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Babar Azam appears set to fulfil his T20 Blast contract with Somerset after the end of Pakistan’s T20I series in England, pending a No Objection Certificate from the PCB. Azam, the leading run-scorer in the competition last season in his first year with the county, was due to spend five weeks at Taunton this summer before the Covid-19 pandemic altered the dates of both the county and international seasons.

While Surrey and Northants cancelled contracts for Shadab Khan and Faheem Ashraf respectively, Somerset have kept Azam’s deal on the table throughout, and hope to confirm that he will be available next week. He would miss the first three or four fixtures due to his involvement in the T20Is, but looks set to play the bulk of the rest of the tournament.

ESPNcricinfo understands that the remaining question mark over his availability is dependent on whether he will be exempted from the National T20 Cup, Pakistan’s domestic competition, which is set to be staged at the end of September.

Hampshire have yet to confirm Shaheen Shah Afridi‘s availability for the tournament, but at this stage he appears less likely to play in the Blast than Azam. They will announce the signing of Scotland international George Munsey for the tournament next week, while James Vince is set to miss the start of the competition for the birth of his second child.

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Unusual problems may call for unusual solutions, but it would be quite something for a team to qualify for this year’s Bob Willis Trophy final by virtue of taking more wickets than another group winner.

In this season’s abbreviated first-class competition, the two group winners with the most points will reach the five-day final at Lord’s on September 23. If the current standings were used, Essex (61 points) would progress, but Worcestershire and Derbyshire (57) would have to be split by a tie-breaker.

Under the tournament’s playing conditions, they would be split first on most wins (two each), then fewest losses (both unbeaten), most points in contests between them (they won’t play each other), wickets taken, and runs scored. That means Worcestershire, with 57 wickets, would edge out Derbyshire on 46 to reach Lord’s; in case you were wondering, they’ve hit more boundaries, too.

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The winner of the Central Group seems likely to be decided in the final round when Somerset head to New Road, but both teams will be acutely aware that their positions could be stronger if they had timed declarations better.

Alex Gidman defended Joe Leach’s belated pulling of the plug in the second round, with Glamorgan escaping on 141 for 7 after being set 358 in 50.4 overs, while a miserable final day in Birmingham meant Somerset ended up with only 15.4 overs to take the last four Warwickshire wickets. While the welfare of bowlers is an important concern in an abbreviated season, whichever side fails to qualify will rue their caution come late September.

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Players were told at the PCA’s rookie camp in February that there had never been a better time to be a professional cricketer, but inevitably the Covid-19 pandemic has put the brakes on that.

This week, the players’ union signed off a deal intended to protect jobs for next season, including a reduction in the minimum wage, the option of a summer contract, and young players being able to extend their ‘rookie’ deals into next season even if they should be ineligible due to age limitations – as reported by ESPNcricinfo in June.

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As Leicestershire and Durham decided to set their game up on the final morning this week, there seemed few better candidates for some declaration bowling than Hassan Azad, whose first-class career with the ball extended to a solitary over playing for Loughborough MCCU in 2016.

But after Sam Evans had lobbed up some gentle pies from the far end, the second ball of Azad’s first over was a wicked googly, which skidded through low and onto the base of leg stump, possibly via Brydon Carse‘s edge. Carse and non-striker Ned Eckersley were both nonplussed, while Azad’s celebration was muted; but it was Carse who had the last laugh in the run chase before the rain intervened, bowling Azad via the inside edge to get his revenge.

Meanwhile, Essex’s highly-rated young batsman Rishi Patel will join Leicestershire on loan for the rest of the Bob Willis Trophy. He played six first-class games for Essex last season but has fallen behind Feroze Khushi in the pecking order this year.

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Somerset have labelled their captain Tom Abell ‘the mop’ for his ability to clean up tailenders, and he gave a reminder of his knack by removing nine, ten and jack in the first innings of their draw with Warwickshire to finish with 3 for 4 from his 3.2 overs.

But perhaps that moniker would be better suited to Mason Crane, the Hampshire legspinner. Crane ripped through the Surrey lower order this week to seal a thumping win, and has now dismissed a No. 9 batsman twice, a No. 10 batsman twice, and four No. 11s this season.

All in all, he has taken 11 wickets at 8.72 in the BWT – some improvement after returns of five wickets at 107.80 in last year’s County Championship. Surrey, meanwhile, are rock bottom, with fewer points than anyone else in the competition. They will be boosted by Ben Foakes‘ return from the England bubble on Saturday, while Ollie Robinson is set to play for Sussex.

