Switzerland take triangular series win
Three old cricketing friends renewed their rivalry on the first weekend of July in Warsaw, Poland, with the hosts entertaining Switzerland and Czech Republic for a triangular series of matches conducted as near as possible in line with official ODI rules.
There was some concession to traditionalism, though, with all matches played in white kit with red balls - far more aesthetically-pleasing, as well as practical given that all three teams' coloured kits are red anyway!
The matches were among the first to be held at Warsaw's new ground in the western suburb of Stare Babice. The pitch was carpet over concrete and offered bowlers a bit of grip and movement, as well as a touch of uneven bounce. The outfield was cut short and fast, but it extended to 80 metres at some points on the boundary, meaning only the best shots were fully rewarded. During 263 overs of gripping action, only 10 sixes were registered along with 101 fours.
The tournament was played out in incredible heat also, with drinks taken every 12 overs (and at almost every other chance too!) to account for temperatures in the mid-30s. The conditions served to test all the teams out, with the longer-format matches leading to some inevitable slips in concentration.
The ICC's emphasis in recent years has moved away from the longer format, with the lower levels of European competition conducted in T20 format only. In any case, the ICC drawbridge has been pulled up so that the Czechs are not invited for these continental tournaments, while Switzerland remain on the outside due to having two official associations in operation (a situation that will hopefully soon be rectified), and Poland have not yet been accepted as an ICC member.
The three teams met in the Czech capital, Prague, in 2014 for a T20 tournament that Poland won. Poland also won the 2015 edition of the Prague T20 tournament just three weeks prior to this ODI triangular series, but the longer format is a different game and the hosts lost both matches here, possibly exposing an over-reliance on their star players and a lack of overall squad depth.
Poland's eventual two losses meant that the opening fixture, Friday's match between Switzerland and Czech Republic, became the decisive one. It was a match that will live long in the memory of all concerned, with the Czechs throwing away a wonderful opportunity. Nasir Mahmood (54*) and last man Vaibhav Singh (30*) came together at 117-9 and put on a wonderful 100-run partnership to snatch the unlikely victory for Switzerland.
In truth, the Czechs left runs on the board, and they spurned a few opportunities to catch Mahmood before he settled too. A 69-run fourth-wicket partnership between Aditya Jaiswal (36) and Bilal Alavi (44) was the highlight of the Czech innings, while Mahmood's speed and movement marked him as the pick of the bowlers, taking 2-23 from his nine overs. Singh was economical too, and Rod Sherrell and Sajid Safiat picked up three wickets apiece.
The Swiss team began aggressively, but Czech opening bowler Rajh Gnanatheeswaran bowled Idrees Ul Haque and Shahnawaz Muhammad and then the Czech spinners began to take hold, Suditha Udugalage and Alavi removing Tom Mampilly and Swiss captain Afzaal Sikander respectively in consecutive overs.
Safiat hit a couple of sixes before holing out off Udugalage, who then had Ali Abbas stumped and Khan Tariq LBW first ball to reduce the Swiss to 117-9. But the Czechs ran out of overs for Alavi and Udugalage - himself not even a regular bowler - and their lack of depth was exposed.
Illness and injury had robbed the Czech team of three bowlers in the days before the tour, and a couple of experimental bowlers gave Mahmood the chance to get his eye in and turned the momentum Switzerland's way. The fast start meant that run rate was never an issue, and the Swiss team raced on to celebrate as Singh turned the crucial single away past mid-on in the 46th over, sealing a famous win.
On a short tour, such a demoralising defeat can destroy a team, but the Czechs came back well on Saturday against Poland. Hilal Ahmad saw a loose cut snared by fly-slip Noushad Babu for a third-ball duck, but his opening partner Mik Stary played a valuable anchor role, batting for two hours without hitting a boundary on his way to 52.
The Czech team ran hard, eager to pressure the Polish fielders, but Poland's captain Tarun Daluja kept them in check with his spin bowling, often bringing himself on and quickly taking a wicket to arrest any momentum. Stary put on 70 for the third wicket with Abhi Samanth (30) before the latter was out “stumped by miles”, quickly followed by captain Sudhir Gladson, who came off ruing the fact that he never sweeps having been suckered into the shot by Daluja's flight and guile.
