New Delhi: With the Champions League T20 being hosted in India this year, it goes without saying that the Indian teams have drawn all the attention, in spite of their patchy performances. However, in a tournament that is supposed to bring together the best from all over the world, one side that managed to attract the neutrals was Trinidad and Tobago.
Despite having reached the final in the inaugural season in 2009, few had expected the Caribbean Twenty20 champions to go that far again. Indeed, despite a valiant win over Cape Cobras on Tuesday, T&T failed to qualify for the semi-finals this time around. And yet, they have won many hearts with their exuberant spirit and distinct style of play.
Hard-fought victories over Ruhuna and Leicestershire ensured the West Indian side's place in the main round, and that is when the entertainment began in full earnest. All four matches that T&T played in Group A vied to outdo each other in the terms of drama and excitement, as the Caribbean team brought the tournament to life.
Despite a valiant win over Cape Cobras on Tuesday, T&T failed to qualify for the semi-finals.
The first game - against the Mumbai Indians - was the pick of the lot, if not one of the matches of the tournament. T&T collapsed to 98, and many would have switched off their TV sets right there and then, bemoaning the decline of West Indian cricket. Instead, T&T displayed a fighting spirit the Windies national side has often lacked, and used their strengths of slow bowling and excellent fielding to nearly embarrass the favoured Mumbai outfit. Naive decision-making cost T&T as Mumbai scraped through on the last ball with one wicket to spare in an incredible game.
The next match did go to the Super Over, though T&T again defended superbly before losing the plot in the final over. For once their main bowler Ravi Rampaul couldn't produce the goods, and Moises Henriques took New South Wales Blues to an unlikely win.
Down and out, T&T were all set for an ignominious exit. However, for a team missing the batting prowess of Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard, new heroes came to the fore. Sunil Narine and Samuel Badree choked home favourites Chennai Super Kings, while Kevon Cooper hit a cameo Pollard himself would have been proud of. And Cooper put in a repeat performance as T&T pulled a rabbit out of the hat and chased down 138 against the Cobras in a must-win encounter, despite needing 24 runs off the final two overs with three wickets remaining. As it turned out, it was T&T's final game in the competition, yet their heroics ensured it was a memorable one.
It wasn't just about the results the 'Red Force' achieved in these two weeks, though, even as they upset stronger opponents along the way. T&T set the CLT20 alight with their talent, skill and determination, just as they had done in 2009, displaying a character and belief that warmed the hearts. Watching the tense faces in the dug-out against NSW showed how much it mattered to the Caribbean side; hearing each player back the other irrespective of their performance highlighted the team's unity; and as they ran out in delight to congratulate each other after defeating the Cobras, it was hard not to be won over by the sheer enthusiasm and joy of the T&T players.
Matters will become more serious as the business end of the Champions League T20 approaches now. The presence of at least one IPL side will ensure local interest remains. T&T, meanwhile, will be on their way back home, wondering what might have been had even one of those close games gone their way.
Yet, Caribbean cricket fans will be proud of their efforts, while the Indian audience will have appreciated the flair and passion T&T showed as they fought against the odds. Trinidad & Tobago played a large part in infusing excitement into a tournament that is still struggling to find its place, providing plenty of fun and thrills every time they took the field.
"We just want to show people that teams in the West Indies can compete," Cooper had said earlier. "T&T are flying the West Indies flag very high in India."
The tournament will miss their colourful presence, without a doubt.