Unheralded Middlesex ready for next crusade
If there is a sporting tradition that teams sometimes thrive at times of adversity, Middlesex continued that tradition with their thrilling victory in Saturday's Twenty20 Cup final at the Rose Bowl.
Less than two months ago, the county admitted there was unrest among their members after a poor start to the season in the County Championship - and a vote of no confidence in the committee was looming.
But since then, they have shaken off the loss of their captain Ed Smith to an ankle injury as an unheralded, youthful side raced to the top of their Twenty20 Cup group table - and went on to collect their first major trophy since winning the Championship in 1993, with the promise of the Twenty20 Champions League to come.
That 1993 side was coming to the end of an extended period of success, but still boasted nine past, present or future Test players and plenty of household names in Mike Gatting, Desmond Haynes, John Emburey, Angus Fraser, Phil Tufnell, Mark Ramprakash, Norman Cowans, Richard Johnson and Neil Williams.
But for many of those players, their best years were behind them by 1993 - and the days when fans of opposing counties would anxiously scan the fixtures in the hope of playing Middlesex during a Test match (when the likes of Gatting, Emburey, Phil Edmonds and Paul Downton would invariably be on England duty) were over.
Fast-forward to the XI on duty on Saturday, and Owais Shah, Shaun Udal and Murali Kartik can boast just 14 Test caps between them - although they were missing the centrally-contracted Andrew Strauss, while captain Smith and seamer Chris Silverwood (although not a regular in one-day cricket in recent seasons) have also played Test cricket but are injured.
But stand-in skipper Ed Joyce showed his mettle by leading the Crusaders to a comfortable semi-final victory over a fancied Durham side including Paul Collingwood, Steve Harmison, Shaun Pollock, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Phil Mustard - before seeing off defending champions Kent in a thrilling final.
While ex-Hampshire veteran Udal excelled with two miserly spells of off-spin on his former home ground, it was Shah - who has won just two Test caps despite being a regular presence in the England one-day side - and South African all-rounder Tyron Henderson, a "Kolpak" signing with the briefest of brief international careers, who starred when the going got tough.
Henderson's international experience extends to just one Twenty20 international for the Proteas against India, when he made a duck and took 0-31 from four overs.
But his role with bat and ball was crucial on Saturday as after blasting both the Durham and Kent bowling attacks into submission, he was thrown the ball for the final over. With 16 needed (15 if they lost fewer than six wickets) and his fellow countryman Justin Kemp clearing the ropes at will, Henderson held his nerve as a thrilling last over ensued.
Kemp hit Henderson's first two deliveries for two and four - but after the batsmen had run another two from the third ball, a wild throw from the deep by youngster Dawid Malan - allowed Kent an all-run four, of the sort one would be embarrassed to concede in club cricket, let alone a Twenty20 final.
Although Kemp managed another two off the fourth ball, leaving Kent four (effectively three) to win from the last two deliveries, Henderson fired in a couple of priceless yorkers which Kemp was unable to work away, handing Middlesex their ticket to Antigua for a lucrative match against England in October. Joyce, who faces a potential fixture clash of another kind as he is due to get married in mid-October, admitted afterwards that the England game would be "fun", but looked like he and his side would just be happy to be involved.
Indeed, Middlesex's status as a team not packed with superstars has worked in their favour, because as one of only three counties without any players from the "rebel" Indian Cricket League on their staff, reaching the Twenty20 final has earned them a place at the top table for the Champions League later this year - with the organisers still insisting any teams with ICL players would not be invited. Beaten finalists Kent, fielding two ICL players in Kemp and Azhar Mahmood, face an anxious wait to see if the matter is resolved.
While no-one is predicting an instant return to the standard of the all-conquering 1980s side, Middlesex will be relieved to have shaken off that 15-year wait for silverware - while the experience of finals day will be crucial for promising youngsters like Malan and teenager Billy Godleman.
And what of the members' unrest? With impressive timing, the special general meeting recently called was cancelled last week after the motion of no confidence in the committee was withdrawn. So things may be finally looking up at Lord's.