As I may have mentioned before, cricket has a long history in Newfoundland. The Encyclopaedia of Newfoundland states that St John's Cricket Club was in existence in 1824. What it does not have, however, is a long history of success. The provincial cricket records are far from complete, but they indicate that, in all that time, a Newfoundland team has never beaten another Canadian province.
As a Leicestershire supporter, I'm used to long periods of regional mediocrity, but 187 years without a win is pretty exceptional. So could Cricket NL reverse history in the 2011 Atlantic Twenty20 Cup, held in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and claim an inaugural victory?
Last year's debut in the competition had been great fun, and though we'd gone home with three defeats out of three, a hat-trick and a Man-of-the-Match award were encouraging signs. And encouragingly for Canadian cricket, the tournament had expanded again. The addition of a strong Quebec team meant that this year's cup would feature an impressive five provinces, completed by the hosts Nova Scotia, last year's runners-up New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island.
Still lacking a pitch suitable for hard-ball cricket, but with a newly appointed player-coach, Kathir Chenthilnathan, the Newfoundland team set out for Halifax early to enable some pre-match practice on the tournament wicket. And, as opposed to last year, an entire squad of players came over from the Rock.
The first day of competition on Friday featured two games for Team NL, starting with the hosts. Last year we had been steamrolled by Nova Scotia for 38, and lost by eight wickets, but the 2011 version of Team NL was made of sterner stuff.
In damp conditions, some exceptional bowling from spin maestro Ashwin Gupta (3 for 22) helped keep Nova Scotia to 155 for 4. Then a couple of good knocks from captain Rakesh Negi (23) and Kathir (22 not out) ensured there was still a contest after a dozen overs.
Nova Scotia bowled tightly to restrict NL to 94 for 6 in the end, but a 61-run defeat was much more respectable than last year, and Ashwin's display with the ball got him the Man-of-the-Match award. One game in and already the provincial trophy cabinet had doubled its wares!
And then it was straight on to the second game, against Prince Edward Island. We batted first but a few quick wickets put us in a spot of bother, with opener Sentill Selvamani (21) the only serious contributor. However, a Pakistani-Bangladeshi double act came to the rescue - the Multan Marmaliser, Abbas Haider (34 not out), and the Dhaka Destroyer, Saad Jahangir (14), pushed the team up to a rather healthier-looking 123 for 6.
Was it healthy enough to be a winning total, though? Early wickets, including another trio for Ashwin, suggested it might be, but PEI opener Dinesh Abraham had other ideas. He closed in on a fifty as his side edged towards victory. Which is when Sentill returned to the fray to dismiss Dinesh for 47. PEI collapsed to 113 all out, and the almost-unthinkable had happened. Team NL had triumphed by 10 runs! Nearly two centuries without a win had come to an end. It was time for celebration, and from the fringes of the Arctic Circle* to the Vale of York, supporters of the team did a jig of delight. Well I did, anyway.
"After waiting almost 19 decades for a success, two came along in the space of a weekend. Is this the start of something special? Winning one match could be put down to fortune, but winning two looks like meticulousness"
Thrilling as it was, getting too carried away wasn't wise, as the next day NL were pitted against Quebec. With a population of eight million people, and around 30 cricket clubs to select players from, Quebec has a provincial set-up that Newfoundland & Labrador can only dream of. Victory in this game was going to take a Herculean effort.
That's exactly what Team NL put in, giving what their captain Rakesh described as "our best fielding and bowling performance of the tournament". A fine knock of 51 by the competition's star batsman, Suresh Ramkisoon, enabled Quebec to post 151, and but for Rakesh's 3 for 26 and Konark Bararia's 2 for 4, it could have been a lot more.
However Quebec's masterclass arrived during the chase. NL were given a torrid time by the bowling attack, which combined miserliness with hostility. Swinging the ball at a pace Rakesh described as "painfully fast", and with some outstanding fielding, Quebec tore through the NL line-up. Only Sentill (18) reached double figures, as the guys were shot out for 36, and a 115-run defeat.
It was tough, and returning on Sunday for their final match, Team NL faced a test of mettle. "The mood in the camp was a bit dull after the defeat to Quebec," noted Rakesh, and there was the added problem of New Brunswick having insider knowledge: their team included Abhishek Kar, who had played for us last year.
But NL played out of their skins. Led by Kathir, who claimed 3 for 18, and with Konark, Ashwin, and Kavish Srivastava chipping in, NL held New Brunswick to 107. And when Kavish and Saad went out to open the batting, they simply went ballistic.
Saad's six over extra cover was the shot of the match, and their partnership took NL to 57 off six overs. Both then fell in quick succession, but an unbeaten 33 from Rakesh saw the team home with six wickets to spare. Winning had suddenly become a habit.
Kathir was the Man of the Match, but it was a victory for the whole squad. While Quebec defeated Nova Scotia in the championship decider, Newfoundland & Labrador celebrated finishing in an incredible third place. The team not only had mettle, but they had, to use a verb that should really remain a noun, medalled too.
After waiting almost 19 decades for a success, two came along in the space of a weekend. Is this the start of something special? Winning one match could be put down to fortune, but winning two looks like meticulousness.
Well, looking at the numbers, no victories in 2010 followed by two in 2011 surely means four wins and the title in 2012. By 2013, Cricket Newfoundland & Labrador will be competing in the Caribbean Twenty20 Championship, then the Champions League Twenty20 in 2014, and by 2015 we'll be wanting a berth in the World Cup. Thank goodness the ICC is so receptive to such ideas.
Understandably Rakesh was a very happy captain. "Last year the motive was to represent NL in the Atlantic Tournament," he said, "but this year we wanted to make our presence felt, and I can proudly say that we did that."
And the reaction in the Newfoundland media to the team's brilliant performance? Not much, I'm afraid. The provincial media were too busy going crazy over the announcement that a Winnipeg ice hockey team was relocating its reserve team to St John's. There's clearly some way to go before the IPL defeats the NHL. But what an amazing start.
*where last year's star man, Rob Butler, is currently based, probably as cricket in Newfoundland was too easy.