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By Sadiq Yusuf
The first-annual Shekhar Aravind Unity Cup was held over Labor Day weekend, featuring some of the best and most exciting cricket ever seen in the Chicagoland area.
Pic (Right): Shekhs' 7-year-old son bowled the "first ball' to officially start the final
Shekhar "Sheks" Aravind was the young and dynamic President of the Midwest Cricket Conference, whose life was cruelly cut short on August 2, 2011 in a tragic boating accident on Lake Michigan. Shekhar's cricketing family decided to honor his memory by making his vision of the Unity Cup a reality - and with only 3 weeks to prepare and organize, led by the tireless and energetic Atif Shaikh and his band of merry voluteers, put on a 12-team 20-20 cricket tournament that was by consensus the best ever seen in the midwestern states.
There was no entry-fee for the tournament, all players were provided uniforms, food and beverages on the field, and all non-Chicago players were provided free hotel accomodation by the organizers.
Invitations were sent out to all the cricket leagues in the Central East region to participate. Representative teams from Michigan Cricket Association, Minnesota Cricket Association, American Cricket Conference (Chicago) and Bolingbrook Premier League (BPL) participated - as did MWCC teams from Wisconsin (the Milwaukee Bucks), and downstate (dubbed the St. Louis Rams, featuring players from St. Louis, Peoria and Moline).
In addition, there was a Under-24 team (the Chicago Cubs), and 4 Chicagoland teams drafted NFL-style by their captains (Romeen Lavani leading the White Sox, Bhavesh Amin - the Bulls, Shiraz Najam - the Bears, and Faisal Baig - the Fire).
There was crucial sponsorship help provided by major sponsors, without which the tournament would not have been possible. The major sponsor was the MAQ Group featuring "Maq" Qureshi from Florida - a man who has financially aided several of these tournaments over the years in an attempt to improve cricket in the United States, and one who is a candidate for the post of President of the USA Cricket Association this year with the same goal. Allied with the MAQ Group is Dr. Gul and Cricket Council USA - another major sponsor for this tournament. Also among the impressive list of sponsors were - Clarion Hotel and Waterford Banquet, Paresh Patel of Patel Travels, Pepper and Salt in Schaumburg, Level Construction, United Equity Mortgage, Musick Loss Management, Haris Ali Real Estate One, Taaza2u.com, Best Western Plus, Saahil Boutique.
After a series of round robin games, the first quarterfinal saw the Bulls steamroll the Volunteers - a last minute entry to replace GLCC. In the second quarterfinal, the Bears eased past ACC. The other two quarterfinals produced thrillers however - the Under-24 Chicago Cubs winning a heartstopper against the White Sox. Former Karnataka Under-19 player Raghu Kanchikeri led the way for the Cubs, scoring a rapid 42 off 26 balls to help push the score to 150, and then taking 2 critical wickets with his offspin as the Cubs somehow held off Romeen Lavani's WhiteSox by just 2 runs.
Pic (Above): Finalists pose for a picture with Shekhs' family
The last quarterfinal produced not just a thriller, but also an upset. The mighty Chicago Fire, featuring former US keeper Ashhar Mehdi and Hyderabad Ranji Trophy probable Mohd. Samiullah among others, put up a huge 160 against Minnesota Cricket Association, only to see Minnesota start hard with skipper Saminda, and then after a small hiccup make a late run at it. With 50 needed off the last 6 overs, Minnesota's new-ball pair of Chameera and Koti starred with the bat, smashing 46 off the next 4 overs to actually fashion a relatively comfortable win in the end. Chameera Ekanayake won Man of the Match for his explosive unbeaten 36 at the death, featuring 3 huge sixes.
So, after 16 exciting games spread over 2 days, the teams that emerged into the semifinals on Labor Day were the Chicago Cubs (the U-24 team, captained by Najam Bakshi), Minnesota Cricket Association (captained by Saminda Siriwardena), Chicago Bulls (captained by Bhavesh Amin), and Chicago Bears (captained by Shiraz Najam).
In the semifinals, the Chicago Bulls played Minnesota, and scored 160 with fifties by young Mannan Patel and veteran Irfan Sohail. Koti Vanga, the paceman from Minnesota, clean-bowled 2 batsmen with similar results.
Chasing 160 once again (just as in the quarters), Minnesota unfortunately suffered a middle-order collapse and ended 40 runs short. It was the end of a terrific tournament for them, however - after driving down 8 hours and losing their first game this weekend on Duckworth-Lewis calculations, they had chased down 126 in only 17 overs to make the knockouts ahead of BPL on Run Rate, and then upset Chicago Fire in the quarter finals with a fantastic chase of 160 - in what was, in the end, the highest successful chase of the tournament.
In the other semi final, the Young Cubs made 148 with contributions from all their batsmen. In reply the Chicago Bears suffered a top-order collapse at the hands of young Talha Mohsin (who took 2 wickets) and offspinner Hassan Khan (who claimed 3). From 51-5 in 10 overs, however, Waqas Abbasi almost brought the Bears home with an aggressive 40*, before the Bears fell short by 20 runs in the end.
