Recap: Thunderbolts rattle Atlanta Fire to win first MiLC Crown

In the future, we’ll look back at the 2022 Toyota Minor League Cricket Championship presented by Sunoco and see that 200 games took place and one champion was crowned.

But on championship final day, all of those matches played over ten weeks are reduced to one singularity: 40 overs on a clean sheet of paper at the best ground in the country for the right to live on in MiLC immortality.

MiLC Trophy

The Seattle Thunderbolts scrapped and clawed and fought. In the regular season, they needed to win four games in a row to stay in the playoff hunt, and they did it. They needed to win their last regular season game within eight overs to make the playoffs on net run rate, and they did it. They needed three wins in a row over the two best teams in the league in the playoffs, all on the road, all in unfamiliar grounds… check.  

So when there were those who maybe doubted that Seattle, even as champions of the Pacific Conference, couldn’t triumph once more over the Atlantic Conference winners the Atlanta Fire, they shouted clear and loud, piercing the thick soupy night.

The Seattle Thunderbolts rumbled through the MiLC Championship match to win by 10 runs over a deep Atlanta Fire team to claim their first league title, the end of a brilliant competition that got better and better each weekend.

Both teams came into this final match on win streaks. The Fire were winners of three in a row, getting here with victories over the Manhattan Yorkers and New Jersey Stallions. The Thunderbolts were triumphant in each of their last seven matches; a loss in any one of them would have meant elimination. And they had to turn back two division champions — Dallas from the Central, and Silicon Valley from the Western — to advance to the championship decider under the lights in Morrisville.

Hoping to catch lightning in a bottle one more time, Harmeet Singh had his team open the batting while the weather was still hot. The Fire bowlers, however, were still feeling their wicket-shattering performance from almost 24 hours before over the Stallions. Corne Dry got Ryyan Pathan to hole out to Nasir Hossain on the third ball of the match. It was a dream start for Atlanta, as Singh joined Andries Gous to try and rebuild the power play.

Singh helped accelerate the chase, smacking four fours off of Steven Taylor to get the score to 44-for-1 at the end of five, but he departed for 20 when Hossain cleaned him up the next over.  

Seattle Batting

Staying in the crease is important in building a big total, and so is keeping the scoreboard ticking. And while Gous and Shubham Ranjane did both of those things, they were unable to lift the Fire bowlers over their infield. Overs seven through 15, bowled primarily by Taylor, Hossain, and Amila Aponso, yielded no wicket and just three boundaries. Those three bowled excellently to keep Gous and Ranjane to just 57 runs in as many balls, grinding the target buildup to a near standstill.  

On 48, Gous tried to bring up his half-century in flashy fashion, but saw his visions dashed in the sixteenth over when Taylor climbed the ladder to make a spectacular one-handed catch at long on. Then yesterday’s Pacific Conference player of the match, Rishi Bhardwaj, found himself as Taylor’s second victim of the over, and Seattle was now 115-for-4 and in a spot of bother.

Knowing now that big hits would be the only thing possible to force a winnable target, Ranjane and Shadley van Schalkwyk loosened up and swung freely. Ranjane ended on 51 before becoming Taylor’s third scalp and van Schalkwyk ended on 27* from 14 balls. The story, however, was the Fire bowlers, paced by Taylor’s 3/36 and aided by economical efforts from Hossain and Aponso.

Fire bowling to Seattle

Seattle had been in pressure situations all tournament long.  And in order to clear that ultimate hurdle, they needed to defend their score of 157-for-7 against the massive Atlanta Fire arsenal.

Taylor and Sayed came to the crease trying to replicate the huge run rate that led them to this match. Akhilesh Bodugum took just one wicket all night, and it was Taylor’s off the eleventh ball. The US National Teamer had 14 off of seven when he left, and that seemed to set the tone for the rest of the innings.

