The historic trophy awaits a home for the winter. PHOTOSPORT

Two left in Shield race


Canterbury or Central Stags? One of these two teams will be New Zealand’s 2018/19 first-class cricket champions — and it will all come down to the final round in Hamilton and at the Basin Reserve, starting this Sunday.

In one of New Zealand sport’s most historic competitions, Canterbury trails defending champions the Stags by 15 points heading into the final Round Eight. But they are still alive, after an unbeaten Stephen Murdoch century and last-innings five-wicket bag to masterly leg-spinner Todd Astle ensured they knocked out the Auckland Aces in the latest batch of results.

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All three Round Seven matches ended in outright victories, releasing the tension on a tight points table. The Wellington Firebirds (beaten by the Otago Volts) and Northern Districts (beaten by the Stags) also dropped out of contention. The Stags breathed a deep sigh of relief after their tense, one-wicket victory in Napier that had required their number eleven batsman to hit the winning run under pressure against a fired-up Ish Sodhi. A six from Doug Bracewell off Mitchell Santner had tied the scores at the end of the previous over and, the way things had been going in a tough chase against ND’s demanding attack, probably saved the Stags’ skins.

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Although already well out of the running, the Volts also breathed a sigh of relief after chasing down their winning runs in Dunedin — the outright win a red-ball drought-breaker for the southerners who hadn’t enjoyed a win all season, and had had only two outrights the previous summer.

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They will now look to back up that winning feeling in their last match of the season at University of Otago Oval, a dead rubber but still meaningful contest against the Aces.

Just two rounds earlier, the Aces had been the Plunket Shield leaders — but a draw in Whangarei against ND followed by the 80-run loss to rivals Canterbury in Rangiora pulled the pin on their campaign.

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With a maximum of 20 points available to each team from the final round, the Stags are now in the box seat: just five points should do it. With eight points up for grabs by meeting first-innings batting and bowling targets — and it is unusual for sides not to take at least a few; the Cantabrians will be watching the Seddon Park live-scoring closely.

Canterbury meanwhile needs an outright win (worth 12 points) at the Basin Reserve, as well as sufficient bonus points from the first innings in order to overtake the Stags — and, Canterbury must also hope that either weather or ND prevents the Stags from collecting the handful of points they require, while allowing their own match to advance.

There are question marks over the weather at all venues, further adding to the final-round intrigue.

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For the Stags, not only the championship, but history and pride will be on the line in the away rematch against their great rivals and neighbours ND. They will be returning for the first time to the scene of their Burger King Super Smash triumph earlier the summer. The Stags have never before lifted both the Plunket Shield and Burger King Super Smash trophies in the same year. And, only once before — in the mid-1960s — has Central won the national first-class Plunket Shield back to back.

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Weakened by absentees, the Stags meanwhile struggled through their 2018/19 Ford Trophy (one-day) campaign this season, ironically the format in which they normally excel. They were Ford Trophy Grand Finalists in three of the previous four seasons, and successful back-to-back on the first two of those occasions. However, the Central Hinds have won the women’s one-day Hallyburton Johnstone Shield for the first time in nine years this season, putting Central Districts Cricket in line for a very rare trifecta of first-class, one-day and T20 titles all in one season, and something Central has never before achieved — in Stags coach Heinrich Malan’s final summer with the team.

Repeat first-class titles are not so rare, but nonetheless special achievements. The last time a Major Association team won the Plunket Shield back-to-back was Canterbury, whose richly experienced line-up (led by Peter Fulton, above, PHOTOSPORT) dominated the first-class scene from 2013 to 2015.

The Auckland Aces, Wellington Firebirds and Northern Districts have also achieved the feat at various intervals over the long history of the championship. Central’s 1966 to 1968 reign, the only previous successful defence by the side, meanwhile spells a long time between drinks, but the current team has looked unstoppable over the past two summers, and they set a new Central record for the most matches without defeat until finally being beaten by Canterbury in Rangiora in a close Round Five match this summer.

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Canterbury has now pocketed three outrights on the bounce in a strong late-season charge, and will be mentally prepared for a big fight and finish in Wellington.

The Stags will be missing one of their classiest batsmen for the final round in Hamilton, Will Young having been recalled into the BLACKCAPS Test squad where Kane Williamson’s shoulder injury raises the possibility of a Test debut for Young.

Matches between the Stags and ND tend to be hard-fought affairs: ND is still the last team to have beaten the Stags at the first-class fortress of McLean Park, but in the previous two summers the sides held each other to two draws in each of those seasons, with last summer’s final-round match at Nelson Park having produced the one of the most serious tests of the Stags in their ultimately unbeaten champion summer.

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No wonder that ND was so fired up by the sniff of victory in the latest clash, and that they were collectively so ashen-faced when they came up agonisingly short. The history between sides is never forgotten.

The long-range forecast for both Seddon Park and the Basin Reserve next week involves a degree of wet weather on all four days, meaning the Stags and Canterbury coaches are likely to be checking weather updates in earnest as the weekend draws near. Dunedin may also be weather-affected later in the game. All matches are free admission and begin at 10.30am each day.

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