The MiLC All Rounder: Conference Semi-finals

For nearly two months, clubs across the United States have been logging the runs, wickets, catches, and miles to see who would be called champions of the 2022 Toyota Minor League Cricket Championship presented by Sunoco.

Their goal?  Church Street Park, and finals weekend. To be a part of the four that will become two and battle for all of the glory (and some of that prize money) under the lights.

But one does not simply walk into Morrisville. Eight teams played in four scheduled best-of-three series to determine just who would advance to that last weekend in August.  And this weekend had everything. Big partnerships, clutch wicket hauls, a stunning super over, and enough rain to make Lake Superior blush.

The dust has settled, and we know who will be playing for the conference titles this coming weekend. Brian Barrish reviews how we got there.

(C1) Dallas Mustangs vs (W2) Seattle Thunderbolts
Moosa Stadium, Pearland, TX Prairie View Cricket Complex, Prairie View, TX
Seattle won the series, 2 games to 0.

The good news for the fine folks of East Texas was that several days of rain helped quench a summer long drought that had gripped the region. The bad news for the two teams who had traveled to Pearland for the semi-final series was that one can’t play cricket when the field is under water.

With Saturday washed out completely, and prospects for Sunday looking equally as gloomy at Moosa, the series was moved some 70 miles northwest to the Prairie View Cricket Complex and shortened to a two-game affair. Dallas, the higher seed, would only need to win one match to advance, while the Thunderbolts would have to take both.

Figuring that all of that wet weather would’ve made for a bowler’s pitch, Dallas sent Seattle in to bat after winning the Game One toss. A week ago, the ‘Bolts chased down a target of 111 in 7.1 overs to get into this series over East Bay Blazers by net run rate. Though that wasn’t a factor here, you wouldn’t have known it by the frequency with which the openers batted. Rayyan Khan Pathan and Andries Gous put on an opening partnership of 68 before captain Harmeet Singh joined Gous in the middle to pile on another 97 runs. Singh, in particular, unleashed an assault on the Mustangs bowlers, finishing with 56 off of just 19 balls, clubbing seven sixes in the process. Gous would top score with 79 from 50, and Seattle would end with a lofty 205-for-5.

Whatever magic for the bowlers Dallas captain Corey Anderson thought was in the pitch was, in fact, found by the Seattle hurlers. Leading wicket taker Phani Simhadri (33 for the season) found his spots all day long. In this first game he completely bamboozled the loaded Mustangs lineup, taking at least one wicket in each of the overs he bowled and finishing with a mind-boggling 5/9 from 3.1 overs. Shubham Ranjane, whose 3/18 would’ve been best on any other day, took out the big fish of Anderson and former West Indian test player Denesh Ramdin on successive balls in the ninth. Dallas’s chase was more of a crawl, and the Bolts had evened the series in winning by 108 runs.

The series would thus be decided by a 14-over showdown. Again Dallas won the toss and made Seattle bat, hoping that they would get the same success the Thunderbolt attack had enjoyed on the wicket in game one. Once again, the Seattle lineup took to the wet like ducks to water. Though there’d be no big partnerships after another stellar Pathan-Gous 64, runs flowed freely and quickly, the coup-de-grace being Shadley van Schalkwyk hammering late season signing Willem Ludick for a four and three sixes in the penultimate over. Four batters scored 30 or more runs and the innings ended with a total of 182-for-5, with the scoring rate a red-hot 13 per over.

Needing to keep that tepid pace to save their season, the Mustangs batters coped with most of the Seattle bowling much better. Save for Simhadri removing Sujith Gowda and Sushant Modani within three balls at the end of the third over on his way to a 3-fer, the Mustangs seemed to bat a bit more confidently.  Anderson and Ludick put on a third-wicket partnership of ninety runs, but once they were dismissed, Ali Sheikh and Sahib Malhotra couldn’t match the scoring rate that von Schalkwyk had set in the death overs in the first innings. Dallas again came up short, this time by 33 runs.

Some 30 hours before, it looked like the Thunderbolts would see their herculean effort to make the playoffs washed away. In the end, they would reign through the rain and move onto their first conference final. As for Dallas, who lost some key stars at the end of the year, it will be a long winter of “ifs and buts and candy and nuts.”

(W1) Silicon Valley Strikers vs (C2) Chicago Tigers
Morgan Hill Cricket Ground, Morgan Hill, California
Silicon Valley won the series, 2 games to 1.

The Strikers flew into the playoffs with a 13-1 record. The Tigers, who at one time were 7-1, backed into the postseason having lost four out of their final five games.  The two teams had met July 4th weekend at Prairie View, and the Strikers had throttled their way to 215 runs and a 40-run triumph.  Suffice to say, with two of the top scorers in the competition wearing blue-and-white and with a varied bowling attack against a hot-and-cold side, this pairing seemed one sided.

