belief they could pull off a rare win at the Essex County Ground.
The visitors also boast one of the best spin duos in the Blast, Jeetan Patel and Ateeq Javid, and pose an unfamiliar challenge Westley admits is some cause for concern.
"They're a side we haven't played a huge amount, with them being in Division One (of the County Championship) and often in the one-day format they're not in our division,” he said.
"It's a team we're unfamiliar with so we've just tried to focus on ourselves and our strengths, trying to improve areas that we need to improve.
"Any side is a dangerous side in Twenty20 cricket so we're definitely not going to underestimate them.
"But we're confident that if we play to the best of our ability then hopefully we should come away with the win.”
Bears opener Varun Chopra will return to his former ground hoping to inspire a win that would send the Bears top finals day on their own ground.
Edgbaston is again the host venue for domestic Twenty20 cricket’s blue ribband event and, with Birmingham having only ever reached finals day once way back in 2003, Chopra admits there is strong motivation to upset the Eagles.
“The club would love to get to finals day and play at home,” he said.
“It is a special day and we’d love to be there playing as well. There is that extra motivation but we’ve just got to focus on this weekend.
“We’ve had to win the last three games just to get here. That can help because we have been playing like there is no tomorrow. We just have to go out there and play as best we can.
“Essex are a really good team and we know they are going to be hard to beat especially on their home ground.”
The smaller confines of the Essex County Ground have made for some high-scoring contests so far this season, but Chopra warns of the pitfalls opposing batsmen can fall into.
“They (the boundaries) are definitely inviting,” he said.
“Nowadays the way guys hit the ball they are mis-hitting sixes, but you have got to make sure you don’t lose your head.
“I’ve not played at Chelmsford for a few years, but it used to take a bit of spin at times. Even though the boundaries are small the spinner can squeeze.”
That could be good news for the Bears with Patel the stand-out slow bowler in the Blast so far – his 23 wickets are the second most in the competition while his economy rate of 5.62 is by far and away the best of any bowler to have taken more than 10 wickets.
With Javid (5.49) and Rikki Clarke (5.41) also proving frugal, Chopra admits they could be decisive if the expected high-scoring affair ensues,
“Their economy rates have been under six and Jeets in particular has taken loads of wickets,” he said.
“On that small ground you have to be brave, but they are quite streetwise T20 bowlers.
“Hopefully they can out-think a few Essex batters on Saturday night.
“We know they like to chase and that they have a dangerous batting line-up. They pretty much go hard from ball one and have some pretty big hitters in there.
“We’ll have our plans and we hope to execute them on the day.”