America’s best on display in MLC’s Houston Challenge

USA's Vatsal Vaghela bowls to MLC's Bhaskar Yadram at the Houston Challenge

Three MLC teams faced off against a USA Invitational XI for a total of six one day games (three per team) and one T20 in what was dubbed the Houston Challenge. The Challenge, from April 5 through April 10, immediately followed the popular Houston Open, and was MLC’s first such senior tournament featuring a USA Men’s Invitational XI.

“The Houston Challenge and the USA Invitational team participation was critical, because from a cricketing perspective, we have the CWCL2 starting in May, and we’re going to go up against UAE, Scotland, Oman and Nepal that are already playing international cricket right now and are in good form,” USA League Director and chair of the Cricket Committee, Sushil Nadkarni told Emerging Cricket at week’s end.

“Our players are coming off the winter, and haven’t had much cricket. This was a fantastic opportunity to give our players good quality cricket, and to get together and spend some good time with the coach so they could start getting in the mindset of being a team.”

A cancellation of Tuesday’s MLC West vs MLC Central matchup due to pitch conditions was the lone abandoned game in the series, and meant that the Central and West would see two fifty over games, compared to three each from the East and the USA Invitational XI. Pitch conditions improved by the end of the week in time for a exciting fifty overs finale on Saturday, and for Sunday’s lone T20 between a combined MLC team and the USA Invitational XI. 

The biggest hurdle during the series was the famous blustery wind at Prairie View, which seemed to intensify to a steady gale as the week went on. By Sunday’s lone T20, the wind was so bad that the umpires chose to play without bails.

The Challenge began with MLC East facing off against USA Invitational XI in fifty overs action on Tuesday. After an early strike in the fourth over by East pacer Justin Dill, which sent opener Dominique Rikhi away with three runs to his name from ten balls, Xavier Marshall and Monank Patel weathered a fiery spell of quick, short bowling from Corne Dry, along with Dill’s accurate, seaming deliveries at a good length, to build a 93 run partnership before it was broken by Dane Piedt in the 22nd over. 

USA Managed four more partnerships of at least 28 runs, as the East (apart from Dill’s 3 wickets in 8 overs for 41 runs) failed to take wickets with regularity. Xavier Marshall (68 from 98) and Aaron Jones (70 from 84) were the standout batters for USA, along with captain Monank Patel’s fluid 45 from 50. Still, the total of 253 looked very attainable, with the wicket flattening out nicely for batting as the innings progressed, and a talented young MLC East batting lineup ready to be tested. 

“I’m happy, I think we started nicely, maybe a little bit short, but the USA guys weathered it nicely, they gave themselves a good platform. Fifty overs is a long time,” MLC East coach Liam Plunket told Emerging Cricket.

Xavier Marshall’s spectacular over-the-shoulder catch in the 9th over of the chase proved to be an omen of things to come, at least as far as Rusty Theron was concerned. The early breakthrough came as Theron (9 overs, 41 runs, 4 wickets) laid out a blueprint that would hold true for much of the week. 

“It was really just (to) hit the deck and really try and get a little bit of variation off the surface, see if there’s a little variation of pace. Bowl cross seam and see if one skids through a bit, or one stops,” Theron told Emerging Cricket after the game. “Credit to everybody on the field, I’d say to Xavier Marshall particularly, he really turned my day around, putting in a great effort in the field and taking a superb catch there as well.”  

The USA Invitational XI would continue to disrupt partnerships throughout the chase. While nearly every MLC East batter would get off to a start, only Cody Chetty (39 from 60) and Milind Kumar (31 from 31) would come close to cashing in, building a partnership of 56 runs before Theron took out Kumar in the 20th over. Saideep Ganesh (27 from 33) would resume Kumar’s speedy run rate, partnering with Chetty for an additional 37 runs from the fifth wicket. 

With the innings still in the balance at 151 for 5 wickets, the East would fall quickly from there, losing four more wickets across their next 33 runs. Dane Piedt and Justin Dill would give the East one final ray of hope, combining for 33 runs themselves, before Dill would be bowled by Jessie Singh on the first ball of the 48th over to put the East all out and 37 runs shy of the target. 

Wednesday saw the East back at it, this time against a star-studded MLC West. After bowling first in Tuesday’s opener, the East won the toss on Wednesday and chose to bat first. 

