Reema Malhotra-led team made a massive statement by topping the Super League table in the Elite group. © BCCI

Reema Malhotra-led team made a massive statement by topping the Super League table in the Elite group. © BCCI

On a day when everyone’s focus was on the Indian Premier League auction in Bangalore, the girls from Odisha created their own history at the Just Cricket Ground in the city’s outskirts. By lifting the Twenty20 women’s Plate championship trophy with a thrilling eight-run win over Kerala on Saturday (January 27), they became the first team from the state – men or women – to win an inter-state tournament.

Receiving the trophy from Prof Ratnakar Shetty, game development manager of BCCI, and Syed Saba Karim, the former India wicketkeeper who is now the board’s general manager for cricket operations, made the occasion sweeter for the girls.

Meanwhile, Delhi’s dream run in the 2017-18 domestic season continued, as the Reema Malhotra-led team made a massive statement by topping the Super League table in the Elite group. This was Delhi’s third silverware this season after winning the men’s Under-23 CK Nayudu Trophy and Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 Trophy. They were also runners-up in the Ranji Trophy.

Coming into the final day, Delhi needed Maharashtra to beat Baroda in the morning match at the Sachin Tendulkar Gymkhana in Mumbai to have a chance to win the championship. After Maharashtra prevailed by 14 runs to temporarily top the table, Delhi beat Goa by nine wickets to seal the deal. Chasing 97, Delhi reached the target in 13.5 overs to finish with a net run-rate of +1.105. Maharashtra and Baroda too had two wins each, but their net run-rate was +0.689 and -0.083 respectively.

Delhi’s intent became evident when they beat Railways, the defending champions, in the first round. Except for a loss to Maharashta in the first round and Baroda in the super league, they produced a complete performance through the tournament, winning five out of their seven games.

It was Delhi’s second success in as many seasons. They had won the plate T20 championship last season to break a drought extending back to 2011-12 when they had won the inter-state 50-over competition under Anjum Chopra’s captaincy. The arrival of Rumeli Dhar, the former India captain, from Assam as a local player this season was a game changer, as she added depth in both the batting and bowling departments.

While Malhotra, Dhar, Neha Tanwar, who topped the tournament’s batting charts with a tally of 189 runs in seven matches, Latika Kumari and Lalita Sharma lent experience, and Ayushi Soni, their best bowler, brought freshness. Malhotra credited the selectors for trusting a set of players and giving them a long rope.

“It was a total teamwork. We did not rely on any single player through the tournament. We had someone different raising her hand and putting up a good performance in each of the matches,” Malhotra told Wisden India. “When we last won a title, we had Anjum di, Jaya Sharma and a few seniors. It took two-three years to build the team again. There were issues in DDCA, but now they have been very supportive. We have had camps and practice matches.

“Rumeli coming in was a plus point because of her experience,” she added. “As an allrounder, she added depth to our bowling and also batted at No.3, which meant our batting went deep. That allowed us to get the right combination. She played a match-winning role.

At 37, Malhotra, a former India allrounder, is among the oldest players in the circuit. Her captaincy came in for praise through the season. “Being the captain, my job is to keep the atmosphere light. I love to have fun. I don’t want things to be too serious,” she continued. “On the field, I am aggressive. That’s my strength. I read minds well and know how to keep the team together. I have learnt a lot about captaincy from Hema di (Hemalata Kala), Diana (Edulji) ma’am and Anjum di.”

Tanwar, who has represented the country, said that the reason behind Delhi’s success was that the team did not have any “egos” and the bonding was good with “lot of music and dance in the dressing room”. Throwing light on what drove her and the other senior players this season, she said: “When a player is driven by will power, to prove something, it shows in performance. If we do well for ourselves, it will be good for the team as well. So, we support each other, so that we can go to the next level.”

Odisha won six out of their seven games. Their dominant show was built around a strong batting performance. © Wisden India

Odisha won six out of their seven games. Their dominant show was built around a strong batting performance. © Wisden India

Like Malhotra and Tanwar, Madhuri Meheta, who too has played for India, credited teamwork for Odisha success. Nowhere was it more evident than in the way Odisha pulled things back against Karnataka and Kerala in the semifinal and final respectively.

In the semifinal, Odisha did not concede a single run in Karnataka’s last three overs and then chased down 85 with six balls to spare.

Things were tighter in the final. Kerala, in their chase of 109, needed 21 in 22 balls with five wickets in hand. Odisha, however, dismissed Minu Manni and Keerthi James off consecutive deliveries in the 17th over to tilt the game in their favour.

With a few former Karnataka Ranji players watching the proceeding and chants of Jay Jagannath from the team huddle echoing across the ground after the fall of each wicket, Odisha did not put a step wrong after that. The decisive blow came in the second ball of the 19th over when T Shanni, the opener who made 48, was leg before wicket while trying to flick Priyanka Priyadarshini, the offspinner, through the midwicket region for a single.

Meheta, who finished as the second-best batter of the competition with 182 runs, said it was the biggest moment of her life as Odisha had slipped to Plate division from the Elite group after a winless 2016-17.

“We won this tournament because of teamwork and unity. We have a few India players, few who have played for East Zone and attended camps at National Cricket Academy. It is a result of everyone’s hard work,” said Meheta. “This is a big moment in my life because we had slipped after having been in the Elite group for a long time. This comeback is a matter of great pride for the entire team.”

Odisha won six out of their seven games. Their dominant show was built around a strong batting performance. Meheta got good support from Sarita Meher, the competition’s fourth-highest run-getter with a tally of 176. Pragyan Mohanty (140) and Madhusmita Behera (134), the captain, also chipped in.

The bowling revolved around Priyanka, who finished with nine wickets to be among the top ten bowlers. She got good support from Rasanara Parwin, another India player. More importantly, the fielding was good, especially in the semifinal and final where they effected a total of four run-outs.

“Throughout the tournament, our focus was on building partnerships both in the batting and bowling department,” added Meheta. “Some bowlers concentrated on bowling dot balls from one end, and it resulted in wickets from the other end. Similarly, the middle-order batters built on the foundation provided by the openers. Our fielding was also good.”

With Shashi Gupta, one of the three national selectors watching the knockout games of the plate division, Meheta was hopeful of Odisha’s performance attracting some attention.

“Priyanka bowled well, and we have two batters in top four run-getters in this tournament. That, hopefully, should get the attention of the selectors,” she said. “I am confident that women’s cricket will also get more attention in Odisha after this win of ours.”