All Things Cricket: August 30th

It’s another Minor League Cricket post!

Minor League Cricket (MiLC) is, for now, the only sanctioned domestic cricket league in the US. Major League Cricket (MLC), owned by the same entity, American Cricket Enterprises (ACE), hopes to become the primary domestic cricket league next year and into the future. MiLC was meant as a training ground for everyone involved to help get to MLC in 2023. In 2023 and beyond, MiLC will serve as the developmental league for MLC that its name suggests.

I could write at even greater length about MiLC and the 2022 season, but for this post, I want to concentrate on one team, the Seattle Thunderbolts.

Seattle arrived at the final weekend of the 2022 regular season in third place in the Western Division of the Pacific Conference, two points behind the East Bay Blazers with a game in hand. Only the top two teams in each division make the playoffs. The Blazers had a game left against the bottom-feeding Hollywood Master Blasters, meaning that Seattle not only needed to win both of their remaining games against the Golden State Grizzlies, a 2021 playoff team, but they had to win them convincingly.

As in most cricket leagues, the first tie-breaker in MiLC is Net Run Rate. To get this number, you take the run-scoring rate of your team on a per over basis and subtract the run-scoring rate per over of all your opponents. This formula is supposed to ensure that each team plays hard in every over of every game and doesn’t dog it, just in case they need those net runs later.

The calculation for Seattle was stark. They didn’t just need to clobber the Grizzlies twice, they needed to annihilate them. Very few cricket matches are finished before the 15th over of a 20-over chase. Seattle needed to end both games in roughly the 12th over or sooner.

In game one, Golden State won the toss and elected to bat. Behind the bowling of Indian ex-pat Phani Simhadri (we’ll get to him later), and South African Shadley Van Schalkwyk, Seattle managed to get all 10 wickets of the Grizzlies for only 122 runs. In the second innings, Seattle, knowing the net run rate they needed, turned on the jets and reached the total in one ball short of 12 overs. Step 1 complete.

All of us MiLC fans got out our spreadsheets and commiserated on our Discord server, calculating that Seattle needed to either win by 100 or so runs or chase a fairly low Grizzlies total in about 10 overs or less to make the playoffs.

Seattle won the toss to start game two and elected to bowl to set up the same scenario as game one, with a set total to shoot for. They restricted an indifferent Grizzlies team to 110 runs in their 20 overs, with captain Harmeet Singh and Shubham Ranjane, both with experience playing domestic cricket in India, doing the heavy lifting.

Seattle now knew exactly what they had to do: score 111 runs in fewer than 9 overs and 1 ball. Openers Rayyan Khan Pathan and Andries Gous both got out relatively quickly, going for absolutely everything as they both knew they had to, but getting 38 of the needed runs. That brought in Singh and Ranjane, who hacked away for more runs. Singh had a spectacular innings, scoring 45 runs off only 13 deliveries to get the Thunderbolts over the line with two full overs to spare. Miraculously, Seattle had managed to will themselves to the final playoff spot.

The quarterfinals in MiLC are best of three, at the venue of the higher-seeded team. Seattle had to go on the road to play the Dallas Mustangs, winners of the Pacific Conference Central Division.

Dallas’ Farhan Sahibzada, voted best domestic player in Pakistan in 2021, and his countryman, Hussain Talat, had to return to Pakistan for prior commitments, and were unavailable for the playoffs, forcing Dallas to make last-minute replacements. These games were supposed to be played at Moosa Cricket Stadium in Pearland, TX, some 4 hours south of Dallas, because Moosa has natural turf pitches and the ones in Dallas are artificial. The morning of the first two games, I went out to the stadium, only 30 minutes from my house, and sat in the small fan area by myself as a guy with a mop and another guy pulling a super-sopper behind a golf cart tried to dry up the outfield, which had been ravaged by a week of rain. Their efforts were in vain, however, and both games were abandoned, with hopes of playing at least one game on Sunday.

It kept on raining, and the decision was made to move the party up to Prairie View Cricket Complex (PVCC) some 70 miles north of Moosa. PVCC has eight fields, four with natural turf pitches, and they were able to find one to play on for a doubleheader on Sunday. Seattle, the lower seed, had to win both games to advance, in rules that were apparently being made up on the fly by MiLC.

The Thunderbolts batted first in game one and played as if they still needed to increase their net run rate, which was no longer a concern. They scored 205 runs in a barrage of fours and sixes led by the South African Gous with 79 and Singh with 56 off a ridiculous 19 deliveries that featured seven sixes. Simhadri completed the destruction with 5 wickets as Dallas was bowled out for only 97.

Even after that display, Dallas won the toss for the second game and still put Seattle in to bat anyway. The second game was shortened to 14 overs per side because of encroaching darkness (PVCC has no lights). Seattle actually batted at a higher run rate than the first game, scoring 182 runs for an even 13 runs an over. Dallas made a slightly better showing in their innings, but they didn’t have near the firepower to chase that total and fell 33 runs short.

This put Seattle into the semifinals at Church Street Park in Morrisville, North Carolina the following weekend. They were matched up against the top seed out west, the defending champion Silicon Valley Strikers. The Strikers had only lost one regular season game, to East Bay, and had beaten the Chicago Tigers in their quarterfinal 2 games to 1, losing the one game in a super over after both teams tied in the regulation 20 overs.

