(The European Cricket Council Division 4 Championship, Belgium, August 2006)
A great-hearted and united squad very nearly seized promotion to Division 3 last week, but was disappointed by a tempest, injury, statistics, and just a couple of ineffective half-hour sessions when technique was found wanting. Despite the pain of coming third (for second-place Cyprus are likely to be promoted if Greece are disciplined this November for infringements in Division 2) the great improvement made over the last three years was maintained.
It was not an easy week. Given the weather forecast it was a miracle any cricket was played at all, and three sweaters were often required. The Czech Republic had pulled out late and so were already demoted to Division 5, giving the E.C.C. an opportunity to try a Twenty20 tournament (weather permitting). To cap it all on the eve of the first game Mechelen C.C. had laid a new mat on top of the two old half-mats and a quagmire had developed. Royal Brussels C.C. stepped in to help but it too was pretty swamplike and was a good hour's drive from the Antwerp hotel.
On the plus side Luxembourg's third international squad was stronger than ever, despite missing the spin of Bush (in the U.S.), the batting of Sawhney (injured), and the talents of Greg Brittan (unavailable). Comfort also came from Rumst (Antwerp C.C.) and Waterloo (R.B.C.C.) being like home grounds for our Belgian League players. Despite odd lapses the catching and ground fielding were much-improved, with Cope's catches up to the wicket and 2 byes in 4 innings being outstanding. Manager Bryan Reisleider Rouse harried both officialdom and his team with customary energy while scorer Mick Swithinbank carried the art to new levels with showers of coloured pencils and statistics. Romesh Paul impressed all with authoritative captaincy , although the mental toll on his batting matched the experience of predecessors Ramachandran (2003) and Wykes (2004).
Previous Finnish encounters saw first a 2003 massacre by 9 wickets then a loss by 80-odd runs in 2004, and Finland were in addition heavy favourites for the Division 3 in 2006. So when a bright start form Burleigh and Lyon (72-1) was followed by a collapse to 114-8, another defeat seemed to be imminent. But spirited improvisation from Wykes (39 off 42 balls) and Codd (23 off 29 balls) during a stand of 53 in 9 overs chased the total up to a healthy 167-8 off 40.
Finland's confident start (45 from 12 overs) did nothing to shake the Grand Duchy's resolve; good control from Burleigh (2-23) and Paul (2-25) saw Finland falter to 105-6. Then Fitzgerald's 2-18 and Paul's two (extravagantly-celebrated) run-outs led to a swift decline as Finland's last four wickets fell for 15 and Luxembourg ran out as the overjoyed winners by 22 runs. Finesmaster Fitzgerald fined Reisleider for crying, but it seemed a pretty good response at the time.
On the Sunday Rumst was very wet and Paul inserted Slovenia who mad initially heavy weather od the conditions. 9 of 9 overs was followed by 50 from the next 10, but good catching and another run-out led to strangulation of the innings at 127 for 8 (Paul, 2-16, was outstanding).This seems a small target but but in 2004 it would have been enough for Slovenia to win by over 30. Indeed, bowler Bradley Eve had improved, and stunned opener Simon Norcross saw his partners reeling as Eve took 4-5 and the score crept to only 15 for 4 after 13 overs. Wykes blocked for an hour as Gandhi hit, then Burleigh and Codd launched an exciting assault, putting on 43 in 7 overs. The score crept up to 120, with 7 needed off more than 2 overs (a tie would surely suffice).
But the capable-looking Finch was adjudgd to have touched one down the legside and the game was lost, the profound disappointment almost reaching shock levels given such a revival earlier on.
By the time of the final 40 over game against Cyprus a smooth machinery of settled bowlers (particularly Burleigh who gave all in a final flourish to take 3 for 13) and good catching saw the inserted opponents succumb to 60 for 7 off 29 overs. Even with slow outfields this seemed to be a one-sided match and Cyprus were downbeat as rain began. But then the heavens opened, and the whole game was abandoned; the frustration was immense as it was decided to replay the game the next day at Rumst and sacrifice the Twenty20 competition. To cap an inglorious afternoon Finland had marmalised Slovenia as well as Cyprus and could now only be caught by a score such as 180-2/70 all out the next day. If it rained Luxembourg would come second on net run rate. 180 for 2 was too stiff a task, despite a robust beginning (99 for 3 in 22 overs). 3 wickets for only 10 runs threatened danger, but then Madhu Ramachandran spotted his wife on the boundary. For the first time in three tournaments he freed hiself to play the sort of dream innings we all know he is capable of; 60 runs from 36 balls, including six sixes that required a lot of searching for, gives a fair impression of the carnage.
Cyprus resorted to an eight bowler. The tail succumbed, but but 194 was the highest total of the week. Surely second place was now secure despite the lack of rain? Cyprus had other ideas and smote 16 off the second over. But again Codd and the other Luxembourg bowlers didn't panic and kept taking wickets; Cyprus were 112 for 6 off 26 overs and their tail was known to be weak. Second place now secure......? But it now became alarmingly clear that Burleigh (the Cyprus destroyer) wasn't going to bowl and Paul's shoulder was troubling the captain equally. Number eight was middling it and Janaka was playing the innings of his life. An amazing stand of 83 defied new bowlers Fitzgerald and Pattabiraman and the established Gandhi, Paul, and Ramachandran. Snicks now went between fielders or were not accepted, the boundary seemed to be ever shorter. With just five balls to go a tired Luxembourg were put out of their misery as Cyprus achieved as remarkable a win as France did in 2000 at Walferdange.
How do you close a tour that starts in triumph and ends in catastrophe?
Mark Fitzgerald and Wayne Codd prescribed a dose of hysterical laughter as the cure by immediately organising outdoors games of Wibbly-Wobbly (Luxembourg won both races) and Spoons (Mark, amongst others, hammered poor Sunil from Cyprus).It helped recall the other occasions the whole squad shared times of mirth (watching England play Pakistan on the big screen on Monday's rest day, eating curry, pizza, Flemish cusine in a variety of restaurants, and being fined heinously but fairly each evening.) An assortment of ducks and hats also became key members of the squad.
Phil Burleigh was loudly applauded at the gala dinner on the final night when announced as the Player of the Tournament runner-up (to A.K. Bhatia of Finland - on statistics, perhaps, but never on spirit). Cricket World magazine then announced a Team of the Tournament (the photograph will be in the next edition) which included both Burleigh and Ramachandran. But as the gold and silver medals were given out to Finland and Cyprus, Luxembourg were left with receding memories of a genuinely comprehensive victory over the new champions and an abandoned game against the runners-up that that had promised a similar result. In the end the shortcomings were an overgenerous, if irregular, supply of short and wide balls, and a tendency to sell the early wickets too cheaply.
If consistency of technique can be found to match that of Luxembourg's unity and effort, then the team stands a very good chance of promotion in two years time.
Finland 4 points (net run rate 2.02) PROMOTED
Cyprus 4 pts. (n.r.r. 0.79)
Luxembourg 2 pts. (n.r.r. 0.88)
Slovenia 2 pts. (n.r.r. 0.71)
Squad: R.Paul (capt.), S.Norcross, W.Codd, S.Finch, P.Burleigh, M.Fitzgerald, B.Lyon, A.Pattabiraman, M. Ramachandran, N.Gandhi, G.Cope (w-k), A.Wykes, Manager/Reisleider - B.Rouse
(Absent Injured - S.Sawhney. G.Davis [Duck & Ferrets C.C.] played for Slovenia).