The Czech Republic followed up the success of 2014's inaugural Central Europe Cup tournament in Prague by hosting Malta, Poland and a Sweden XI in three days of exciting T20 action from 12-14 June.
The tournament saw Poland repeat as champions, with the weather following a similar course to last year's competition. Beautiful sunshine was interrupted only by a Saturday afternoon thunderstorm that left the hosts unable to chase victory after bowling Malta out for 122 in an impressive display.
Poland's triumph was secured with impressive run-chases in wins over Sweden XI on Friday afternoon and then Czech Republic on Saturday morning. It underlines the quality within their league, which operates outside the ICC structure and without funding. Captain Tarun Daluja leads a talented group, with all-rounder Nowshad Babu particularly impressive in scoring half-centuries in both victories.
The hosts ended without a win, following the defeat to Poland and the abandonment against Malta with a dramatic last-ball tie against the Sweden XI. Sweden have been working hard on establishing government support for their association, by far the largest of the four countries involved with more than 40 clubs listed on their website. The progress made this year meant that they had higher priorities and a full national team couldn't be gathered, but about half of the regulars were involved and they helped to test the smaller countries and make a competitive tournament in which each of their matches went to the final over.
The tournament itself began with Sweden XI recovering from 17-3 after electing to bat against Malta. The scorching weather led to a short drinks break with the score at 63-3 off 10 overs, but Sweed Ullah and Usman Arif came out swinging, hitting nine fours and nine sixes in a terrific counter-attack, putting on 115 in total for the fourth wicket.
Arif was finally out for a team-high 75 off 41 balls, and Ajmal Raza's late flurry helped to lift the Swedish team to an imposing 198-6.
Malta's opener Chris Chellew began brightly, and his dismissal brought captain Nowell Khosla to the wicket. Khosla set about the task with vigour, setting a Maltese national record with a fantastic innings of 92 from 52 balls.
Malta maintained the required run rate, but left with 18 to get from the final two overs, Ullah bowled a beauty to take one wicket and concede just two runs from the 19th over. Khosla was left stranded, unable to get enough strike in the last over as Sweden XI held on.
Swedish captain Arif again elected to bat for the day's second match, and produced another great display to set Poland a target of 189. Arif hit six sixes on the way to 71 from 40 balls, but Poland's opener Babu imposed himself on the Swedish attack, scoring 87 of Poland's first 125 runs.
Adnan Ali kept the scoreboard ticking while wickets fell at the other end, but the balance swung when Arif's bowling removed Ali and the next man in successive balls. Poland were still 17 short, but Daluja's confidence didn't waver and he struck 21 from 9 balls, hitting the second-last ball of the innings for four to seal the win.
Saturday morning saw the hosts begin their involvement in the tournament, with new captain Sudhir Gladson winning the toss and electing to bat, but then falling to a golden duck as Poland snared both openers early.
The Czech middle order responded well, led by wicketkeeper Chris Pearce who made a team-high 67 off 43 balls. But Poland's Balaji Rajendran was a one-man wrecking crew, taking three wickets off his own bowling while adding one other catch and three run outs for a hand in seven wickets in total.
The Czech team's inexperience with the white ball showed, and Polish openers Babu and Mayank Darji punished anything off-line in a brutal display at Prague's compact ground. The opening stand was worth 129 before Babu fell for 58 off 29 balls, with Poland reaching their target of 164 comfortably in the 16th over to avenge last year's defeat to their neighbours in style.
The hosts regrouped, electing to field first against Malta after the first rain delay. Talented all-rounder Sudesh Wickremasinghe took two early wickets in two balls and then removed Malta's dangerous Khosla. Haroon Mughal joined Bikram Arora to lead something of a fightback, but from 85-4 the hosts applied good pressure, with all their bowlers taking wickets as Malta slumped to 122 all out.
The Czech reply got off to a fast start but the ground quickly become unplayable under the onslaught of a second wave of stormy weather, with the abandonment confirming that Poland would lift the tournament trophy.
The sunshine returned on a pleasant Sunday morning, and Malta came out determined to take a victory back home with them. Babu fell first ball to George Agius, and Darji departed for a run out as Malta flew out of the traps. Chellew picked up two early wickets, removing captain Daluja to leave Poland on 6-5.
Kulbir Singh anchored the innings sensibly from number 7 before Mansha Mohammed joined him and unleashed a ferocious innings, smashing seven sixes on his way 61 from 32 balls to ensure a respectable total of 141 was reached before Poland were bowled out in the 19th over.
Opener Chellew batted superbly as Malta raced to victory, reaching their target in the 16th over with only one wicket lost. Chellew added an unbeaten 93 to his earlier bowling exploits, smashing a total of 16 boundaries from 51 balls to outdo Khosla's record-breaking knock from two days prior and set a new benchmark in Maltese cricket.
Meanwhile, taking place at the same time on the second pitch at the Prague ground, the Czech Republic and the Sweden XI were playing out a marvellous dramatic match. The Czechs chose to field and Pearce was lively behind the stumps in the early stages, taking three catches off the opening bowlers to reduce the Swedish team to 27-3.
Shahid Mustafa came in and compiled a solid knock, finishing unbeaten on 72 from 44 balls to lift Sweden to 192. Arif added a quickfire 32 in securing the tournament's best batsman award, before holing out off Wickremasinghe, who ended as the tournament's best bowler.
The Czech opening batsmen started brightly before Wickremasinghe took on the charge, racking up 73 off 36 balls and a brisk 104-run partnership with Bilal Alavi for the fourth wicket.
Left with six to win from the last over, the Czechs could only scramble singles or byes, and Alavi was left struggling with a bad hamstring. Zabi Zahid bowled a tight final over for the Swedish team, and with the scores tied for the final ball, Alavi missed with a swipe and couldn't hobble through in time to take a bye, with Sweden securing the run out.
Despite missing out on a victory, the hosts certainly impressed their visitors with a higher standard than expected from such a small cricket community. Aided by grant money from the ICC and many many hours of work on the field by owner, groundsman and Czech Cricket chairman Hugo Banks, two decent pitches have developed over the last four years on the outskirts of North Prague that enable Czech Cricket to stage decent competitive games, both domestically to feed into the national team, as well as internationally.
The Czech Cricket website www.czechcricket.cz features a full report and links to scorecards. There is also a professionally made video on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PG_bb0kauBU showing some highlights from the last day of action.