The 2021 edition of the Continental Cup wrapped up this week, in a breakneck four-day tournament that saw Romania triumph undefeated and equal Afghanistan’s record winning streak in men’s T20Is of 12 matches.
Played at the Moara Vlăsiei Cricket Ground, in southern Romania’s Ilfov county, it was a return for the event after last year’s edition was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Featuring an altered and expanded line-up of six teams split into two groups of three, the hosts Romania were the favourites at number 40 on the ICC MRF Tyres T20I Rankings table; they were joined by European neighbours Bulgaria (61st), Czech Republic (63rd), Hungary (making their first T20I appearance), Luxembourg (59th) and Malta (58th).
The first two days' play, on Thursday and Friday, had Romania and Luxembourg setting the pace as they recorded two victories each in the group stage. In group A, Luxembourg thrashed Bulgaria by 62 runs to open their account, as opener Timothy Barker (78 off 59) and skipper Joost Mees (50 off 34) shared a 107-run stand for the second wicket. Vikram Vijh ensured the run-rate didn’t fall once they departed as he biffed 31 off 19 to carry the total to 187/4 in their 20 overs.
Seam-bowling allrounder Hristo Lakov was the pick of the Bulgarian bowlers with his 1/24 off four overs being the only spell that went below eight per over. In response, the Bulgarians never really got going, with opener Kevin D’Souza’s 31 off 19 the only fight as they were dismissed for 125 in the 19th over; left-arm seamer Mohit Dixit headlined the bowling effort with 3/19.
The rivalry between Romania and Hungary is well known,— Pavel Florin (@PavelFlorin13) September 5, 2021
But in Cricket it all turns to friendship...
Celebrating one of my wickets with the national team of @hungary4cricket #Cricket pic.twitter.com/XxMzSV7HKJ
Luxembourg faced more resistance from Malta, who pushed them to the last over in the afternoon game, but a patient knock of 55* (54) from Tony Whiteman got them home. Sent in to bat, the Maltese battled to an underwhelming total of 128/9 in their allotment, with Samuel Stanislaus and Varun Thamotharam jointly top-scoring with 28. Vikram Vijh demonstrated his versatility for Luxembourg as he cut through the lower-middle order to grab 4/19 with his medium pace.
The chase got off to a wobbly start as the pace duo of Bilal Muhammad (2/22 in four overs) and Waseem Abbas (1/15 in four overs) tightened the screws to have Luxembourg 4/3 in just the second over. But Whiteman and Barker (36 off 40) set about rebuilding, with a 101-run partnership taking them to within striking distance by the time Barker departed in the 16th over. A couple of more wickets and tidy overs increased the tension with Malta defending 16 off the last two overs, but Marcus Cope’s 15* (8) included two crucial boundaries to reach the target 6 wickets down and with 2 balls to spare.
The last match in Group A saw a remarkable lone hand from Bulgaria’s Hristo Lakov, but it wasn’t enough to drag his underperforming team into the semi-final. Opting to bat at the toss, Bulgaria were derailed early by Bilal Muhammad’s fiery 4/10, and it fell to Lakov, opening the batting, to rescue the innings with 62* (60).
The only other batter to pass double figures was the number eight Dimo Nikolov with 14, and Bulgaria limped to 112/9 in their quota. The indefatigable Lakov also took the new ball and carried the attack with 2/30 in 4 overs, but with little support from his colleagues, Malta cruised past the target in the 12th over thanks to a no-nonsense 49* (39) from captain Bikram Arora.
Over in Group B, Hungary tasted success in their first official T20I as they edged a thriller against the Czech Republic. It was another impressive all-round effort that took them there, with opener Zeeshan Kukikhel’s 75 (49) leading them to 165/6, before he marshalled the defence with 2/27 – including the crucial scalp of big-hitting Sudesh Wickramasekara for 58 (41) – and conjured a run-out to remove Wickramasekara’s chief ally Kushalkumar Mendon (30 off 19). With a tidy spell from Ali Yalmaz (1/19 off 3) to close out the death overs, the stunned Czechs ultimately fell five runs short at 160/7 in their full 20.
Romania then asserted their dominance in the next two games. First, they triumphed in a run-fest against the Czech Republic as they posted 211/8. It was a real team effort though, with a top score of 38 (23) to 'keeper Satvik Nadigotla, and a late run rate boost from Sami Ullah (31 off 12).
The Czechs were left to rue a wayward bowling display that saw them concede 26 extras; they would have done well to emulate offspinner Kayul Mehta, who gave away no extras in a tidy spell of 1/23 in 4. Ullah backed up with the ball to claim three wickets (3/30 in 4), while Czech Skipper Arun Ashokan (51 off 30) led the chase. He lacked support though, with the next highest score being Romania’s 30 extras. They got away with the complacency though, as the Czechs were ultimately dismissed 35 runs adrift at 176 in the last over.
