After about 130 matches -- and a week's worth of eliminators -- it's down to the final eight teams who'll bang away in their quest for the Minor League Cricket championship trophy. The do-or-die nature of the eliminators brought out the best in a lot of players and teams and made for some of the most exciting cricket of the season.
In the Atlantic Conference, the Southern Division's Atlanta Fire guaranteed themselves another shot at the title as they took down the Ft. Lauderdale Lions. The Fire, who lost to the Seattle Thunderbolts in last year's final, got off to a solid start with knocks of 24 and 45 from Steven Taylor and the very, very recently acquired Lendl Simmons. It was a breakthrough 20-run 19th over with sixes from MiLC veterans Obus Pienaar and Corne Dry, though, that allowed them to post a 157 total. Ft. Lauderdale hobbled into their chase, posting just 20 runs through the power play. It wasn't until the 11th over before they could finally get rolling, but by that time, they simply couldn't score enough runs with the deliveries they had left. For the Lions, it was a disappointing end to their most successful minor league campaign in their history. For the Fire, the victory means a trip to Texas for the Super Eights and another chance at the hardware.
Like the Lions, the New England Eagles were enjoying their best season yet but ran into a roadblock in the playoffs. An eliminator against the New Jersey Somerset Cavaliers got off to an ominous start -- Christopher Barnwell's opening delivery was a wide that rolled to the boundary for a quick five for NJ. Eagles spinner Gourav Grover slowed things down and held the Cavs to just 17 runs in his overs, but NJ was still able to put up 139 runs -- a massive score by Eastern Division standards in 2023. The Eagles couldn't respond. There were only two overs were they scored more than six runs…and that's not going to win you many T20 matches. They were bowled out -- and bounced from the playoffs -- in the 18th over with just 73 runs.
The victory set up a Battle of New Jersey for the final Super Eight spot from the Eastern Division. In a rain-shortened 14-overs match against the New Jersey Stallions, Cavaliers opener Kennar Lewis' 61 from 40 was the key to a 119 total. Proving how tough it is to score runs in the Eastern Division this year, it would take a 14-run final over from the Stallions to tie the match and send things to a Super Over. Batting first in the extra over, the Stallions were stymied by Najaf Shah and could manage only five runs. Kennar Lewis, who apparently wasn't content with just his opening 61 runs, brought the Cavaliers over the line and into the Super Eights with a massive six on the third ball of the extra frame.
In the Pacific Conference, it was a strange year for the Lone Star Athletics. They started the season off with a three-game winning streak and looked like they may be the team to beat in the Central Division. By the end of the regular season, though, they almost found themselves on the outside looking in when it came to a playoff spot. Needing to put together back-to-back wins if they were going to the Super Eights, they first set their sights on the Dallas Xforia Giants, who they split a pair of regular season matches with.
It would take a giant to beat the Giants and Lone Star opener Nitish Kumar would be that giant, crushing 103 not out -- the highest MiLC knock of the season -- off 55 balls at a beast-mode rate of 187.27. The Giants' chase was spearheaded by their lead scorer, Aakarshit Gomel, but when he was caught out in the 18th over at 59, the team's momentum and playoff hopes were just about gone.
The Athletics again found a hero in their next eliminator against the Michigan Cricket Stars, who they lost to during the regular season. This time it was Milind Kumar. Chasing 142, Milind's 72 -- along with knocks of 23 and 21 from Ruvindu Gunasekera and Shubham Ranjane -- carried the Athletics over the line and into the Super Eights.
In the Western Division, perennial playoff team, the Silicon Valley Strikers would need a crack at all 120 Golden State Grizzlies deliveries before notching a thrilling last-ball victory. Despite an opening knock of 45 from Golden State's Anthony Bramble, the Grizzlies were held to just 93 before being bowled out in the final over. It was lowest --- and only sub-100 -- score of the season for the Grizzlies and it would force their bowlers to perform at an otherworldly level if the Grizzlies were going to head to Texas.
And their bowlers almost pulled it off. Behind some incredibly stingy bowling, the Strikers were held to just 23 through the power play. If it wasn't for a costly 15-run 14th over, this might have been the most clutch team bowling performance of the season. After a scoreless 19th over from Vatsal Vaghela -- he also bowled a brilliant two-run 17th over -- the Strikers still needed seven from the final over. Unlikely hero Anshul Singh scored six of those seven in the 20th over -- including a single on the last ball -- to send the Grizzles home and the Strikers on to Texas in search of their second Minor League Cricket Championship.
Next up: Round-robins in both the Atlantic Conference (The Philadelphians, New Jersey Somerset Cavaliers, Atlanta Lightning, and Atlanta Fire) and Pacific Conference (Dallas Mustangs, Lone Star Athletics, East Bay Blazers, and Silicon Valley Strikers) to see who moves a step closer to the championship game at Grand Prairie Stadium on October 1.
© CricAmerica.com/Steve Steinberg 2023