One American international was gone, but another was right behind him. Aaron Jones had thwacked and hurtled and pounded the leather ball all over the place on Saturday for 76* off of 46 deliveries. Seattle captain Singh and leading wicket taker Phani Simhadri knew that if they could keep Jones’ strike rate relatively low, they’d be in with a chance in the second half of the innings. Indeed, Jones’s strike rate hovered around a run a ball for most of his 51 ball stint at the crease, and the focus was on removing his partners.

The match was on just about even terms when Zayed was caught of the bowling of Simhadri in the eleventh over, and at the end of that stanza, Atlanta was 75-for-2 – the same exact score as the Thunderbolts after 11. On Saturday afternoon, there had been murmurs amongst the crowd that Seattle wouldn’t be able to hold on in a similar situation against the Strikers, and they had proven those whispers wrong. Would they be able to do it again?

200 games of cricket with 26 teams had boiled down to eight overs on a humid late summer night in North Carolina in front of a buzzing crowd. The time for champions to rise. Enter Shubham Ranjane.

Building off of his half century with the ball, Ranjane bowled Hossain for eight, and when the potential for a repeat game winning partnership between Jones and Hamilton loomed, Ranjane trapped Hamilton lbw for only four runs.

In addition to performing in the middle, the fielders dove and flew like pink fireworks though the dusk to turn sixes and fours into twos and singles to keep the issue in doubt. The par score ebbed and flowed and it was essentially a coin toss heading into the fifteenth over. Both sets of fans were nearly hoarse supporting their team, with scores of those in both pink and red on pins and needles. Even those the nonpartisan fans were on edge feeling that Morrisville Magic.

Jones and Dry held the hopes of the Fire coming back and lifting the cup. It was still possible that they could get 55 off of the final 24 balls. The pair got 30 of those runs back in the 17th and 18th, but when Ranjane nailed down the Player of the Match award by taking out Jones and Aponso in successive balls, those hopes fluttered away into the din. 

It was down to the Atlanta batters to pull off something darn near spectacular. Simhadri came in to bowl the 19th over, and induced Dyer and Dry to essentially end the competitive aspect of the game. Those two wickets capped off an MVP season for Simhardi, who ended the campaign with 46 wickets. Even more spectacular when you consider that 28 of his 46, including these last two, were in the death overs.

It was up to Van Schalkwyk to do the honors of finishing off the match, and with the penultimate ball left in his hand, Atlanta needed an impossible 12 runs off the final ball. The South African pumped his fist and roared. So too did the rest of his team, so too did the traveling hoard from the Pacific Northwest. They had slayed three division champions to climb this mountain, and they savored every little bit of it.

Seattle Celebrate

“It was an important game, and everyone knew it was a high intensity game,” said Ranjane. “And we have been working so hard, and for me as an all-arounder it’s been good in this tournament to work on my run rate. It was a crucial match for me and my team. We worked really, really hard and made it.

“We believed in ourselves, whatever situation we came through and fight as a team, and that worked in the end.”

Atlanta’s season may have come ten runs short, but the pride to have fought through the three team dog fight that was the South Division to be a championship finalist held true in captain Jones’ voice.

“We lost the game in quite a few key moments in the back end of the bowling, and I thought that one or two of the players could have batted deeper with me, and we didn’t finish well.”

“I’m definitely proud of the guys for making it two steps further than last year,” Jones continued, “obviously we had one or two players missing throughout the season, but good on the boys for making it to the final.”

For Seattle captain Harmeet Singh, however, it was more than just this one victory or the eight on the trot that ended the season in triumph. It was the meld of many players coming together as one for a common goal.

“We all come from different parts of the world, and the way we came together and managed ourselves and blended into different cultures, it was a joy to watch and a joy to play with everybody. The way everybody respected my calls and decisions on the field and trusted me, it takes trust and once we started winning, I think the trust was much more.  

“Everybody cannot have a good game every time, so when you play against good sides, the way we handled pressure and the way we held our nerve with the ball and in the field was exceptional.”

The final word of the night went to Singh, and it summed up this entire second season of Minor League Cricket from the first ball to the last: