If you subscribed to Willow to watch Major League Cricket and then got hooked on the game -- or if you subscribed and forgot to cancel -- I hope you’ve been watching the Caribbean Premier League. It's one of the more high profile T20 franchise tournaments of the year and definitely one of the most fun. This year's event -- the eleventh season of the CPL -- is no different. All of the top players from the West Indies and the rest of the world -- including Ohio's own Ali Khan -- have banged away in 30 matches and when the dust cleared -- and the rain dried up -- four teams are ready to head into the playoffs.
On a personal note, the CPL is the reason I got into cricket. As an American, I was brought up thinking that cricket was a strict, inscrutable, and joyless game played by strict, inscrutable, and joyless guys in matching white sweaters. In 2016, I happened to catch a CPL game on an obscure cable channel and became immediately obsessed with this game that -- at least to me -- was just a really oddball version of baseball. Before the 2016 season was over, I was down to Lauderhill, Florida to check out some CPL matches being played in the US and had probably the most fun I've ever had at a sporting event. The league played Florida matches in 2017 and 2018 and I was there for them, as well, and had just as good a time. Depending on your tolerance level for Danny Morrison, the games on TV are almost as much fun.
This year, the playoffs are more intriguing than in recent years, because the two top teams -- the Guyana Amazon Warriors and the Trinbago Knight Riders -- are rivals on a Red Sox versus Yankees level. The Knight Riders have won the event four times -- most recently in 2020. And while the Warriors have never won, they have been runner-up on five occasions. Rounding out the playoffs -- and playing in an eliminator tonight -- are the St. Lucia Kings, who have never made it to the CPL Finals and the Jamaica Tallawahs, who won the championship last year.
The Amazon Warriors went 8-1 during the regular season and are led by the league's top two scorers, Shai Hope and Saim Ayub. Ayub, a 21-year-old opener from Pakistan has been huge for the Warriors, putting up big scores and setting the table for Hope, big man Azam Khan, and Shimron Hetmyer. On the other side of the ball, Guyana has a balanced bowling attack. South African Dwaine Pretorius, Gudakesh Motie, and the ageless Imran Khan are all among the league leaders in wickets taken.
The Knight Riders finished the group stage in second place with a 6-3 record and feature some of the biggest names in West Indies cricket -- Andre Russell, Kieron Pollard, Nicholas Pooran, Dwayne Bravo, Sunil Narine, and Akeal Hosein all representing Trinidad and Tobago in 2023. But despite this who's-who of Caribbean greats, it's New Zealand's Martin Guptill who leads the team in scoring. The late-season arrival of Keacy Carty, who slammed 83 in his only CPL appearance so far, could also be an important postseason factor. And while his Major League Cricket numbers weren't so great, USA's Ali Khan has become a key to the Knight Riders' bowling attack.
While either the Warriors or Knight Riders will jump straight to the finals after Wednesday's qualifier, the road to the finals is a little bit longer for the teams playing in tonight's eliminator. The St. Lucia Kings got off to a strong 3-1 start to the campaign, but have gone 1-3 in their last four matches to finish at an even 4-4. They were, though, the only team to knock off the Amazon Warriors. The Kings lean heavily into Colin Munro and Johnson Charles and have gotten strong innings in limited appearances by Bhanuka Rajapaksa -- Rajapaksa put up 86 in the victory over Guyana. The bowling is anchored by Alzarri Joseph, Roston Chase, and Sikandar Raza. And despite limited use, longtime Knight Rider Khary Pierre leads all CPL bowlers who've bowled at least 15 overs with a 6.35 economy.
The Tallawahs, who raised the trophy last year, have had an up and down season. They opened with two wins and looked they might make a strong run at a repeat title, but ran into a tough five-game losing streak where they dropped two each against table-toppers Guyana and Trinbago. They've taken their last two -- including a lopsided win against tonight's opponent, St. Lucia -- and hope to build on that momentum. Brandon King and Alex Hales have been solid openers for Jamaica and Imad Wasim has been a beast coming in at five. Bowling has been what's kept the Tallawahs in a lot of matches. Mohammad Amir, Wasim, and Chris Green are all among the top four in the league in wickets taken and Amir, Green, and Shamar Springer all have economies of 7.00 or lower.
There's not a lot of primetime cricket to watch in the US, so when the CPL heads into the playoffs, it becomes must-see TV. And it all starts tonight.
© CricAmerica.com/Steve Steinberg 2023