It’s one thing to build a good team. It’s quite another to build depth.
Rahkeem Cornwall, the West Indian stalwart, had carried the Atlanta Fire on his back for the better part of the Toyota 2022 Minor League Cricket Championship presented by Sunoco.
But when he was called home for the Caribbean Premier League season, missing the playoffs, the Fire didn’t panic. They had the likes of US National Teamer Steven Jones and Aaron Jones returning from international duty, swift hitting Jahmar Hamilton swinging the bat, and bowling wizards Corne Dry and Evroy Dyer flinging the leather.
The Southern Division champions would seemingly be matched up with the equally potent and balanced New Jersey Stallions, the beasts of the East. Captain Jessy Singh, Manoj Acharya and Stephen Wiig could pull their own mastery with the ball, and there was always the ever looming opening pair of Anthony Bramble and Dominique Rikhi.
The first time conference finalists Fire took on the defending Atlantic Conference champion New Jersey Stallions in what looked to be a delicious matchup with plenty of US National Team talent on display. And after the Pacific Conference Championship came down to the final over, another nail biter seemed imminent.
In the end, however, the Fire burned, while the Stallions faltered. A bish-bash-bosh batting display by the team from Georgia coupled with enough scattered wickets to start a toothpick factory led to a straightforward 96-run Atlanta triumph under the lights at Church Street Park in Morrisville, North Carolina.
New Jersey won the toss and Singh grabbed the ball to bowl, a decision that seemed to be affirmed by a light shower that delayed the start of the match by about thirty minutes. As the skies cleared and the lights at Church Street twinkled on and took hold. Steven Taylor and Zain Sayed strode to the middle to try their hand at picking apart the deep and varied Stallions bowling attack.
It was an engine that was missing one of its most important pistons. Sachin Mylavarapu, the Singaporean national, was getting married today, so in came Jonathan Carter, former Philadelphian and Barbados Royal player.
No time was wasted by either player, as they raced to 53-for-2 after 4.3 overs before they were both dismissed on thick edges to wicketkeeper Bramble. Jones came in at number three, and as the American vice-captain took guard at the Shiloh End, there seemed to be a bit of a twinkle in his eye. This was the same ground where he hit 72 just seven days earlier to get the Fire over the line against Morrisville and to this first conference championship appearance.
It started with a partnership with Nassir Houssain that yielded 33 more runs. After two more nicks onto Bramble that brought him to the top of the table in both wicketkeeper catches and overall snags, Hamilton joined Jones in the middle. As the sun faded behind the trees, the party lights came on. It didn’t matter where Singh, nor Acharya, nor Wiig bowled to these two, they gleefully waved their willow wands to conjure up 102 more runs. Fans who were watching the sport for the first time might have wondered why they seemed so hell bent on destroying the windows of the passing cars on Church Street, but the partisan crowd who came up from Atlanta were loving every single bit of it.
When the dust had settled, both of them had half centuries – Hamilton ended on 52, but Jones would carry his bat all the way through to the 120th ball, ending on a season high 76* and challenging the Stallions to better their total of 210-for-6 if they wanted to get back to the final game on Sunday.
Bramble and Rikhi’s opening stands have proven to be a vital part of the New Jersey Stallions success late in the season, and the Fire bowlers knew that if they could get those two openers out within the powerplay, they’d have a couple of fingers on the conference trophy.
The two Guyanese batters touched up Corne Dry for 26 runs in his two overs, and they raced to a score of 33-for-none after three overs. Bramble took the strike for most of the deliveries, and chasing that massive target played more aggressively than he had in the leadoff position previously. But he went to the well one too many times, caught off the bowling of Ateendra Subramanian for 33 off of 16 balls. Rikhi was trapped lbw by Houssain four balls later, and the remaining nine batters turned into a Jenga puzzle on that one table with the short leg.
Even with the absence of Cornwall, the Fire bowls seven deep, and they all had the number of the Stallions battery all night. In fact, eight of the ten wickets were either bowled or LBW, with Evroy Dyer taking 4/13 from 3.1 overs; three of those dismissals lighting up the stumps amongst the Carolina night. Hussain and Taylor’s pairs added to the domination, as domino after domino fell for the Eastern champions.
The only bright spot in the second innings for the Garden State boys, other than Bramble’s early show, was young Saiteja Mukkamalla’s 34 from 24. But no one else got out of single digits, and on went the Atlanta Fire to the final for the first time.
It was a stumble at the final obstacle for New Jersey, who it must be said have impressed many around the league with how they have built their franchise on and off the field, and can certainly hold their heads high going into 2023.
“Credit goes to the boys to make it for the second time in a row here,” said Stallions captain Jessy Singh. “Our bowling’s been strong throughout the year but the idea was to win the toss and restrict them to the lowest total and chase it, but I would say that we didn’t execute our plan and these guys had a good partnership. So, quite a few things didn’t go our way, but we are a team that is known for bouncing back in every situation and there’s a lot to learn from this game. We’ll work on those things and come back next year.”
But tonight belonged to Aaron Jones and the Fire, who will face a red-hot and dynamic Seattle Thunderbolts outfit under the lights in the final game of the 2022 campaign.
“We have a good team and a good squad, we’ve been working hard over the last couple of weeks and I’m really happy with the result today,” said Jones, who also took out man of the match honors. “This is a case where we planned for the team, and we’ll continue to do the same tomorrow.”