By Lokeshwar Bandhu
“I refuse to stop; step back; look back
For my goal is not achieved…”
These lines epitomised the attitude of Risignhurst in the final of Steve Dixon Memorial Cup, which is etched in our memory forever now. A day where we never stopped believing, where we kept moving forward against all forces, and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. A collective team effort in combination with some individual brilliance made sure we emerged victorious in a tightly fought contest.
The day started with Witney Swifts winning the toss and electing to bat first – we would have done the same. The pitch looked like a paradise for batting, the ground had a significantly shorter boundary on one side, and a dry weather for the whole day; all conditions that could be associated with a batting-friendly surface.
Rakesh and Govind began proceedings for us, where Govind chose to come down the slope. The Witney openers seemed determined to negotiate the first spell from our opening bowlers. No undue risks were taken by the batsmen, nor our bowlers erred in line and length to offer any freebies. The result was no loss of wickets, but the run rate was under check to keep both the teams in the game. Martin had the temptation to continue with Govind from one end in search of wickets, but a second thought advocated to keep some overs to spare. The first bout finished in a draw, punches exchanged but no damage done.
Saurav and I took over from Rakesh and Govind for the second bout, where Witney was looking to capitalise on their start, and we were looking to strangle them for runs further. Witney’s Jacob succumbed to the pressure and was caught at cover by Romi of my bowling. We found an opening, but it wasn’t a pitch where one can run through a batting line-up – discipline was the order of the day. Sourav was bowling with an immaculate line and length at the other end. The new batsmen Josh immediately made his intentions clear by swinging wildly at anything in his arc, but he eventually fell to a good length ball confounded between attacking and defensive shot.
It was time to introduce our only spinner John Thompson (JT), who was required to hold one end and tempt them to go over the longer side of the ground for boundaries. However, there was a left-hand batsman Edd who was well-settled by now and would be swinging to the shorter boundary with the spin. The new batsman along with Edd counter-attacked and slogged for a massive over against JT – one of the scored sixes in that over was caught at deep covers (shorter side) by Saurabh only to have stepped just outside the boundary. When it seemed like even mishits can travel the distance on one side, Rakesh the captain (in Martin’s absence – out for medication for his back injury) showed immense faith in JT’s ability to come back stronger. JT justified that confidence by trapping the dangerous Edd at mid-wicket (the shorter boundary) – a big moral victory for the bowler and team.
Connor and Tom threatened to build a steady and potentially explosive partnership but were separated by a brilliant piece of fielding by Sourav at point. All the following batsmen were right-handers and JT began to spin his web around them slowly but surely. As I finished my spell form the other end, Saurav took over and kept the intensity high, his high-speed action and hard lengths proved difficult to slog away, which kept building the pressure. By his final over JT had truly casted a spell on Witney batsmen. They were all looking for the ball in the wrong place, only to find themselves cajoled out of the crease, trapped in front, and loose the timber. Rakesh and Govind came back to take charge of the death overs, where Govind managed to remove Tom and Mark in the penultimate over of the innings.
At this stage, we were the happier side having restricted Witney to just 159 on a batting track. We enjoyed our lunch, especially the home-made parathas Sam got for all team members.
Martin and Saurabh began the chase, there was no flirting with the batting line-up, not in the final. It was expected to be a canter with the batting prowess we possess – a general belief in the team. However, captain Martin had the mis-fortune of being runner-up at three Dixon cup finals before and was probably too anxious to let this opportunity go. He started cautiously in the first over, uncharacteristically missed out on a couple of loose balls, and finally fended one to second slip. We lost first wicket without a run on the board. Sandeep walked in and after middling a few balls, he smacked a pull towards mid-wicket only to be intercepted by a flying Liam to pluck the ball out of thin air. Two major batsmen departed without scoring, Witney had their tails up, they knew they are back in the game – chasing is never easy on big games. I joined Saurabh with the hope of playing a match-winning innings for the team. In midst of constant outswing from one end, boomerang inswing from the other, and chirpy slips we focused hard to reduce further loss of wickets. Saurabh looked determined to meet the ball right under eye and pushing the odd balls to cover boundary. There was significant movement in the air but nothing off the pitch, nor there was express pace to trouble us. We got quite comfortable in 5-6 overs; the scoreboard was ticking along despite our cautious approach. Out of nowhere though Saurabh had a massive heave at a slower ball from Craig that just sneaked under his bat to break our partnership. Romi walked in with the confidence of a warrior, last time we batted together we strung a 100-plus partnership. There was no reason it can’t be repeated; the track was still good to bat on. So far, wickets were lost to self-doubt, exceptional fielding, and poor shot selection, and then we got the last thing any player wants – a howler from umpire, of which I was at the receiving end. I couldn’t help but express my disbelief, disapproval, disappointment; but umpire’s call is the final call and I had to drag myself back.