That form held true in the opening match, when the Tigers were skittled out unceremoniously for 95 before Unmukt Chand and Lendl Simmons did the lion share of the work in meeting that target with 63 balls to spare.

Pranay Suri, who took three wickets for the Strikers in game one, had another 3-fer in the second match. The Tigers, who had been put into bat by Chand in both games on Saturday, were still figuring out the Morgan Hill pitch when they found themselves at 87-for-5 at the end of the 15th over. Karan Kumar (30*) and Sami Sohail (33*) dug in, however, and dragged their team over the line with a very important 49 run stand.  Three boundaries in a row by Sohail to start off the 17th equilibrated the contest, and instead of giving Chand, Simmons, and leading run getter Shehan Jayasuriya another relatively low target to take the series, the goal was a respectable 137.

Simmons and Chand started things off with a 43-run partnership before the former West Indian International was dismissed for the first of Deepchand Pinnaka’s wicket pair. When Jayasuriya was caught by Sohail off the bowling of Kumar on his second ball, the Tigers had seemingly taken the advantage for the first time of the day. Narsingh Deonarine and Pranay Suri joined Chand for stands of 44 and 42 before the captain had to go for a top score of 45 on the last ball of the 19th. But he had done his job, and the Strikers needed seven off the final over to advance.

With their season on the line, the Tigers put in their best bowler, the omnipotent Calvin Savage, who had heretofore been pretty quiet with bat and ball during the day. Misfields, including Savage dropping Gary Graham, accounted for three of the required runs, but Graham and Suri couldn’t capitalize. The South African bowler did his job and the match headed to a Super Over.

Big players rise to big occasions, and Savage has proved all year long that he is that man. In the first ball of the extra frame, Savage sent Chand packing when the former Indian international tried to scoop him and the ball went safely into the hands of wicketkeeper Sunny Bhati. He then kept big bad Simmons and Jayasuriya to just four runs, and Saad Ali needed two balls to send the series to a deciding third game.

For the third straight game, Chand won the toss and made the visitors set the target.  Perhaps inspired by the comeback, Saad Ali and Savage put on their best batting performances of the series. Saad Ali top-scored with 46, and Savage chipped in 41, most of it as part of a 58-run partnership with Karan. A rare double hat trick by the team in the final over put the breaks on things, setting the goal at 148. As we all saw the day before, nothing is for certain in this game of T20 cricket.

The Strikers are the defending champions and were the best team in the league for several reasons. One of them is Unmukt Chand. He wasn’t going to be denied on this day, carrying his bat for 71* and joined forces with Rahul Jariwala and Jayasuriya for partnerships of 65 and 69 as the Strikers booked their place in Morrisville with a straightforward win.

It’ll be SVS playing next weekend at Church Street Park, but Savage and the Tigers made all sorts of waves in this, their first season, and they’ll be around to make a deep run next season for sure.

(E1) New Jersey Stallions vs (S2) Morrisville Raptors
Church Street Park, Morrisville, NC
New Jersey won the series, 2 games to 0.

A season ago, the Stallions won the Eastern division, traveled to Church Street, and beat Morrisville en route to the Atlantic Conference championship. Jessi Singh and company hoped that history would repeat itself in 2022, as the Stallions and Raptors met in a matchup featuring two of the deepest lineups in all three facets of the game.

Dane Piedt won the toss and put the Stallions into bat, and two overs in they broke the Dominique Rikhi-Anthony Bramble partnership by sending the latter on his way for four.  Sai Mukkamalla came to the crease and he and Rikhi got settled in, racking up 72 more runs as both made it to half centuries. There were only twelve fours and three sixes hit by Jersey in their innings, but steady running kept the scoreboard ticking and helped temper a 3-fer for Obus Pienaar and a pair for Colin Archibald.

Morrisville’s target was 153, and that long and varied roster of Stallion bowlers felt right at home on the Church Street turf pitch. You’d have thought it was them who were the home side considering how under control they kept the Raptor lineup, as the Dinos stumbled to 44-for-5 by the end of the ninth over.  Dane Piedt, who is the perfect balance of style and substance, kept his side in the game, and the mighty South African smacked five 6s as part of his 53*. But the early bowling effort, which yielded pairs by Derone Davis, Raymond Ramrattan, and Nino Henry, combined with sparkling fielding plays to neutralize a furious comeback attempt. Game one to New Jersey by 16 runs.

Stallions Celebrate

Sent into bat once again by Dane Piedt as the lights came on for Game 2, Bramble recovered from his short stint in the morning match to dig in and lead the march back to the final four. The wicketkeeper-all-arounder from Guyana held vigil at the crease all the way into the 19th over, making 75 off 53 balls. As well as the Stallions battery was doing, they were getting help from the Raptors in putting runs on the board; a number of misfields, a couple of 5-wides and a 7-no-ball helped balloon the score to 167-for-6.

