A team that refused to lose

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Siddhartha Vaidyanathan on a group that knew how to bounce back

Winnipeg Hawks are the GT20 champions for 2019.

The team that won two matches in the league stage; the team that sneaked into the Playoffs thanks to their Net Run-Rate; the team that won an eliminator that they had no business winning – and then pipped the most consistent team in a last-ball finish – clinched the climactic final in a Super Over. They were this close to being eliminated the league phase. Now they are champions.

At times in the tournament, the Hawks seemed woefully short of batting depth. Other times, their bowling didn’t inspire much confidence. Occasionally – like when they chased 210 in 15.2 overs – they were awesome. But they also threatened to lose matches when victory was in sight. In two of their defeats, they couldn’t muster a big total. Along the way Dwayne Bravo injured himself. Having lost two successive games, they were to play the red-hot Vancouver Knights. The game was eventually washed out. The one point they got there allowed the Hawks to make the Playoffs. Just about.

In the eliminator on Thursday, the Hawks required 77 off 30 balls with half their side gone. The light was starting to fade, but not alarmingly so. Not many had expected it to dim anytime soon. But Hawks’ coach Lalchand Rajput had kept a tab of the DLS target. He sent a message out to inform the batsmen they needed to be at 198 after 17 overs. Which translated to 36 runs in the next 12 balls.

The 16th  over brought 21. The 17th over brought 18. The Hawks were past the DLS par score. By now the light had rapidly faded but the batsmen knew they were on solid ground. Soon, the game was called off. Toronto Nationals were in a state of shock. The Hawks had been a step ahead.

By now their top-order was firing. UAE’s Shaiman Anwar started to find confidence. “Playing with so many great players makes you raise your game,” he would later say. Chris Lynn was shredding attacks in his customary style. JP Duminy turned into the rock of the line-up. USA’s Sunny Sohal was chipping in with some valuable innings. Out went Umar Akmal. In came Dwayne Smith  – this time as a late-order hitter and a handy swing bowler. Mohammad Irfan, who missed the early part of the tournament, was giving them vital breakthroughs in the Power Play.

The Hawks got themselves into trouble, yet they kept finding their way out. In the virtual semi-final on Saturday, their bowlers didn’t adjust to the strong breeze blowing across the ground They gave away 33 extras in the first innings – which was the joint-highest-scorer in the innings. Their opponents gave away just 6 extras – and yet, the Hawks ended up winning the game. “We made sure we won the vital moments,” is how Rajput would explain their bounce-back-ability.

Sohal had some trouble with short balls. Duminy was occasionally bogged down by spin. Their fielding intensity dropped now and then. Their batting seemed to stop with No.5. They could have been accused of picking a team with four No. 11s. And yet. Despite everything thrown at them, they stayed afloat. They fought back. And gave themselves a chance.

In the final, just when you thought they had an under-par score, their captain Rayad Emrit struck two early blows. Just when you thought Rassie van der Dussen and Daniel Sams were running away with the game, their Dutch medium-pacer Paul Van Meekeren struck two more blows. When Shoaib Malik and Saad Bin Zafar were struggling to get the big hits, they bowled – as their coach would reveal – lines and lengths that would keep the two batsmen in. “Any opponent will want a batsman like Russell in the dugout and not in the field,” Rajput would later say with a grin.

When Russell finally got in and started to blast the ball out of the park, the bowlers made sure they didn’t panic. “We knew he is going to hit sixes,” said Rajput, “but the important thing is to stay calm and bowl the next ball where you want to. Not to worry about the six that has already gone.”

In the last over of the match, Russell smacked Canadian bowler Kaleem Sana for two big sixes. That meant Vancouver Knights needed 3 off 3 balls. Also known as child’s play in Russell-land. Kaleem kept telling himself to stay calm. “I knew that change of pace will work well. So I was only thinking of how to pitch the ball in the spot that I wanted to.”

Two dot balls followed. And Russell could only manage two off the final ball – which was fired into his pads.

Kaleem Sana had helped the Hawks stay alive. Now Kaleem Sana – a left-arm seamer who had grown up in Pakistan and idolized Wasim Akram through his formative years – wanted to win the game for them. He volunteered to bowl the Super Over because he felt he was in a good rhythm. The coach backed him since he was “all warmed up”. Duminy told Sana: “you’re the man”. Emrit was considering bowling the Super Over himself but when Sana said he wanted to bowl it he “had to trust him”.

Again, Sana to Russell. The first ball went for six. But then, he conceded just two singles. The fourth ball brought Sana to Russell once more. The ball was hittable but Russell only lofted it towards deep long-on. Dwayne Smith moved to his right and took the catch. “Easy,” he would say later. “Very very easy.”

The Knights were kept to 9 in the Super Over. The Hawks knocked off the target in four balls.

Once the players had lifted the trophy – and were done with their celebrations and snacks – Kaleem Sana would be introduced to Wasim Akram, who is one of the brand ambassadors of the league.

A match won, a childhood fantasy fulfilled.

A kind of day that Sana “hadn’t even dreamt about”.

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