After a massive Central Stags bonus-point victory over the Auckland Aces rocked The Ford Trophy leaderboard on Saturday, all six teams are in for a big, torrid and tough week of action in Canterbury starting this Wednesday.
Each team plays three matches in the space of six days, the games split between Canterbury’s home ground Hagley Oval and NZC’s high performance base in Lincoln (home of Bert Sutcliffe Oval, Lincoln No.3 and Lincoln Green). And, by the end of this high-pressure centralised round, we should all be closer to knowing who’s going to make the top three for this year’s Finals series.
ROUND 7-9 SQUADS
Cole McConchie (captain), Chad Bowes, Jack Boyle, Leo Carter, Jeff Case, Blake Coburn, Andrew Ellis, Cameron Fletcher, Andrew Hazeldine, Stephen Murdoch, Henry Shipley, Will Williams
Dean Brownlie (captain), Jimmy Baker, Peter Bocock (w), Joe Carter, Henry Cooper, Anton Devcich, Zak Gibson, Brett Hampton, Nick Kelly, Daryl Mitchell, Bharat Popli, Brett Randell, Josef (Joe) Walker
Hamish Bennett (captain), Jakob Bhula, Michael Bracewell, Devon Conway, Andrew Fletcher, Lauchie Johns, Iain McPeake, Jimmy Neesham, Ollie Newton, Malcolm Nofal, Michael Pollard, Ben Sears, Peter Younghusband
Tom Bruce (captain), Josh Clarkson, Ma’ara Ave (w), Liam Dudding, Dean Foxcroft, Greg Hay, Christian Leopard, Willem Ludick, Ryan McCone, Felix Murray, Navin Patel, Bevan Small, Ben Wheeler
Mark Craig (co-captain), Jacob Duffy (co-captain), Matt Bacon, Warren Barnes, Neil Broom, Josh Finnie, Anaru Kitchen, Mitch Renwick, Michael Rippon, Hamish Rutherford, Nathan Smith, Christi Viljoen, Brad Wilson
Craig Cachopa (captain), Michael Barry, Graeme Beghin, Jamie Brown, Danru Ferns, Ben Horne (w), Ben Lister, Mitchell McClenaghan, Matt McEwan, Teja Nidamanuru, Will O’Donnell, Sean Solia
With a maximum of five points available per match and four rounds remaining in total, no team is currently out of the running, bottom-placed Canterbury trailing current leaders the Wellington Firebirds by just nine points.
The Otago Volts kept the Firebirds in check on Saturday with an exciting win and have started to put together some impressive performances — joining the Birds on equal top points, and currently ranked second only on a slightly lower net run rate.
The Stags have proven themselves a surprisingly competitive unit despite missing a raft of players, and their regular coach, to New Zealand duties. They were forced to dust off veterans Greg Hay and Kieran Noema-Barnett, as well as field a full six players aged 21 or under: not the usual recipe for success in the high performance cauldron of men's Domestic cricket.
Their Stags-Aces record victory — a 170-run drubbing that left the Aces blushing at their own fortress — was set up by 34-year-old Hay, their top batsman of the season seizing his rare opportunity to play white-ball cricket and producing another career best this summer, while batting alongside 20-year-old Dean Foxcroft who backed up a century in Hamilton with a 90 against the likes of Mitch McClenaghan and Sean Solia, and in just his third appearance.
But it was the team’s three internationally capped players — strongman Seth Rance, Ben Wheeler and an almost unplayable Doug Bracewell, who has also captained the side for the first time — who inflicted the hiding with the ball, backed up by some brilliant fielding from their agile younger cohorts. And, now Rance and Bracewell have departed for the New Zealand A Series against India A starting in Mount Maunganui this week, bringing in Tom Bruce to make his captaincy debut in his first game back from UAE.
For Wheeler, claiming a career best four-fa was significant in just his second appearance this summer and the Stags will need his experience if they are to keep performing across a tough week's cricket.
Over the winter, the left-arm allrounder from the cricket and rugby family underwent spinal fusion surgery — the same operation that helped Shane Bond continue his career — in an attempt to banish the on-again off-again nature of a promising career plagued by back issues, yet has seen him represent the BLACKCAPS a dozen times from the England tour of 2015 to the most recent home summer.
“It was nice to get a win for the boys and get ourselves back on track,” says Wheeler, who had skipped the previous match and bowled only seven overs in Auckland as part of his carefully managed comeback — long enough to claim his career best 4-24 on his 27th birthday at Eden Park.
“We were in a bit of a rut having gone down two games in a row, so it was good to win again.”
Wheeler's immediate goal is to build up his loads and operational strength in what will hopefully be an injury-free path back to the highest level.
"The body’s feeling pretty good. I’m still apprehensive at times, but everything seems to be holding up all right and the more overs I bowl and the more games I play, the more confident I will feel that everything is good in my back now."
The Central Stags delighted in extracting their revenge over the team that drubbed them in last year's Grand Final but still have a lot of work to do to be sure of making this season's top three that will progress.
"The last few years we have done pretty well in the white-ball formats, but winning like we did in Auckland will give our younger players a lot of confidence," says Wheeler.
"We’re pretty much missing a whole squad with guys in the BLACKCAPS and NZA.
"A few of the young guys have been trying to find their feet at this level which is what your would expect, but everybody has contributed, whether it’s with runs or a brilliant catch."
The Stags came from behind to make the Grand Final last year, can they do it again this season with a vastly different squad? The next three games will see them take the hard road as they play leaders the Firebirds twice, with a rematch with the wounded Aces in between, a side that will no doubt be out for revenge of their own.
All matches in Lincoln are free admission and, with two games at once played on adjacent greens, it's going to be a spectator's bonanza, as well as a competition first.
"Lincoln, good old Lincoln — it’s been a bit of a graveyard for me personally!" Wheeler chuckles, touching wood. "I’ve picked up the odd injury there so hopefully it will be good fun this time! It’s certainly always good fun playing for the Stags and I’ll be looking to contribute with the ball again — and maybe a few more runs.”
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