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Northants have left T20 captain Josh Cobb out of their side throughout the first-class season, but he seems to be finding his feet ahead of the Blast. In Northants’ first warm-up game against Leicestershire on Thursday, he hit nine sixes and a four in a 45-ball 80, before clubbing 33 off 14 in the second.

Having missed out in last year’s Hundred draft, Cobb will feel he has a point to prove in the Blast, and will be hoping to remind teams of his ability, with some spots for 2021 likely to be up for grabs in a partial re-draft.

No final decision has been made regarding whether picks from the draft will remain valid, but it is understood that there will be some kind of retention mechanism similar to that initially planned, which allowed teams to keep up to ten players from their squads for the following season at a mutually agreed salary band.

The exact details will be ironed out between the PCA and the ECB next month, with an announcement to follow after England have announced their centrally contracted players for 2021.

Additional reporting: Danyal Rasool



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Errol Spence Jr. vs. Danny Garcia: Fight prediction, undercard, odds, expert picks, date

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It seems the only person associated with the welterweight title bout on Saturday who isn’t pondering whether unified champion Errol Spence Jr. will still be the same some 14 months removed from a scary car accident is his opponent. 

Danny Garcia (36-2, 21 KOs), a former two-division champion, is very much expecting to see the best of Spence (26-0, 21 KOs) when the two face off inside AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas (Fox PPV, 9 p.m. ET). Instead, he has spent his time figuring out how to beat Spence and believes there was something to learn from his opponent’s last outing.

Just two weeks before he rolled his Ferrari and was thrown from the vehicle while driving drunk at high speeds in Dallas, the 30-year-old Spence unified his IBF title with Shawn Porter’s WBC belt in a thrilling split-decision win that contended for fight of the year honors. The fight was action packed throughout and Garcia believes that Porter ultimately exposed flaws in Spence’s game.

“[Spence] was getting hit a lot and his defense [was exposed],” Garcia told “Morning Kombat” last week. [Porter] forced him into a tough fight. 

“I have a different style than [Porter] but I’m also more dangerous than him. He has that awkward timing and rushes you and tries to throw you off your game but I’m more of a dangerous fighter with better counter punching and better skills.”

Garcia, 32, has only lost twice as a professional and both have been disputed decisions against Keith Thurman in 2017 and the following year against Porter. Garcia proved able to discipline Thurman over the second half of their unification bout by using his power to lower his opponent’s output, which is something he proved unable to do against Porter, whose jerky-jerky style gave the flat-footed Garcia fits. 

Still, Garcia believes his one-punch knockout power — something Porter hasn’t shown — will be the difference against Spence. And when you are talking about Garcia’s power, the conversation typically centers around his finishing blow — the “no look” left hook that’s set up beautifully by a right hand to the body before the finishing punch comes looping through.

“No one can take the no look left hook because you can’t take what you don’t see,” Garcia said. 

Although Spence knows full well the threat Garcia brings to the table, he was anything but shaken when the topic of the “no look” left hook was presented to him on “Morning Kombat” last week.

Can’t get enough boxing and MMA? Get the latest in the world of combat sports from two of the best in the business. Subscribe to Morning Kombat with Luke Thomas and Brian Campbell for the best analysis and in-depth news, including a complete preview and prediction for Spence vs. Garcia this weekend.

“Of course you have respect for a punch but I don’t react to it,” Spence said. “It is what it is. You can throw it all you want but you have to land it. We will see. He’s coming in to win and it just makes me train harder and stay focused.”

Spence also confidently revealed that the Porter was only as close as it was because he allowed it to be while hoping to make a statement. 

“Basically, I already knew [it would be close]. My game plan was to come forward and fight him and it was going to be what it was going to be,” Spence said “I already knew that was his game plan, but it was mine too. My coach wanted me to box but I wanted to fight and that’s what happened.”

Garcia wouldn’t budge when asked to commit to whether they felt this weekend’s bout would be more of a boxing match or slugfest. He said it came down to the type of adjustments both make and that he’s ready for either result. 

Spence, on the other hand, expects the bout’s identity to change as the rounds progress.

“It might start out with us feeling each other out but later on when we both get warmed up it’s going to be an all-out fight,” Spence said. “I expect a great fight with back and forth action and him bringing his all. I expect him trying to win. 

“I want this to be one-sided, either a massacre or an easy win.”