After Stary holed out, Alavi (another 44) and Jaiswal (34) were brought together and again put on a good stand, making 67 before both falling in the 42nd over to Daluja. The score was 200-7 and the Czechs still needed a few more, but wicketkeeper Chris Pearce provided energetic running before finally sending one delivery from Daluja miles into the next field.
He and Udugalage both ended up as victims of Daluja, who ended with 7-42, but Rohit Deshmoyni's late flurry brought the Czech total to a challenging 253-9.
The Czech team was mindful of the dangerous Polish openers, though. Mayank Darji and Babu had put on a rapid 120 in the T20 defeat three weeks ago, so the Czechs were overjoyed when the first ball of the innings saw Darji push firmly to Deshmoyni at gully and Babu set off for a quick single. Darji declined and Deshmoyni's sharp throw beat Babu back to the non-striker's end, the dangerman gone for a disastrous diamond duck.
Darji was twice dropped in the first over too, with Stary unable to handle an edge behind before a chip fell short of an idle mid-on. The Czechs had their tails up though, and left-arm spinner Alavi made the experiment to give him the new ball count by removing Anit Shetty LBW in the second over.
Stary grabbed the next edge off Gnanatheeswaran to leave Poland reeling on 12-3, but Daluja joined Darji for a 75-run fourth-wicket partnership before Alavi spun one through the gate to remove the Polish skipper.
Darji was given a few more chances and made them count whenever a loose ball was offered, smashing two sixes on his way to 66 before finally being bowled by Ahmad. Udugalage's off-spin was able to keep the Polish team from gathering too much momentum, taking wickets at crucial intervals as the hosts were reduced to 162-9, Alavi taking a fantastic diving catch at short mid-wicket for the ninth wicket.
The Czechs were forced to face their demons, with the Polish last-wicket pair needing nearly 100 more, but the situation was different with the required run rate climbing, and Ahmad bowled a swinging Kashif Jawed to seal the win by 82 runs. Ahmad's two wickets supported Alavi and Udugalage, who ended with three apiece. Alavi's overall contribution (88 runs, five wickets and two catches) saw him take the overall tournament MVP award, with Switzerland's Mahmood figuring as the other strong contender.
Switzerland batted first on Sunday, with Idrees and Prafull Shikare putting on 55 for the first wicket. Idrees (38) smashed a six over cover before being bowled by slow left-armer Vicky Kishnani. Mampilly came in at number 3 and played an excellent knock, latching on to anything loose on his way to 73 before holing out to Daluja to be the last man out.
The Swiss team struggled to get much going around Mampilly, although three profitable overs off Daluja helped to boost the overall total to 203 all out from 42 overs, despite only the top four reaching double-figures. Mahmood was promoted to number seven after his Friday heroics, but fell second ball to Babu's pace bowling. Daluja added four more wickets to finish with 11 as the tournament's best bowler, and Kishnani ended with 3-25 from 8 overs.
Furious calculations were scribbled out while the locals castigated their lunch supplier for arriving late. After triple-checking, it was ascertained that a Polish victory inside 22.1 overs would give them the trophy ahead of the Czechs on net run rate. The first 10 overs of the Polish innings were played out before the lunch break was taken, with Poland reaching 65-2, Mahmood removing both openers Babu and Darji (18), who took home the tournament's best batsman award.
The food was fantasic, and the Polish team came out after lunch aware that they needed more than 10 an over to reach the summit. The pressure told with wickets lost in the 11th, 12th and 13th overs. Singh's skiddy accuracy was rewarded with three wickets overall, and Safiat at the other end didn't offer much for the batsmen to cash in on, snaring Daluja after an entertaining cameo from the skipper to leave the hosts reeling on 108-6.
With the unlikely possibility of gaining the overall tournament victory now extinguised, Poland regrouped behind Touqeer Ahmed and Janak Humagain to try and chase the win inside 50 overs. The pair put on 45 before Ahmed was removed by the Swiss captain Sikander, and although Humagain hung on admirably despite a calf injury, the tail didn't wag. Last man Nick Sinha was stumped off a legside wide to seal Switzerland's triumph.
The three competitive matches gave talented players a genuine platform to perform on, as well as focusing each squad on what needs to improve within their games. All three countries have shown that they have something to be reckoned with, and they will be eager to challenge more established countries in the region over the coming years, potentially offering good, cost-effective practice for Germany, Austria and others.