Levante CC kept alive their title aspirations with a thrilling victory against a Madrid side that proved to be as stubborn and difficult to beat as anticipated.
It was Madrid who had given Levante hope of a title in their first season when they held on for a draw against La Manga a fortnight earlier when their eleven year old no.11 batted out the final two overs. Levante needed victory in the final two games to be certain of winning the league but the double header against the hardest team to beat in the division would be a battle that went right to the death....twice!
The day started with Madrid captain David Stirton winning the toss and surprising the Levante skipper by having a bowl. It proved to be an inspired decision early on as Morgan (2) hit one straight to point, Hunt (13) skied another high into the blue Valencia sky and skipper Noon (2) played on to a short, wide delivery. With the score at 51/3 Levante were grateful for the efforts of opener Green (35) who was playing a calm innings whilst all around him succumbed to the pressure of the situation.
He was joined by Burchell and they set about the repair job with style before Green fell with the score on 89. Matthews (8), fresh from his club record breaking 74 in his last innings came and went quickly and with the score on 104/5 Levante's strong looking batting lineup had a lot to prove. Step in Mr Chairman Barry Eaton who played the innings of his life. He punished all the Madrid bowlers, especially on the leg side as ball after ball raced to the fence at the square leg boundary.
Burchell (45) had also played a blinding knock full of typically classy shots but he fell short of his half century when he was adjudged LBW. At 143/6 Levante still had some way to go to set a match winning total and things looked to be worse for them when the umpire rose his finger to an LBW appeal on Hussain. However, after referring with his square leg umpire and after discussion with the Madrid skipper the decision was overturned when it was agreed by all that the batsman had hit the ball before the ball hit his pads. We thank Madrid for the sportsmanship of this situation.
Hussain (22) and Eaton then put on 64 to take the score past the 200 mark before Hussain was out LBW. As tea approached, Madrid finally celebrated the wicket of Eaton (64) and Levante had reached 218/8, still 32 runs off the 250 they needed. After the break Graham (12no), Pilkington (9) and Hoy (10) saw Levante to that 250 target for maximum batting points and the immediate declaration meant Madrid had around 50 overs to win or see out for a draw.
It didn't take long for Levante to realise that the Madrid team was built heavily around the opening batsman Jay, who would prove to be a thorn in their side for two days. The trouble for Madrid was getting him help from the other end as fellow opener Blake was brilliantly caught by Hunt at second slip off the bowling of Hoy for a duck and no.3 Goldsmith (7) was given out LBW to Hussain (1-24) after already escaping a strong caught behind appeal. James Bancroft (8) was out caught off the bowling of Hoy (3-52) who claimed his third wicket when he trapped Madrid skipper Stirton in front of his stumps with a slower ball.
Despite losing wickets at regular intervals Madrid were still going along at a good rate thanks to Jay playing some masterful strokes and sending many a ball to the cage like fence at the VCG. No.6 Rao did offer some resistance, reaching 22 before Burchell's leggies had him caught at short cover by Pilkington. As Madrid past 100 they soon lost their sixth wicket, Burchell adding another wicket to his collection as Soloman was out for one.
It was now obvious that Levante had to contain Jay at one end whilst trying to take the other wickets around him. That would be easier said than done as Joss Bancroft was providing the kind of resistance Madrid had become famous for. His defiance, while admirable was becoming a source of frustration for Levante and precious time was ebbing away from the game as the grey clouds started to descend. Finally the breakthrough came with around 12 overs left in the day.
The surprising thing was it was opener Jay (76) who perished as Matthews pace deceived him and he spooned one to square leg. Surely that would be the game winner, or so you would think. The resistance of Bancroft remained and he blocked and blocked everything the Levante bowlers could throw at him. It was left for skipper Noon to try something a little more than have all 9 outfielders around the bat. He placed himself at silly, silly point and got as close to the batsman as the umpire would allow.
This was finally the move that got into the head of the batsman and two balls later he popped one up in the air and over Noon who turned around and hung on to the all important catch and end a brilliantly fought innings of 19 by Bancroft. He had done his club proud. Still, Levante had to finish things off. With the fast bowlers off because of fading light Levante continued with their attacking field in an attempt to see them take the final two wickets that would give them a chance of taking the title. It paid off too as Angappan drove one strongly to Noon at silly mid off as he and Matthews (3-12) combined again to take the wicket.
The win was confirmed when Burchell (3-43) bowled Madrid youngster Shackleton first ball. The wicket was taken with just 6 overs left in the day, although whether that many would have been bowled as the light became darker and darker is another question.
Levante calmly celebrated a victory they very much needed but they knew it had come at a heavy mental and physical cost. Any thought that Madrid, with only pride to play for in the league after a surprising defeat to Intellectuals a couple of weeks earlier, would come to Valencia for a laugh were banished very quickly. Their desire to fight all the way took it's toll on the Levante players and victory the following day would take a huge effort from tired bodies.
The maximum points for Levante meant that a draw the following day with a maximum 9 bonus points would result in a tie at the top of the ECCL division 2 with La Manga. It was something for the captain and team to bear in mind, but a victory was the target.
Man of the match for Levante was shared between Eaton who's 67 changed the shape of the innings and Burchell who took 3 wickets and scored 45. As always though it was a real team effort and Hoy and Matthews three wickets at important times contributed heavily to the victory. Richard Graham and Pilkington both deserved much better than to finish wicketless after two great spells of bowling.
Mark Green batted as lovely as always and the strong Levante tail again managed to get the score up to the target of 250. Finally, and perhaps the most import of all was again the outstanding performance in the field as all catches were brilliantly taken and the fielding in general being of the highest quality.
On to day two, can Levante CC win the league in their first season....
Captain, Levante Cricket Club