Fight card, odds

Odds via William Hill Sportsbook

Errol Spence Jr. (c) -450

Danny Garcia +350

Unified welterweight titles

Sebastian Fundora -1100

Habib Ahmed +700

Super welterweights

Josesito Lopez -330

Francisco Santana +260

Welterweights

Eduardo Ramirez -440Miguel Flores +340Featherweights

Prediction 

If Spence proves to be compromised, either physically or mentally, from the fallout of his life-threatening accident, Garcia is all kinds of wrong for him as a poised and patient counter puncher with fight-ending power and enough technical prowess to adjust. 

But what about if Spence is still Spence? What happens then?

The bad news for Garcia is that everything he does well, Spence can do just as good or better. Not to mention that Spence also has a great chin and willingness to walk through fire in order to win a fight. 

When Spence chooses to box from the outside, like he did against Mikey Garcia is yet another fight in which he was dead set on proving a point, he did so with ease given his length, speed and elite fight IQ. And it lends credence to the idea that should he have to do the same against Danny Garcia he could, even though Spence’s love for walking down and finishing fighters got him into quite a duel against Porter. 

Garcia’s Achilles heel has long been his lack of elite foot speed as a heavy puncher who sits down on his power shots. Everyone from Thurman and Porter to Mauricio Herrera and Lamont Peterson have been able to use that to their advantage. Spence should be no different in the early going until he feels comfortable enough to step up his volume and close space. 

The danger with Garcia is that you can never get too comfortable given his power. Yet it’s in that mid-range game where the southpaw Spence does his best work of volume to disarm his opponents with heavy combinations. 

No matter which way the fight goes, Garcia is experienced and tough enough to make sure he never gets dominated and should be stubborn enough to make Spence have to work for everything he earns. But is Garcia dynamic enough to win a fight he isn’t supposed to against someone more talented on paper? The jury remains out on this one. 

Pick: Spence via unanimous decision



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Bangabandhu T20 Cup – Zakir Hasan leads Gemcon Khulna to victory over Fortune Barishal

Gemcon Khulna 173 for 6 (Zakir 63, Imrul 37, Rabbi 3-33) beat Fortune Barishal 125 (Hridoy 33, Tamim 32, Shahidul 2-16) by 48 runs

Scorecard

Gemcon Khulna rose to the second spot on the points table after a 48-run win over Fortune Barishal in Friday’s first game, left-handed opening batsman Zakir Hasan leading the way for them by storming the Barishal attack with ten fours in his 42-ball 63.

Barishal sent Khulna in to bat, and even got an early breakthrough when Jahurul Islam fell for two in the third over. But Zakir, playing his first game since Covid-19 stopped cricket in the country in March, added 90 runs for the second wicket with Imrul Kayes, who made 37 off 34 balls with two fours and a six.

Mahmudullah later struck four boundaries in his 14-ball 24 while Shakib Al Hasan added 14 runs in ten balls, which took Khulna to a competitive 176 for 5. Paceman Kamrul Islam Rabbi took three wickets while Taskin Ahmed took two wickets for Barishal.

Barishal started well with a 57-run opening stand between captain Tamim Iqbal and Parvez Hossain Emon. Tamim hit four fours and a six in his 32 off 21 balls, while Emon took a bit of time, scoring 19 off 26 balls with just one six.

Still, all wickets in hand must have given them confidence, but in the eighth over, Shuvagata Hom removed both openers. Only Towhid Hridoy made 33 among the rest of the batsmen as Barishal crumbled against Khulna’s big total. Hasan Mahmud also took two wickets later in the innings.

Gazi Group Chattogram currently lead the table with eight points, while Khulna have six points. Barishal are one off the bottom but only on net run-rate, as they are tied on two points with Beximco Dhaka.

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Minnesota United beats Sporting K.C. 3-0, advances to Western Conference Final

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Kevin Molino scored twice in the first half and Minnesota United advanced to the MLS Western Conference finals, beating Sporting Kansas City 3-0 on Thursday night.

More Minnesota United FC coverage from FOX Sports North

Fourth-seeded Minnesota will play at No. 2 seed Seattle on Monday night for a spot in the MLS Cup finals.

Bakaye Dibassy also scored, and Emanuel Reynoso assists on all three goals.

Molino opened the scoring in the 27th minute with a run up the left side to finish a feed from Reynoso. Eight minutes later, Molino wrapped his right foot around Reynoso’s chip pass with just enough pace to get it past goalkeeper Tim Melia.

Dibassy made it 3-0 with a header to finish Reynoso’s corner in the 39th minute.



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