Silicon Valley had lost two key pieces, Raymon Reifer and Roshon Primus, to the Caribbean Premier League, which starts in a few days, but had replaced them with two retired CPL players, Lendl Simmons and Fidel Edwards. They entered the winner-take-all semifinal as heavy favorites. The Thunderbolts won the toss and batted first, with Seattle feeling that their stratospheric numbers against Dallas would carry over. It didn’t quite work out on the large, less than batter-friendly expanses of Morrisville, though. They lost two early wickets with Pathan and Ranjane, but recovered a bit when Rishi Bhardwaj took the crease. Bhardwaj and Gous were able to get the total to 133 before Gous was caught at the boundary. The rest of the lineup added 22 runs to get the Thunderbolts to a reasonable total of 155.

As the bowling unit for Seattle took the field, they faced the formidable openers of last year’s playoff hero for the Strikers, Unmukt Chand, a former U19 World Cup-winning captain from India, and American youngster Rahul Jariwala. Akhilesh Bodugum took out Jariwala, and then Simhadri took out Chand’s favorite partner, Shehan Jayasuriya from Sri Lanka. With Silicon Valley at 53 runs after Chand was dismissed for 24, Simmons and Pranay Suri paired up to get the total over 100 before Simmons perished with the Strikers still needing 51 runs to win. West Indies big hitter Gary Graham and Suri were tasked with getting the team home, but Graham skied out to the boundary against Simhadri after only 10 runs. This brought in another West Indies veteran, Narsingh Deonarine, and he and Suri were able to get into the 20th over needing 11 to win. This was Van Schalkwyk’s moment, though, and he seized it. After three tense singles, Deonarine, desperate for a boundary, came up short and was caught by Bodugum. Kulvinder Singh, known more for his bowling, entered, and Suri gave himself up trying score a second run that wasn’t there. Needing an improbable 7 off the last ball, Singh hit a shot straight to Gous, who could have simply let it go for four runs, but who retrieved it and ran out Edwards who was going for a single. Game over, and once again, Seattle had found a new way to win.

The finals matchup, this past Sunday at Morrisvile, was Seattle vs. the Atlanta Fire. The Fire had soundly beaten last year’s Eastern Conference champions, the New Jersey Stallions, and for yet another huge game, Seattle was the underdog. The toss went Seattle’s way again, and again they chose to bat.

This decision didn’t look great when, on the third ball of the match, Pathan edged a pop-up behind his shoulder that was taken for Seattle’s first wicket. Singh and Gous did some quick recovery work to get the score to 49/1 before Singh was clean bowled in the 6th over. Ranjane began his innings with Gous, and this turned out to be a crucial part of the match. Gous was at 48 when he was removed, and Ranjane made it all the way to the 20th over before finally getting caught, contributing 51 runs to the total. A late 27-run cameo by Van Schalkwyk brought the final Seattle innings in at 157 for 5.

Atlanta’s openers, US player Steven Taylor and Mumbai-born ex-pat, Zain Sayed, never got comfortable. Taylor was caught in the 2nd over, and Simhadri got Sayed in the 11th over after he and another US player, Aaron Jones, excruciatingly hit single after single between occasional dot balls, never much advancing toward the target and causing consternation among the commentators on YouTube. Still, Atlanta was at 73 when Sayed got out, and the feeling was that Jones could accelerate at will and would soon. It never happened. Seattle’s bowlers focused their energies on Jones’s partners, and took them out before finally getting Jones himself. Nasir Hossain was gone for 7, Jamahr Hamilton for 4, and then Jones, frustrated and trying to hit the gas pedal in the 18th over against Ranjane, unleashed a huge sweep shot without looking at the ball and saw his stumps tumble over out of the corner of his eye. He scored 64 off a seemingly endless 51 deliveries. It was a classic match-losing innings, in retrospect, although, if his partners had been able to do anything, he probably would have won Player of the Match.

In the end, Ranjane with his 51 runs and 4 wickets took that honor. He and Simhadri finished out the game to give Seattle a comfortable 10-run win and a most unlikely championship. Now let’s talk about Simhadri.

Phani Simhadri gave up cricket at age 14 in India, thinking that with his slight build and his parents’ desire for him to study engineering, he had reached his functional limit in the sport. He moved to Florida to pursue his education, ending up at the University of South Florida. He found a thriving cricket culture there, and decided to give it another try. He always felt that his bowling action and smarts were strong weapons, but he never quite backed himself because of only being 5’7” and on the thin side. He did well enough at USF to play for their American College Cricket team. American College Cricket is a private organization with no actual affiliation to the colleges (Title IX doesn’t allow it without a similar women’s program), but it gives students like Simhadri a chance to play and possibly revive any dreams they might have.

Simhadri eventually latched on with the Thunderbolts in 2021 after a tryout, but he contacted COVID and missed half of last season. He knew that with the illness, his body would be even weaker, so he decided to attend a fitness boot camp in Florida all winter to try to regain enough strength to play in 2022. To say that decision has paid off would be a great understatement. Simhadri started taking wickets for Seattle as soon as the first game and never stopped. He finished with 43 in 17 games to lead all bowlers, and for his efforts, was named MiLC MVP for 2022. What an astonishing story and what a demonstration of persistence and drive to succeed.

Congratulations to the Seattle Thunderbolts, and their MVP, Phani Simhadri, champions of MiLC for 2022!