USA U-19 opener Sai Mukkamalla (31 from 43) got off to another strong start before being caught and bowled by Bhaskar Yadram. Shadley Van Schalkwyk bowled a challenging and stubborn length from the start, and took the wickets of Smit Patel and Cody Chetty before either saw their 12th ball. Harmeet Singh struck against Milind Kumar, who had looked quite comfortable against spin, and the top four were cleaned up for 61 runs by the third ball of the 15th over. 

Saideep Ganesh (26 from 40) showed promise again, but could not convert, and was bowled by Umer Khan in the 25th over to put the East at 102 for 5. Mohammed Muhsin (36 from 53) took the lead in a key partnership with USA U-19 Sanjay Krishnamurthi (45 from 63) against the West’s left arm spin attack that took the East to 170 for 6 in the 40th over, before a failed cut shot was caught at backward point to leave the young batter just 5 runs shy of a half century.

All the hard work from the middle order went to waste, as the East were all out within the span of only 25 runs from the sixth wicket to the 10th, leaving the formidable West batting order with a target of only 196 to win.

Even with a seemingly small target to chase, the West top order found batting conditions challenging enough to make it interesting. David White and Unmukt Chand were early victims of Justin Dill, whose bowling was even more suited for Wednesday’s conditions. Sami Aslam and Shehan Jayasuriya gave heed, and took the West from five runs from the first two wickets, to 61 runs before Aslam fell in the 20th over, skying Milind Kumar to Cody Chetty to bring the West back down to earth. 

Jayasuriya (61 from 96) grinded long, and took the West to 168 for 6, before Man of the Match Shadley Van Schalkwyk (44* from 59) dragged the West over the line with seven balls to spare, a sight not unfamiliar to Seattle Thunderbolts fans in the MiLC.

“I think the partnership before us gave us a little bit of momentum,” Van Schalkwyk said. “When I walked in, Shehan did quite a good job with communication of how the wicket’s playing, is it spinning, is it not. He also played quite well, scored a couple boundaries right away, so it took a little pressure off of me. I guess I had taken my time a little bit, to get myself in, adapt a bit, calculate the overs. I knew they were one bowler short, so I knew we could take it a little deeper, and if we did, we’d get through alright.” 

The next two days saw the most challenging conditions of the week, as the pitch misbehaved a bit more, and the wind became an overwhelming factor. 

Thursday’s MLC Central vs USA Invitiational XI matchup saw the Central score 152, all out, in 37.1 overs, with Andries Gous (35 from 53) and Corey Anderson (44 from 50) the bright spots for the Central’s batting. Again, the USA fast-bowling attack of Rusty Theron (6 overs, 31 runs, 2 wickets), Saurabh Netravalkar (7 overs, 18 runs, 2 wickets, 2 maidens) and Jessy Singh (8.1 overs, 24 runs, 3 wickets and a maiden) led the way for USA. 

This time, USA’s batting was not up to the task, falling eleven runs short of the target, in spite of a solid 43 runs from captain Monank Patel. Fast bowling proved once again to be the secret elixir in the chase, with Calvin Savage (10 overs, 66 runs, 3 wickets), Man of the Match Ehsan Adil (9.3 overs, 20 runs, 3 wickets, 2 maidens), Willem Ludick (8 overs, 25 runs, 1 wicket, 1 maiden), and Corey Anderson (4 overs, 11 runs, 2 wickets) leaving room for only five overs of spin before USA were all out in the 39th over.

Friday’s matchup between USA Invitational XI and MLC West was an even lower scoring affair, with no real batting heroes to speak of. USA couldn’t do much in the first innings, with Monank Patel top scoring again (24 from 29), and the team scored only 120 runs before losing their final wicket in the 42nd over. However, it took eight wickets for MLC West to chase down the target, thanks to a Man of the Match performance from Saurabh Netravalkar, who took five wickets in ten overs (three of them maidens), conceding only 18 runs along the way.

Once Saruabh’s overs were exhausted, Harmeet Singh capably steered the West to victory with a blistering 27 runs from 26 balls, scoring the winning runs with a six on the final ball of the 38th over. 

Runs returned to the Houston Challenge on Saturday for the final fifty overs contest, as Canadian Nitish Kumar finished not out with 109 from 126 balls. The week’s first century was even more impressive considering the Central’s four other top five batters totaled only 19 runs between them. Kumar partnered with Willem Ludick (43 from 74) for 93 runs to steady the ship after Ludick entered with Central at 47 for 4 wickets. USA U19’s Ali Sheikh (21 from 23)  joined Kumar for the final 44 runs, as the Central batted the entire fifty overs to total 205/6. 