Morrisville’s opening pair of Vinothkumar Kandaswamy and Lahiru Milantha has been dependable during the season, and Kandaswamy led the way with 51 from 36 as the Raptors trudged their way towards the target. New Jersey’s balanced bowling yielded key wickets every time it looked like a man in blue would get his eye in. Sachin Mylavarapu picked up a pair of wickets and Stephen Wiig, a well skilled bowler who couldn’t even get into the XI in the thick of the season, also took two as the pendulum swung back and forth. The Stallions also had some amazing field work, like this doozy from Ramrattan:

Ten from the final over was required for a third game to be brought about. Wiig was asked to bowl it, and he bowled two beautiful yorkers that young Abhiram Bolisetty couldn’t get willow on. Bolisetty holed out to Singh at long on with the third delivery, but Wiig had overstepped – three free runs. Wiig recovered to induce a dot from Matthew Forde, then when Forde left a wide ball go on the next delivery, Bolisetty showed a bit of inexperience by taking off for a run that wasn’t there and was run out.

Forde, a veteran of the West Indian program, was keen to hold the strike with seven needed from the final three balls. Needing a boundary, he was unable to hit one off of Wiig, instead scraping together two twos. Now it was three to win from the final ball and Wiig, knowing that this very delivery would decide his inclusion in the team on finals weekend, bowled a perfect wide ball at fourth stump that Ford waved at. Game, set, match to the Stallions, as hoots and hollers rang out through the stunned silence that permeated Church Street Park.

(S1) Atlanta Fire vs (E2) Manhattan Yorkers
Atlanta Cricket Fields, Cumming, GA
Atlanta Fire won the series, 1 game to 0.

Emerging from the slugfest that was the Southern Division, the Fire had gotten to this best-of-three round with a multi-pronged attack that was led by all-rounder Rahkeem Cornwall. There wasn’t too much worry in the Fire camp that Cornwall had gone on to start play in the CPL, because Aaron Jones had returned from ODI duty with the US National Team to lend his batting prowess against the Yorkers, who were paced by their own Guyananese taskmaster, Christopher Barnwell.

With moisture in the area, Manhattan took the ball and struck early when Noman Iftikhar caused Rishi Pandey to hole out to Gajanand Singh on the fourth delivery of the match. But then captain Jones strode to the middle alongside Zain Sayed, an experienced batter who could put up big scores. They put together the largest stand of the playoffs, rattling off 132 runs, each putting up season highs. Sayed finished with 75, Jones with 72 and though Barnwell would take four wickets – all of them in his final two overs – Atlanta ended on 198-for-7.

Rushing to get their overs in before the weather turned inclement, Manhattan raced to 79-for-1 after the power play, just nine runs ahead of where the Fire were. The bowlers now started turning the screws. With Amila Aponso, M.N. Hussain, and Jay Pathak doing the bulk of the bowling in the middle overs, the Yorkers never scored more than ten runs from the sixth over on.

It wasn’t just the Fire that was against the Yorkers, though, it was the weather.  A morning downpour and subsequent wet outfield truncated the game after 15.2 overs, leaving Manhattan 19 runs short in the equations of Msrs. Duckworth and Lewis.  The outfield did not dry enough for game two to be played on Saturday afternoon, nor on Sunday. Thus, the Atlanta Fire go on to their first ever conference championship, while the Yorkers’ classy season came to an unfortunate end.

Semifinal Matchups (Saturday, August 27, 2022 @ Church Street Park, Morrisville, NC)

Pacific Conference Championship:
1 p.m. EDT – Silicon Valley Strikers vs Seattle Thunderbolts

Atlantic Conference Championship:
5:30 p.m. EDT – New Jersey Stallions vs Atlanta Fire

And so, from 26 teams at the end of June, we’re now down to the final four, all to wing their way to that little bit of heaven in the middle of the Tar Heel State. Silicon Valley and New Jersey, last year’s championship combatants, will be there. So too will two new teams, in Seattle and Atlanta Fire.

The Fire defeated the Stallions by 10 runs during crossover weekend in Texas on July 2. The Strikers took both ends of a weekend series in Seattle on July 23-24, holding the ‘Bolts to a run rate of 4.25 in the process. But you can crumple up all of that and chuck it in the bin because all of that means nothing.  

It’s a fresh start. Three games to determine who will be champions of Minor League Cricket in 2022.  If you can get to Morrisville to see it live, get there.  If you can’t, get in front of a screen on Willow and the MLC Network or get 99.94 DM in your ear.

If next weekend is anything like this weekend was, it’ll be a wild ride.