The opinions expressed in this post are solely that of the author who, especially on this occasion, had an out-of-body experience and was able to watch himself play.
Game 16: Finals - WVUCC versus SteelZags
After a long season, the stage was set for the final of the PCA tournament between the two top guns - SteelZags and WVUCC. Ram Paluri and Sohail Chaudhry had the immense satisfaction of leading their teams to this stage and, fittingly too, since no two finer captains or players play in the PCA.
During the regular season the Mountaineers were 7-1 when batting first and 2-3 when chasing a target. The SteelZags were 9-2 batting first, and 2-1 when chasing. Therefore, both teams knew that the toss would be crucial. Chasing a total, coupled with the pressure of a final, would definitely be a tall order for either team.
Ram won the toss, conducted by Shailesh Bokil, the President of the PCA, and elected to field first. I am just making sure you are paying attention...actually Ram elected to bat first.
The Mountaineers made a couple of changes from the team that won the semi-finals. Abhijit Bhagavatula came back into the middle order, replacing Venkata Sathi. The other change was more unexpected. When he played his last game for the Mountaineers, the WVUCC playes extracted a promise from C.S. Manish that if the team made it to the finals, he would fly back from the MidWest to play in it. They kept up their end of the bargain so the veteran batsman came back for one last fling.
The think tank decided that since the SteelZags had never lost to WVUCC, the players would make sure that the 'Zags were constantly reminded of it. The general crux being that picking today to lose to the 'Eers would be a louy time to do so. The not-so-subtle reminders to the batsmen that if they failed the pressure would be great on the rest of the team, had an instant impact as the 'Zags openers took a very cautious and subdued approach towards the Mountaineer bowlers. The first runs from the bat did not come till the 5th over of play! Ajay Nayak and Avinaschander Manivannan, rightly restored to bowl with the new ball, made batting miserable for the batsmen. Ajay was a little generous with his wides (we have come to expect that from him), but Avinash rose to the occasion with a chilling display of seam bowling. Sridhar Lingam and Verma Sagi hopped about the crease struggling to get the ball away from the square, and the two openers were soon put out of their misery, clean bowled by the opening bowlers.
Srinivas Mandava and Kumar Venkata methodically repaired some of the early damage without ever looking like they could break the shackles. Srinivas was run out backing up too far at the non-strikers end to a direct hit from Nishit Banuri, fielding at square-leg (43 for 3 in 12 overs). This brought Ram to the crease and at once batting looked easier as the captain calmly played out the bowlers. At this point in time Sohail brought in his ace in the hole - Nishit Banuri. As the season progressed Nishit showed great poise in bowling to the opposition's top guns. Of the 9 wickets he took this season he snared 3 openers including Mukesh Patel, and also Naveen Peiris once. Nishit did not disappoint, getting Ram to flick uppishly to the mid-wicket boundary where Arvind Thiruvengadam settled under it Aussie-style - fingers pointing upwards (82 for 4).
Amol Bhavsar added to the 'Zags misery by rushing through Asim Ali's defences in the very next over (82 for 5). One over later, Kumar's long vigil came to an end when he spooned an easy catch to Avinash off Nishit's bowling (86 for 6). Srugun Sreepurum tried to repair the damage but his partners showed their tension by throwing away their wickets. A visibly-upset Srugun was left stranded on 11 runs, while the rest of the team committed hara-kiri to be all out for just 115 in 26 overs. Avinash finished with fantastic analysis of 4 overs, 1 maiden, 9 runs and 2 wickets.
Here is a copy of the SteelZags batting scorecard. The interesting thing to note is that they scored just 9 boundaries in 26 overs, indicative of the splendid bowling and fielding by the Mountaineers.
In the pre-innings huddle, Sohail had just one instruction for the batsmen - attack at every opportunity. WVUCC would not go down without their guns blazing. Even though there were 30 overs to get 116 runs, the Mountaineers approached it as it they had just 25 overs in which to do it.
In the very second over, Ram Paluri bowled a brute of a ball that jumped up from just short of good length, and hit Arvind's gloves in front of his face en route to second slip where Srugun took a very good juggling catch (6 for 1).
Ashok Varadarajan went in full of confidence, stemming from his stupendous partnership with Sohail in the semi-finals. The duo continued from where they left off and eliminated any faint hopes that the 'Zags may have nurtured. Easily playing out Sunil Yendluri and Ram, the duo kept up the pace with well-struck boundaries and the occasional dart for a six. In a tactically shrewd move Ram brought on his spinners - MS and Srugun - from both ends. Once upon a time Ashok would have perished to the spinners but the current edition had overcome his weaknesses through intense net sessions and confidently took the 'Eers to the threshold of victory. With 27 runs needed to win, Sohail played a tired flick that was spectacularly caught by Sunil, one handed on the square-leg boundary, for a well-made 39 in 40 balls, with 5 fours and six (89 for 2).
Drinks were taken with 21 runs needed to win, when Ashok lost his concentration and played all over a ball to be bowled for 46 in 49 balls, with 7 fours and a six (95 for 3).
Abishek Muralidharan looked to finish off the match in a hurry, striking a boundary and a six over cover to bring the required runs down to single digits. At the other end, it was fitting that C.S. Manish was at the crease. He even calmly contributed a flick to the square-leg boundary, defeating the obvious trap set there by the 'Zags. With 4 runs needed to win, Abishek tried to finish the match in one blow but failed to clear mid-off (112 for 4).
Manish and Sumanth Dommaraju calmly took the singles on offer to tie the scores. In trying to go for the winning hit, Sumanth missed an attempted flick to be bowled by Srugun (115 for 5). Abhijit Bhagavatula jumped out of his crease, head in the air, searching for glory off the first ball he faced. Srugun beat the bat and Sameen pulled off the easiest stumping of his career.
However, all this was just a ripple that caused some artificial excitement and made the score look closer. The first ball of the next over was calmly flicked past square-leg (yes, the 'Zags tried that leg-sde trap again for Manish) to bring up the winning runs!! WVUCC had won the PCA championships!!
In a heartfelt congratulatory speech to the rest of the 'Eers Sohail expressed all his happiness, gratitude, and respect for each and every member of the winning squad. For the think tank and the senior members of the squad it was a personally gratifying experience to see the culmination of all the plans - failed and successful - that they had hatched for years. For the newbies on the squad this was an experience to remember.
The transient nature of college-life being such, this would be the last time this team played together. Most of the team will not return the next year, having moved on in pursuit of more lofty goals in life, but the thread of victory will join them for as long as they live.