Corne Dry (10 overs, 51 runs, 3 wickets) and Justin Dill (10 overs, 36 runs, 2 wickets and 1 maiden) stood out again, but Kumar remained unsolved and spoiled a promising day for East bowlers overall. 

The chase was all Smit Patel (73 from 81) and Man of the Match and USA U-19 batter Saiteja Mukkamalla, who entered at one down to expertly face 120 balls and score 83, not out.

Saturday’s Man of the Match, Sai Mukkamalla, was the fifty overs tournament leader in runs (141), marking the second consecutive NGB-supported Men’s tournament where a USA U19 batter topped the runs table, after Rahul Jariwala did so in November’s Men’s National Championships. Following Sai was USA Captain Monank Patel (112 runs), Canadian Nitish Kumar (111 runs), MLC East’s Smit Patel (90 runs), and USA Vice Captain Aaron Jones (73 runs).

Topping the wicket leaders was a three way tie for first, with USA’s Saurabh Netravalkar and Rusty Theron and MLC East’s Justin Dill, each with seven wickets, followed by East’s Corne Dry with five. 

“The conditions in Houston really suited my bowling,” said Dill.

“I felt that if I can get the ball in the right areas, I could cause a lot of trouble and I did that well this past week. A lot of hard work was put in during the off season, and I felt like I reaped those rewards.”

“As a player, you want to play against the best and test your skill as often as possible, and the MiLC and especially the Houston Challenge provides a great opportunity to do that. You want to know what you are doing right and also where you can improve in your game and to do it against some of the best the country has to offer is very valuable.” 

Sunday’s lone T20 featured an MLC Composite XI vs the USA Invitational XI, and was played on the windiest day, but also perhaps on the best pitch conditions during the entire week.

MLC won the toss and elected to bowl. USA would blast through the powerplay, scoring 70 without loss, as Aaron Jones (27 from 18) supported the left handed Steven Taylor (51 from 32), who scored 50 from just 26 in the first six overs. Monank Patel (29 from 15), Jaskaran Malhotra (57 from 28), and Gajanand Singh (22 from 14) would keep up the pace, and USA would end their innings at 213 for 5, leaving MLC with a tall task ahead.

For the West, speedster Carmi Le Roux bowled an economical two overs, conceding only 10 runs, and Harmeet Singh took two wicket in four overs for 27 runs. Ali Sheikh was the only other West bowler with an economy under 10 runs per over, as the youngster took a wicket in his three overs for 29 runs. 

Smit Patel carried Saturday’s form into Sunday’s chase, scoring a spectacular 100 not out in 49 deliveries, but only wicket keeper Lahiru Milantha (35 from 17) could give him a substantial partnership, as nearly every one else failed to get the hot man on strike enough to chase down the hefty target. 

Saurabh Netravalkar (4 overs, 33 runs, 2 wickets) and USA U19 leg-spin bowler Yasir Mohammad (3 overs, 29 runs, 1 wicket) helped keep the innings steady until Aaron Jones wiped out any prayer of a late MLC surge, claiming four huge wickets in his three overs for only 13 runs. The veteran’s clutch spell helped USA keep Smit Patel off strike in the death, thereby securing a 19 run win for the USA Invitational XI. 

“I’m proud of the guys. This was the first time the team got together for the year and we played some good cricket as a unit against some strong teams throughout this camp,” Jones explained. 

Jones found a way with bat or ball to make a big difference in the two wins for the USA Invitational XI, and views the Houston Challenge as an opportunity to get in good knock heading into a busy summer full of Cricket World Cup League Two action.

“The Houston Challenge was full of high quality players from various backgrounds,” Jones continued. “There’s no doubt about the amount of knowledge and experience they bring both on and off the field. I personally think this is the best way to prepare for CWCL2.”

For Justin Dill, not currently eligible for USA Cricket consideration, the Challenge was a chance to prepare his skills for whatever opportunities arise out of the MLC setup.

“We have an abundance of different cultures and players that have played in different countries,” Dill emphasized. “To be able to tap into those players’ experiences and ways of going about their cricket can only help my game. With the announcement that America will be co-hosting the 2024 Cricket World Cup, tournaments such as the Houston Challenge, MiLC and Major League provide massive opportunities for quality game time and hopefully there will be many more opportunities such as these.” 

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