Sam was promoted on the back of his MOM performance last week. Again, just when the partnership was growing Romi played one straight into the hands of mid-off. We were reduced to 50 for 5, but Risinghurst was not going to give up so easily. Such confidence comes from our lower middle order, which could give a run for money to any top order at this level, including ours.
Mansoor walked in twirling his bat, he was not going to let the situation affect his natural game. Sam and Mansoor fancied different albeit efficient methods to counter Witney’s bowlers. Sam showed confidence in his defence while Mansoor chose to attack. Every good ball blocked, and every run scored made the target look closer – a fantastic partnership of contrasting approach was on display. Witney was under pressure for the first time in this innings, Mansoor took heavy toll on any marginal mistakes and cleared the long leg boundary with ease. Sam was coming on his own at the other end, an elegant backfoot punch and pull in front of mid-wicket were the most memorable shots for me. A fifty partnership between the two swung the match back in our favour, but immediately after that Sam fell for another controversial LBW call.
Rakesh, with a wealth of experience and skill required to finish such close games, joined Mansor who was well-settled. There is one thing with Mansoor – he lives life on the edge, which brings both joy and despair to the spectators, much like Sehwag. Surely enough, he hit one ball for six and got bowled the next ball. The same shot that looked brave for a six, looked reckless when missed. If Martin had bullets, we would have seen the last of Mansoor that day. However, there was no doubt that Mansoor’s innings brought us back in the game.
Govind, a very capable batsmen who hardly gets to bat, and when he does it typically is towards the end of innings or for a rescue operation -it was the later this time. Despite all the confidence in his batting, everybody in the dugout was nervous.
It was only a matter on 3 good balls at that point, and every over seemed to produce a couple of unplayable deliveries. The dugout and Risi supporters rose to the occasion, they realised it was the moment to back their fighters in the middle. Every run was cheered, every block appreciated, and every boundary celebrated.
Rakesh looked composed as ever, elegantly caressing the backfoot punches for 2s and 3s, unfortunately he placed a short ball in the hands of point and cracked the game open again. Sourav and JT are not best known for their batting abilities. There was plenty of advice in offer for Sourav, mostly a reminder that there were no demons in the pitch and it just needs some application to cross the line, on the other hand JT seemed confident of scoring the winning run but was probably only annoyed at the idea of padding up and walking up to the pitch for it.
Meanwhile Govind was in a different zone altogether – a possessed man with a mission, watching every ball like a hawk. He would walk around the crease in between balls, murmuring – probably praying or talking to self – this match can’t be lost at any cost – not after coming this close. All his natural shots with wristy flourish could have been too risky, he showed remarkable patience in choosing the right balls for them, and mostly scored by placing in gaps and running hard.
Sourav, almost making a mockery of the tension outside, calmly blocked out the last two balls of the over he had to face to bring Govind back on strike. We were still 6-7 runs away, when the opportunity presented itself in the form of a short ball and surely enough Govind rocked back to hit his first boundary of the innings, followed by a couple and a frenzy single. A master-class innings of self-restraint and application in that situation, which ultimately sealed the match for us.
Risi supporters erupted in cheers, both teams (1s and 2s) won their respective finals within one week. The presentation ceremony organised by CCL followed, where we lifted the cup and Govind was adjudged player of the match. Martin also had his own plans for our post-match presentations; each player of the 14 member squad received a memento for their contribution, thanks to our sponsors Rakesh and Saurabh. Mansoor got our local MOM award for his whirlwind knock.
In hindsight, a collective team effort with the bat, ball, and in the field, contributed towards that fantastic finish. Many congratulations for sticking together and believing in each other gentlemen, it was a day where a team of champions also became a CHAMPION team.
P.S. – Special thanks to Praneel for saving some precious runs as a sub-fielder, it all mattered in the end.