Bears claim NatWest T20 Blast title

Andrew Flintoff made a compelling return to the big stage but it was not enough to carry Lancashire to a fairytale victory in the NatWest T20 Blast final as Birmingham Bears claimed a dramatic four-run victory at Edgbaston.

The Bears clinched a four-run victory over Lancashire in the final
The Bears clinched a four-run victory over Lancashire in the final

Former England captain Flintoff, who has played just twice since his comeback from retirement and has been filming a documentary about fish and chips in recent weeks, was destined for a watching brief until being called up as a late replacement for the injured Kabir Ali - and the 36-year-old was close to a dream ending.

He removed former Test team-mate Ian Bell with his first ball - celebrating with his familiar arms outstretched pose - and returned at the 11th hour to take his side to within touching distance with two muscular sixes in the penultimate over.

He appeared on the cusp of a match-winning intervention but with 14 still needed from the last six balls, Chris Woakes sent down a superb over to make sure his team won the competition for the first time.

The silverware belonged to Birmingham - Warwickshire's short-form alter-ego - after they overcame Kevin Pietersen's Surrey in the semi-finals then held off a Lancashire side who took what would have been a record chase in the final to the last ball.

Laurie Evans was a key performer, guiding his side to an imposing 181 for five with a fine 53, while Woakes, Boyd Rankin and Oliver Hannon-Dalby all turned in admirable showings with the ball.

But the defining image of the day is sure to involve Flintoff, appearing exactly five years since last pulling on an England shirt and long after a career of panel shows and reality television appeared to have taken him out of the sporting arena for good.

His mark will certainly live longer in the memory than Pietersen's, England's prodigal son coming and going almost without notice.

As it was Flintoff finished stranded on 20 from eight balls, including two mighty blows off Hannon-Dalby, as Stephen Parry tried and failed to hit the final ball of the game for a match-winning six.

Birmingham chose to bat first, starting serenely with 19 off the first two overs, including an enormous swatted six from Varun Chopra off England's James Anderson.

But that was merely the set-up for Flintoff's first magic moment.

He came on first change and immediately hit his mark, just back of a length and tight to the stumps.

Bell had only one idea in his mind, hoisting his former team-mate high into the air in an attempt to clear long-off.

Instead it looped obligingly and was well held by Karl Brown.

Flintoff immediately induldged himself with a version of his famous celebration before being mobbed by team-mates.

His next five balls conceded just three runs but his second over was a reality check, Chopra crashing a no-ball for six and Will Porterfield repeating the dose with a flowing strike down the ground.

Seventeen off the over helped Birmingham to a healthy 63 from the powerplay, before Steven Croft and Parry put the brakes on with some canny spin bowling.

The pair conceded 37 from six overs in harness with a wicket apiece as both Chopra (30) and Porterfield (31) were bowled by marginal movement off the pitch.

Rikki Clarke made a run-a-ball 27 before losing his off stump and at 107 for four, the innings needed Evans' adrenaline shot.

Having eked 11 runs from his first 16 balls, he added 42 from his next 14, including four muscular sixes - Jordan Clark, Anderson and Tom Smith - twice - on the receiving end.

He had Smith in his sights for a third time in the penultimate over but instead top-edged to the waiting Ashwell Prince.

Just as he would be later, Woakes excelled in the closing moments of the innings, ending with successive fours off Anderson, scores which proved crucial.

Lancashire openers Smith and Prince fashioned a steady start worth 41 before Woakes removed the former for 19.

It represented a solid platform but three fours and two sixes was a modest boundary count from the six powerplay overs.

Rankin kept the pressure on with a disciplined four-over spell that cost only 21 and contained the wickets of Prince (30) and Usman Khawaja (16).

Karl Brown should have been gone second ball but Evans lost a skier in mid-air.

The batsman cashed in handsomely, hitting four sixes in a 28-ball 55, before he was seventh man out to Woakes, with Flintoff in next.

And the former England star had one last trick up his sleeve.

After three singles he rolled back the years to hit Hannon-Dalby for two sixes.

One more similar strike against Woakes might have been enough but he was too calm to offer the chance.

And Flintoff was left at the non-striker's end as Woakes led the home side's celebrations.