Welsh Fire 165 for 4 (Bairstow 72, Duckett 53) beat Southern Brave 147 for 7 (Vince 40, Neesham 3-5) by 18 runs
Led by a second consecutive half-century from captain Jonny Bairstow, Welsh Fire maintained their position as the surprise pace-setters in the Men's Hundred, seeing off Southern Brave in a high-scoring encounter in Cardiff. Bairstow smashed 72 from 39 during a century stand with Ben Duckett and although Brave started aggressively in their chase, a clatter of wickets during the second half left them short.
Fire's batting continued their impressive start to the tournament by making the third-highest 100-ball total - just eight runs shy of their own record, set during a pulsating opening win at Headingley on Saturday. Tom Banton set the tone by striking two of his first three balls for six on the way to 34 from 23, Bairstow picked up the pace after a slow start to become the leading run-scorer in the men's competition, and Duckett was particularly severe on Brave's mystery bowler, the left-arm wristspinner Jake Lintott making his first appearance of the campaign.
As well as bringing in Lintott and Craig Overton, after a supine defeat in their opening fixture away to Trent Rockets, Brave were buoyed by the arrival of Quinton de Kock from international duty with South Africa. But although de Kock made a frenzied start to the chase and James Vince kept them on track with 40 from 27, Fire held their nerve and closed out the game via impressive spells from Jake Ball and Jimmy Neesham, who finished with exemplary figures of 3 for 5 from his 15.
As the women's match earlier in the day reiterated, Sophia Gardens is not a particularly hospitable ground for slow bowlers - particularly fingerspinners. When England play in Cardiff, Adil Rashid is usually the only specialist picked; the two T20I internationals this summer saw them rely on a battery of pace bowling supported by Rashid's legspin, which tends to be held back (and has the added advantage of the batter not being certain which way the ball will turn).
But when Brave walked out to bowl after winning the toss, Vince threw the ball to Danny Briggs. A left-armer, Briggs might have had the benefit of turning the ball away from Fire's openers, Bairstow and Banton; but both are right-handers of aggressive demeanour and more than capable of targeting the short, straight boundaries if Briggs erred. Vince's decision prompted the England analyst, Nathan Leamon, to tweet: "That is Southern BRAVE!!!"
Banton duly took a look at Briggs' first ball, decided there wasn't much to fear, and popped the next two back down the ground for sixes, before following up with a boundary swept behind square. Sixteen runs from three scoring shots and Fire were cooking.
Bairstow bides time
With Banton sounding the bugle, Bairstow was left searching for the spark that had ignited Fire's opening win at Headingley. In that game, Bairstow creamed 39 out of an opening stand of 43 with Banton; here it was the younger man who took charge, scoring 30 out of Fire's 38 for 0 in the Powerplay.
Even after Banton was dismissed, bowled by Lintott's first delivery in the competition, Bairstow remained subdued. His only boundary in the first half of the innings was an inside edge for four off Tymal Mills, but he resolved to turn over the strike and allow his partner to attack - Duckett picked up the Banton baton by twice reverse-sweeping fours off Lintott and then using the pace of Overton to ramp a six over the keeper. From the end of the Powerplay until the 67th ball, Fire managed only four boundaries as the second-wicket pair took the game deep.
But nobody puts Jonny in the corner for long in white-ball cricket these days. Having been 20 from 21, a pulled four off Overton helped him find his range, before another moment of fortune saw a miscue off Mills fly for six over the keeper's head. Then he was away, hitting two sixes and two fours in a set from Colin de Grandhomme that cost 22 as Bairstow raised his half-century from 31 balls.
Duckett had also sensed the moment, carting four consecutives boundaries off Lintott via a selection of sweeps, while Briggs was twice fetched into the stands by Bairstow, making his last appearance before going on Test duty with England. The damage for Brave would have been worse had he not picked out long-on with six balls remaining.
Cardiff's dimensions come into play for teams defending, particularly as the ball gets old, with pace off and cutters bowled into the pitch forcing batters to take on the long, square boundaries. If they were going to be successful, Brave would likely have to go hard early on and try to get ahead of the rate against the new ball and with fielding restrictions in place.
Fire started with an over from Glenn Phillips, perhaps with the left-handed de Kock in mind; but Vince took strike and carved out two boundaries. Matt Critchley's legspin was then hit straight back over his head by de Kock, who also launched David Payne for a brace of sixes in his opening set, before pulling to deep backward square for 21 off 7. But Vince and Devon Conway, who successfully reviewed after being given out caught behind off Qais Ahmad, kept a decent tempo as Brave finished their Powerplay on 55 for 1 - significantly ahead of Fire's mark earlier in the day.
After 50 balls, Vince and Conway had taken the score on to 85 for 1 and Brave were more than halfway to their target. But Fire claimed three wickets for 11 over the next three sets of five and the required runs per ball hit 2 for the first time. Vince was Neesham's first victim, as the New Zealander's variations in pace and length proved particularly effective, and when he had Ross Whiteley playing on for 25 off 14 from the 89th, Brave's challenge was as good as over.