Nathan Sowter produced his best Vitality Blast figures of the season as Middlesex’s bowlers staged an impressive fightback to see off Sussex Sharks by 63 runs.
The leg-spinner finished with three for 13, while teenage seamer Blake Cullen returned a career-best three for 21 to successfully defend a score of 166 for seven at Lord’s.
That total was concentrated around Stephen Eskinazi’s 59 from 35 balls, making him the tournament’s leading scorer, but Middlesex still looked light on runs.
However, the Sharks – whose quarter-final hopes had already been dented by five washouts in their previous six games – could only manage 103 for nine in reply.
Sussex inserted their hosts after winning the toss, but they looked understandably rusty in the field as Eskinazi and Max Holden, promoted to opener, built a solid platform during the powerplay.
The pair shared a partnership of 85 from 54 balls, with Eskinazi placing his shots shrewdly as he passed 50 for the fourth time in as many Blast innings.
Holden swatted Tymal Mills’ first two deliveries for four and six, advancing to 38 before he holed out off Archie Lenham and when Eskinazi perished in similar fashion, scooping Will Beer to deep extra cover, Middlesex lost their way.
A tight over by Ravi Bopara – in which he dismissed the dangerous Daryl Mitchell with a slower ball – turned the tide, while Mills came back strongly from his earlier mauling to finish with two for 31.
The Sharks conceded just 32 from their last six overs, along with collecting five wickets as Middlesex laboured to what looked a below-par total.
However, they swiftly removed both Sussex openers, with Luke Wright spooning Tom Helm to the diving Steven Finn, while Phil Salt drilled Mujeeb Ur Rahman straight to midwicket.
Mujeeb’s initial spell of three overs for 13 created pressure and Sowter compounded it by bowling Aaron Thomason with his first delivery – while Cullen’s second accounted for David Wiese, hooking into the hands of Holden at deep square leg.
Sussex’s best chance appeared to rest with Travis Head, who announced himself with a trio of boundaries off Helm, but the Australian was next to depart for 23, dragging a bottom edge from Cullen onto his stumps.
With Holden taking another running catch to dismiss Bopara off Sowter, the Sharks’ cause looked hopeless at 59 for six and so it proved, despite a promising knock of 22 by debutant Harrison Ward.
Middlesex spinner Nathan Sowter, who took three for 13, said: "We thought we could have done with possibly another 15-20 runs. But we knew if we bowled well there were going to be opportunities to take wickets, so we were always confident.
“It always helps having someone world-class like Mujeeb – that adds 10-15 runs to your score before you even start sometimes. He obviously set the tone and it makes a huge difference – it allows you a few balls to settle in rather than if you come on at 80 for none.
“We’ve been challenged to hit certain lengths and the boys are taking it on board. Hopefully towards the back end of the tournament we can get on a nice little roll, really put pressure on other teams and you never know what can happen.
“Eski’s absolutely smashing this, which is awesome to see and hats off to him. He had a tough first few games but he’s come back strong – probably something to do with using a bat that had a face on it!”
Sussex’s joint head coach James Kirtley said: "It wasn’t the result we came here to get. We probably weren’t quite as aggressive as we have been in certain parts of the game but I thought we showed real character with the ball. “At the halfway stage of their innings they were probably lining up 190-200 and I thought we were really smart in the second half. Credit to Middlesex, the openers played really well up front, especially Eskinazi who’s continued his good form.
“Batting wise, we never got going – it sounds like an excuse but we are a little bit rusty. It’s just that instinctive game play we’re lacking at the minute.
“There’s lots going on, whether it’s been the Covid bits, whether it’s been call-ups or the weather, but our challenge is to remain focused.”
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