The underappreciated beauty of PPL

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POKHARA, Nov 6: The inaugural season of Pokhara Premier League (PPL) under the lap of the Himalayas caused many hearts to throb in Nepal and elsewhere. The jaw-dropping backdrop of Mount Machhapuchhre along with its peers Annapurna and other mountains in the range made a majestic view for the cricket being played on the ground. The arrival of ICC World Cup trophy in the midst of all this made the occasion more so worthy, especially, after winning the ODI status in Zimbabwe earlier this year.

Cricketers, officials, fans and media—everyone was busy clicking pictures with the Himalayan backdrop as if it was more important than the real sport being played on the ground.

Nonetheless, for most cricket fans, the event was among the best Nepal has ever seen in its soil.

The unpredictability of the sport was evident in Sompal Kami’s menacing spell against batting-heavy Chitwan Rhinos, Dipendra Singh Airee’s solo heroic effort against favorites Pokhara Paltan towards the end of the group stage, and Rhinos stunning comeback in the tournament after starting the tournament in the worst possible way.

Chitwan Rhinos and Pokhara Paltan, both were well-thought and worked out teams during the auctions led by two of the most successful Nepali domestic franchise captains Paras Khadka and Sharad Vesawkar. Whilst Rhinos boosted the likes of Aarif Sheikh, Karan KC, Anil Kumar Shah, Sunny Patel, and the skipper himself, Paltan was lined up with Aasif Sheikh, Binod Bhandari, Ravi Inder Singh, and Rohit Kumar Paudel, among other.

Both teams were run away favorites with most bases covered. And yet, both teams needed the last group stage matches to decide their progression to the next round of PPL.

Two teams that were somewhat ridiculed in the auctions — Butwal Blasters and Expert Dhangadhi Blues led by youngsters Sompal Kami and Dipendra Airee — not only performed well but also secured results that shocked the whole cricketing fraternity of Nepal.

Blasters destroyed Rhinos’ batting lineup in its first match of the league. Blasters was asked to bat first in a morning match where the pitch looked all set to help bowlers. And it did. Karan KC, opening bowler for Rhinos, produced couple of unplayable deliveries to take Chirag Suri and Rohan Mustafa, both international recruits of Blasters, out of equation.

Blasters could score only 10 runs in the first 5 overs for the loss of three wickets. The result looked like obvious, except that cricket is an unexpected game.

Blasters opener Sagar Pun and Shankar Rana put up a partnership that brought Blasters out of early trouble. A little bit of cameo by Siddhant Lohani toward the end overs helped it to put 135 runs on board to defend.

Chasing the low target, it seemed all Rhinos had to do was to complete the formalities. But then Blasters bowlers did some wonders. In one of the all-time best spells of bowling seen in the Nepali soil by a fast bowler, Kami picked up four wickets supported by two from Lalit Bhandari. Kami’s spell included two wickets — of Paras Khadka and Aarif Sheikh — on successive deliveries. The seam movement, out-swing and picture-perfect outside edges being caught at first, and second slips were scenes to behold.

Without taking anything out of the support Lalit provided to Kami, it was a little Nepali Waqar (Younis) and Wasim (Akram) show for Butwal Blasters and fans of cricket. Rhinos was bundled out for 65 runs and Blasters completed the unprecedented win by whopping 70 runs.

Likewise, the Expert Dhangadhi Blues was deemed to finish towards the bottom end of the table once the auctions were over. With two wins in four matches, the prediction almost came true but Blues skipper Dipendra Singh Airee’s had other ideas.

Out of many youngsters Blues bought, the team made a right move by inviting Peter Trego, the county veteran for Somerset, which added the much needed experience and confidence in the team. In its last group match against another favorite Pokhara Paltan, Blues lost eight wickets with 35 runs still to get with 3.3 overs to go and bowlers Mohammad Naveed and veteran Mehboob Alam yet to bowl their final overs.

Trego did a good job earlier in the innings scoring a quick fifty but rest of the batsman failed to get double figures including his English mate Dan Lawrence from Essex. But what came next was sheer brilliance and will to win as Dipendra Airee took his team across the line on his own.

Airee manufactured the strike along with Robeen Chhetri, the number 10 batsman, off the strike and facing all the deliveries himself in the last three overs. He smashed two sixes to Naveed in the penultimate over and two to Mehboob Alam in the last over. His performance was one of most courageous displays of batting in the Nepali soil. Everyone was on their feet and the squad ran toward Airee in jubilation.

Similarly, both Rhinos and Paltan came back with astounding wins in the tournament including Rhinos’ 126-run marauding of Blues and Paltan’s clinical wins despite couple of hiccups against Blues and Blasters to secure top spot.

Rhinos, who lost first two matches of the league including a 70-run defeat against Blasters, secured second position in last match of the group stage defeating Biratnagar Titans by four wickets.

The games of Blasters and Blues enthralled Nepali cricket lovers, while Rhinos and Paltan showed experience and calmness to retain top spots. Arguably, for the first time, two teams finished in bottom half of the tournament despite winning against the top two teams of the league in the group stage. Blasters won against table toppers Paltan and second positioned Rhinos, and yet missed the playoffs spots. This has to be one of the most competitive event in the history of franchise cricket in Nepal.

The results made the tournament so much exciting that two heavyweight favorites Rhinos and Paltan were not sure of their qualification until the last group stage day of PPL, while Blasters and Blues had mathematical hopes alive to go to the next round. Cricket won, once again. The underappreciated beauty of quality cricket went under the radar amidst stunning view of Machhapuchhre.

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