Pic (Right): Shekhs' wife Mini and son at the inaugural Shekhar Aravind Unity Cup
In the finals, cash prizes were announced by Dr Gul and Patel Travels which made a six worth $75, and a bowled worth $25. That excitement was just the preliminary however, as the final played under lights for the first-ever Shekhar Aravind Unity Cup first saw deep emotion and then immediately proceeded to feature wonderful action, athleticism, brilliant cricket, excitement and literally a thrill-a-minute - a game that was generally regarded by the large crowd that watched to be maybe the best cricket match any of them have ever attended "live".
The Bears captained by Shekhar Aravind's best friend Bhavesh Amin batted first - and young Urvish Desai promptly hit 3 consecutive sixes off Talha Mohsin to end the 3rd over. He then hit his 4th consecutive six off the first ball he faced next over! Urvish put up a rapid 30, the ever-reliable Mannan Patel scored 33, Nirav Patel and Nirav Amin contributed their mite with aggressive 20s, and the Bears scored an imposing 158. It could have been more - but a excellent spell of offspin at the death by skipper Najam (3-0-14-1) put on the brakes. The last over featured more excitement, as a six hit by Nirav Amin was followed by Moin Babar hitting the stumps 3 times in 4 balls.
Chasing a big target of 159 under lights, the Under-24 Cubs came out brilliantly - they were at 42-1 in 5 overs, featuring a couple of fours, two gorgeous sixes from USA Under-19 opener Fahad Babar, and some terrific running between the wickets. Fahad got an excellent 48 to put Cubs on track, and then Raghu Kanchikeri and captain Najam Bakshi had a wonderful partnership to put them in control. Both Raghu and the southpaw Najam continued running well, but also countered the spin of Bhavesh and Nirav Amin wonderfully - Raghu using his feet particularly well (and lofting a beautiful six over long on). Back came the Bulls with Mannan and Charlie Patel however - Charlie had a direct-hit runout off Najam Bakshi that seemed to turn the game, and Mannan drew an edge from Raghu that was taken very well by keeper Preetam Nanga.
Back-and-forth it went - 32 to win in 4 overs, with 4 wickets in hand... and then Charlie had an unbelievable pinpoint throw from the deep-midwicket boundary straight into keeper-Preetam's gloves, for another runout. Nirav Amin bowled an excellent over for only 4 runs - 20 to win in 2 overs with 3 wickets in hand. Bhavesh's next over yielded only 4 runs off 5 balls with 1 wicket, the game was sliding towards the Bulls.. but then off the last ball, Moin Babar swung a crucial six!
10 needed off the last over with 2 wickets in hand, and Mannan Patel to bowl. Hard running, stolen twos, a near-catch. Down to 5 runs needed off 3 balls - and Charlie Patel held another brilliant catch at the boundary to dismiss Hassan Khan. 5 to win off 2 balls with the last-man in (USA Under-19 Abhijit Joshi, injured and accompanied by a runner)...but Moin Babar was facing, and he swung another one-bounce four! Scores tied with 9-wickets down on the last ball - all the fielders brought in - and Moin just managed to clear the infield to seal the game!
It was the most thrilling game of cricket imaginable, a final won on the last ball of the game with 1 wicket in hand. And it was the most fitting tribute possible to the memory of Shekhar Aravind - with his best friend captaining (and some former teammates playing) on one side, and the Youth Team (which he held so dear to his heart, and promoted so strongly at every turn) on the other. And the two sides combined to put on the most amazing display of cricket, a thrilling, pulsating final, with the younger side fittingly winning out on the very last ball in the end. If it had been scripted it could not have played out any better - and somewhere, Shekhs Aravind was looking down and smiling.
Man of the Match for the Finals: "Babar Brothers" - Fahad Babar for his 48, and Moin Babar for his 3 wickets in the last over, as well as critical 19 runs to win the thriller at the end.
A "Sunny Tonny" bat from "Cricket Merchant", for the highest Under-24 rungetter of the tournament: Mannan Patel
MVP of the Tournament: Mannan Patel (Bulls)
Highest Run getter of the Tournament: Mannan Patel (Bulls)
Individual Man of the Match awards for the tournament were won by: Mannan Patel - Bulls (SF, 59 and 2 wkt), Hassan Khan - Cubs (SF, 3 wkts), Raghu Kanchikeri - Cubs (QF, 42 off 26 and 2 wkt), Faisal Nafasat - Bears (QF, bowling figs 4-0-13-3), Chameera Ekanayake - Minnesota(QF, 36* with 3 sixes), Bhavesh Amin - Bulls (QF, bowling figs 3-0-5-4).
Individual Man of the Match awards for Round-Robin Group matches were won by: Airaj Syed (ACC), Asif Rangoonwala (Volunteers), Darshan Patel (WhiteSox), Zohaid (BPL), Yasheb Rajpar (WhiteSox), Charlie Patel (Bulls), Mannan Patel (Bulls), Shantanu Chavan (Minnesota) and Najam Bakshi (Cubs).
Bhavesh Amin received the runners-up trophy, and captain Najam Bakshi received the grand Shekhar Aravind Unity Cup winners trophy from Dr. Gul and Maq Qureshi. Cricket Council USA and Dr. Gul invited the winning team to participate in the US Open this December in Florida, and offered to pay the $1500 registration fee.
The organizers have promised that, with the grand success of this first-ever Shekhar Aravind Unity Cup, they will make it an even bigger event featuring greater prizes next year and in the years to come.