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Upset specialists ready for last four

Birmingham Bears and Surrey kick off NatWest T20 Blast Finals Day with a mouth-watering clash made possible by quarter-final wins over the competition’s two early pacesetters.

The odds were stacked against the Bears as they headed to Essex Eagles’ Chelmsford fortress - not to mention the weight of history, with six quarter-final defeats to their name since reaching the inaugural Finals Day in 2003.

But captain Varun Chopra carried his bat for a superbly paced 86 not out against his former county to provide the foundation for Birmingham’s imposing 197 for two.

Chopra and opening partner Will Porterfield have eight half-centuries between them in the competition and the Irishman chipped with a brisk 32 before Rikki Clarke clattered a sensational 70 off just 37 deliveries.

The chase proved too tall an order for the Eagles, as a suffocating spell from in-form spinner Jeetal Patel cost only 23 runs and strapping paceman Boyd Rankin helped himself to 3-34.

Quarter-finals have tended not to prove such a formidable obstacle for Surrey and they booked their sixth Finals Day appearance in 12 attempts against Worcestershire Rapids.

Having led the way for much of the North Group schedule, Worcestershire were overhauled by Lancashire Lightning and Notts Outlaws in the final stretch and forced into an away quarter-final at the Kia Oval.

It proved a capital trip to forget for Daryl Mitchell’s side, who lost wickets at regular intervals in posting a below-par 141 for nine.

Jason Roy is tipped to have a key say on Finals Day having displayed the best form of his career in the tournament so far.

The Rapids ran into the explosive opener in rampant form as he blasted a brilliant 52 from 23 balls - his eight fifty this season in the sprint format - to make light of the run chase, even if an unsettling clatter of later dismissals meant Surrey only got home by three wickets in the end.

Both teams experienced contrasting routes to the last eight.

Surrey secured their place in the knockout stages with two games to spare - the decisive triumph coming by five runs over Gloucestershire at Cheltenham, where superb figures from paceman Matt Dunn and slow left-armer Zafar Ansari of 3-37 and 3-27 respectively were central to them defending 157 for eight.

Birmingham, meanwhile, were left with no margin for error after a damaging slump of five games without a win mid-competition left their hopes of booking a home Finals Day spot on a knife edge.

Thankfully for Chopra’s men they already had a few points in the bank after a spluttering start.

An opening-day abandonment against Yorkshire Vikings at Edgbaston was followed by a 15-run loss at Emirates Old Trafford, as a brilliant Lancashire attack skittled them for 111 in pursuit of 126.

Posting a total proved far more productive as chases from Leicestershire Foxes, Durham Jets and Notts were successfully kept at bay in the next three matches.

A miserly spell of 1-8 from Clarke followed by Chorpa’s 68 not out and Porterfield’s 42 meant defending champions Northants Steelbacks were overcome with the minimum of fuss at Edgbaston on June 19, leading Birmingham into their derby clash against Worcestershire in buoyant mood.

But 62 not out from skipper Mitchell saw the Rapids coast home by eight wickets and Birmingham failed to defend 189 against at Derbyshire Falcons a week later.

Losses to Northants and Notts followed, either side of another home abandonment against Lancashire and the Bears were on the brink heading into their last three round-robin matches.

They held their nerve in a pair of final-over wins - the first set up by Chopra’s 74 as revenge over the Rapids was secured, before a Jeetan Patel hat-trick and Laurie Evans’ magnificent 69 not from 43 deliveries sealed a five-wicket win with two balls to spare at Yorkshire.

Chopra’s continued purple patch and a brilliant bowling display meant Leicestershire were despatched at a canter in the final group match to secure progress that seemed improbable.

Surrey took a two wins and two losses from their first four fixtures before settling into a majestic run of form in June and early July.

Four consecutive victories were the result, Roy and Hashim Amla kicking the sequence into gear with a crushing 10-wicket triumph over Sussex Sharks.

Amla followed up 61 not out with 55 in the 17-run win over Glamorgan. It was a fitting way for the great South African to sign off his spell in London and Roy continued his excellent work alongside new opening partner Tillakaratne Dilshan, scoring 63 and and 79 as Hampshire and Kent Spitfires were well beaten by eight wickets.

Back-to-back losses against Essex and Glamorgan checked the momentum but marvellous figures of 3-8 from Dunn helped Surrey to a three-wicket win over Somerset, setting up the decisive victory in Cheltenham.

Both teams' paths to Finals Day suggests a thrilling battle between top-order firepower, although two skilful and nicely varied attacks may well have something to say about that.

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