Newcomers Hungary put up more of a fight in the final group match, despite another imposing total from the hosts. Opting to bat first at the toss, Romanian skipper Ramesh Satheesan led from the front as he opened, striking 76 off 41. He was joined for a 109-run stand by Sivakumar Periyalwar (54* off 44). Ullah (16 off 8) again provided some late impetus to carry them to 195/6, while Harshvardhan Mandhyan (3/33 in four overs) and Abishek Kheterpal (2/30 in four overs) were the picks of the Hungarians in a tough day with the ball.
After going for 0/37 off his four overs, Zeeshan Kukikhel produced again with the bat, matching Satheesan at the top of the order with a 76 (41) of his own. But Hungary had to contend with a rampaging Asif Bevinje, who scalped 5/30 on his way to Romania’s first-ever five-wicket haul in T20Is. After Kukikhel departed in the 16th over, Zahir Mohammed (33 off 16) kept Hungary in the chase, and they needed 13 off the last over. But seamer Ijaz Hussain kept his nerve to remove Zahir and then number eleven Mark Fontaine was run out to dismiss the visitors for 187 with a ball to spare.
Saturday saw the semi-finals run, with Luxembourg overcoming another Hungarian thriller in the morning match before Romania cruised past Malta in the afternoon. Inserted at the toss, Luxembourg made steady progress with another double-act from opener Barker (43 off 33) and captain Joost Meest (43 off 29), and several middle-order cameos. Zeeshan Kukikhel again snared the most wickets, though was also expensive with 3/37 in his quota as Luxembourg reached 179/6 in 20 overs.
Czech Men's National Team 141/3 (16.2) defeated Bulgaria 137/6 (20) by 7 wickets— Czech Cricket (@CzechCricket) September 4, 2021
Vyshakh Jagannivasan 55 (41)
Sabawoon Davizi 37 (21)
Naveed Ahmed 4-0-17-3
Keyur Mehta 3-0-22-2#kriket #cricket #CzechRepublic pic.twitter.com/Rfm4Pmhcq0
Hungary’s response got off to a solid start, with Kukikhel’s 30 (18) carrying them to 46/1 after the Powerplay, and his teammates supported him with five of the top six all making starts. Zahir Mohammed’s 32 (17) kept the run rate within sight, and set the stage for an audacious late assault by keeper Satyadeep Ashwathnarayana, who thrashed 41* (19). Young seamer Amit Dhingra closed out the match for Luxembourg though, with 10 runs to defend in the last over. After a boundary on the first ball, he found his radar and the Hungarians fell agonisingly short at 177/6.
In the afternoon, Romania racked up another score over 200, as opener Taranjeet Singh put Malta to the sword with 91 (57). He was ably supported by his captain Satheesan (39 off 18), and several zippy cameos down the order to help the hosts reach 202/8. None of the Maltese bowlers went at under 9 per over, though Waseem Abbas claimed Malta’s first T20I five-wicket haul with an expensive 5/37. The Maltese response never really kicked off, and despite captain Arora hitting 42 (38), the run rate was always out of reach and the islanders only managed 166/8. Cult hero Pavel Florin grabbed the best figures for the hosts with 2/3 from his lone over.
The final, which took Romania to a record-equalling 12 consecutive T20I victories, was another dominant display. Opener Gohar Manan thumped 24 (11) to get them off to a flyer, then Asif Bevinje (35 and 29) and Satvik Nadigotla (55 off 38) kept the score up through the middle order. Seamers Amit Dhingra (2/28 off 4) and Vikram Vijh (2/24 off 3.5) grabbed late wickets, and a pair of runouts finished off Romania in the last over for 156. Luxembourg’s chase faltered early and never recovered, with a comprehensive team bowling effort (six bowlers claimed at least one wicket) and only Asif Bevinje’s 2/27 off four went at more than 6 per over; only three batters got past 10, and Luxembourg limped to 123/9 in their allotted overs.
The playoffs for the final standings saw Czech Republic finally get a win as they comfortably beat Bulgaria to come fifth. Another lone hand from Hristo Lakov (64* off 58) took Bulgaria to 137/6 off 20, with Naveed Ahmad scalping 3/17 from 4, then opener Vyshakh Jagannivasan (53 off 41) led an easy chase to get the Czechs home in the 17th over with 7 wickets in hand.
Hungary continued their impressive debut series as they emphatically claimed 3rd place over Malta thanks to another Kukikhel special. He took 2/35 with the ball as Malta reached 170/5, then blitzed 82 off 42 at the top of the order to put Hungary well on track; skipper Abhijeet Ahuja finished the job with a steady 58* (50) as they reached the target in 18.2 overs with eight wickets to spare.
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