Storm fall agonisingly short in run chase

Marie Kelly led by example as top-of-the-table Blaze beat Western Storm by six runs at Bristol’s Seat Unique Stadium to extend their unbeaten run to six matches in the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy.

She made up for losing the toss by top-scoring with 54, while Michaela Kirk contributed 40 and Sophie Munro and Teresa Graves posted 41 apiece in adding 74 for the seventh wicket as Blaze recovered from 149-6 in the 33rd over to raise 245.

Nicole Harvey took 3-32 in the middle overs and new signing Piepa Cleary returned figures of 3-42 on her debut to keep Storm in the hunt. But the inspirational Kelly then ran out opener Emma Corney and claimed the key wicket of Sophie Luff to check Storm’s chase.

Alex Griffiths posted a superb 67 and Fran Wilson weighed in with 43, but Blaze bowled and fielded with impressive discipline to restrict Storm to 240-7 and return to winning ways following defeat to Southern Vipers in last month’s Charlotte Edwards Cup final.

Without England bowlers Lauren Filer and Dani Gibson, who were away on Ashes duty, Storm put their trust in a previously untested new ball pairing of Academy product Mollie Robbins and Cleary, the Western Australia right armer signed just 48 hours earlier to bolster a denuded seam attack.

Robbins engineered an early breakthrough, Sarah Bryce driving loosely to point with the score on 17, while Cleary, in her first competitive outing since February, shed any initial ring rust to have Georgie Boyce held at silly mid-off in a new-ball burst of 1-17 from five overs.

Unperturbed by events at the other end, Blaze skipper Kelly set her stall out to bat through, going quietly about the business of accumulating runs, while the more aggressive Kathryn Bryce cashed in whenever she was afforded width, plundering three boundaries to give the innings impetus and help advance the score to 73-2 at the end of the powerplay.

Having put on 41 for the third wicket with her captain, Bryce was caught at the wicket for 20 in the act of cutting Chloe Skelton’s off breaks as Storm struck a telling blow. But the visitors continued to hold sway, aided and abetted by a lucky break when Cleary put down a chance at mid-off to gift Kirk a life on 19.

Understanding the need to exercise patience and not push too hard on a worn surface, Kelly combined clever placement and hard running, especially against spin, to keep the scoreboard moving. Her reward was a chanceless 50. Yet just as she was threatening to take the game away from Storm, she came unstuck, top-edging a pull shot and holing out to short fine leg, Harvey terminating a progressive fourth-wicket alliance of 42 in the 26th over.

Having been cruising at 130-3, Blaze slumped to 149-6 in the face of an incisive spell from Harvey, who claimed three wickets in 15 balls with her leg breaks to fundamentally alter the balance of power. Nadine de Klerk was bowled and fellow South African Kirk pinned lbw in the act of sweeping as the middle order miss-fired.

Storm sensed an opportunity to shut the innings down and there followed eight overs in which Blaze failed to register a single boundary as Graves and Munro battled to repair the damage. Demonstrating sound temperament and cussed determination, the seventh wicket pair eventually prevailed as a see-saw innings swayed back in the visitors’ favour.

These two both contributed 41 from 50 balls to put the innings back on track before falling to the returning Cleary, the Western Australian proving particularly effective at the death alongside Alex Griffiths, who removed Ella Claridge and Lucy Higham to finish with 2-25 from 5.5 overs.

Having learned from the first innings, Griffiths and Emma Corney embraced a low-risk strategy to provide Storm’s reply with solid foundations, the openers proving adept at putting the bad ball away while scoring predominantly in singles to post 69 in 17.4 overs.

Their partnership was broken in bizarre fashion, Griffiths striking the ball back down the track and bowler Kelly diverting it onto the stumps with the unfortunate Corney out of her ground. Run out for 29 from 40 balls, Corney had nevertheless helped set things up, heading back to the dressing room with Storm requiring a further 177 runs at 5.47 an over.

But Blaze do not boast an unbeaten record in this format without good reason, and the ubiquitous Kelly further undermined the chase when bowling the influential Luff for eight with the score on 91 in the 24th over.

With runs by now hard to come by, Storm were heavily dependent upon Griffiths and new batter Fran Wilson, who were aware of the need to accelerate from 99-2 at the halfway stage. Sure enough, Wilson quickly caressed three off-side boundaries at the expense of Kathryn Bryce and Kelly to set the scoreboard moving again, and Griffiths went to her first 50 of the summer via 97 balls as the third-wicket pair injected crucial momentum into their batting.

Griffiths had advanced to 67 from 118 balls with 8 fours and the partnership was worth 59 when the Welsh all-rounder chanced her arm once too often and holed out to Kirk in the deep off the bowling of Graves with the score on 150 in the 33rd over. Hesitation then proved fatal for Niamh Holland, run out for eight, as Blaze brought further pressure to bear on the home side.

Bringing all her vast experience to bear on proceedings, Wilson moved to within seven runs of a half century before attempting to hook Graves and top-edging a catch behind, at which point Storm were 176-5, still 70 short of victory with the cream of their batting back in the pavilion.

Storm refused to give in, Nat Wraith striking 20 before falling to Graves and Sophia Smale making a spirited 24 as the home side took it to the very last over.

At the end of the game, Griffiths said: “It’s a defeat and we’re disappointed, but we are definitely seeing signs of progress. It’s a really young team and we’ve been up against probably the best side in the country, but there are so many positives to take out of the game.

“Given some of the results we’ve had this season, losing by just five runs to the top of the league is a massive step forward for us and a big confidence boost. Nicole Harvey and Piepa Carey have come in and taken three wickets each and we have to be pleased at keeping them down to 245, especially with Lauren Filer and Dani Gibson missing with England.

“We are still learning and I thought we made a good fist of the chase. Emma Corney was so unfortunate to get out the way she did, but it looked for a while after that as though Fran and I could take it down to the wire. We had very clear plans out there and knew what we were doing. It was the first time I’ve found myself in that situation this season and it’s a shame I wasn’t able to go on a bit longer and see the job through. I’m so glad I’m now in a position where I can open the batting and it’s a role I want to nail down now I have it. With Nat Wraith coming in at seven, we knew we had a chance and it was good to take it down to the last over.”