Plunket Shield round 10 of 10, Central Stags v Auckland Aces at McLean Park, Napier 29 March-1 April
Result: Central Stags won by three wickets.
In a thoroughly gripping finish to the 2016/17 Plunket Shield season, New Zealand's first-class championship was still on the line as the last of the three matches played out to its thrilling conclusion in the late afternoon sunshine at McLean Park.
Further south, in the dressing rooms at Hagley Oval, Canterbury players were on the edge of their benches, watching every run on their phones, willing the Stags on every ball. Just three more wickets and the Auckland Aces would win both the match and the season title.
A Stags win would conversely see Canterbury take the Shield, even after having lost their last two matches, one of them against this very team the previous week.
Fortunately for Canterbury, Navin Patel and Tom Bruce were getting the job done with ease as the chirping Aces began to run out of voice and time, even after an exciting late flurry of Stags wickets in the last session, Sean Solia claiming Dane Cleaver and Ajaz Patel in consecutive overs.
The problem for the Aces was that Tom Bruce remained and, after a lean patch late in the red ball summer, he would find his touch again just at the most significant moment with a bustling unbeaten 43.
The Stags, after a campaign that had suffered all sorts of left-field disruptions from earthquakes to holes in the covers, would finish strongly in their last three matches, two of them winning run chases after their opponents had declared and the other a tight miss at this same ground.
Captain Will Young had scored centuries in consecutive matches and while he missed out second time around in Napier, George Worker stepped in and smashed his way to a fast hundred of his own on the final afternoon, in what proved a match-winning effort.
Worker's fourth first-class century for the Stags and sixth overall took just 124 balls, and he had looked to be a man in a hurry as the knock gathered momentum with nine fours and a six before he was caught off Glenn Phillips.
And yet despite losing some time due to another dew delay in the morning, the day had started so hopefully for Nicol and his Aces, Donovan Grobbelaar striking in his first over after the declaration to have the Stags 2/1 chasing 302.
Colin Munro again was an aggressive force with the ball, picking up both opener Ben Smith and the prize wicket of Will Young to make it five for the match.
The middle session, led by Worker and Young (32) was the one that ultimately defined the outcome of the season.
By tea, the Aces' campaign was in the balance, the Stags requiring just 103 further runs to win from the last session, with seven wickets still in hand and a luxury of 35 overs to get them.
That was after having been 69/1 at the lunch break (George Worker 42*, Ben Smith 18*) needing a further 232 runs.
Nicol had declared his side's second innings at 281 for seven immediately after Ben Horne had been stumped, giving Stags off-spinner Ajaz Patel his 44th first-class wicket of the season.
Central Stags pace bowler Navin Patel bolwed well in both innings to finish with eight wickets for the match, while Tarun Nethula required three wickets from the final innings if he was to overtake Ajaz Patel's season tally, but like his side would finish one short with 43 for the summer.
First innings batting bonus points: Auckland Aces 1 (completed), Central Stags 0 (completed)
First innings bowling bonus points: Central Stags 4 (maximum achieved), Auckland Aces 4 (maximum achieved)
Dew delayed the start of day three, but the Aces made up for lost time with a brilliant hour before lunch, reducing the Stags from their overnight 65/1 to 126/6, including the key wicket of George Worker who top-scored with just 41.
That became 136/7 shortly after the break as Dane Cleaver departed caught behind, Tarun Nethula (4-49) and Colin Munro (3-22) the key wicket-takers in the warm and sunny conditions.
Nethula's fourth wicket drew him level with Ajaz Patel as the leading wicket-taker of the season, Patel himself the victim.
But with time already lost in the match, of greater concern to the Aces was dismissing the tail as quickly as possible, a plan Stags number nine Navin Patel, number 10 Blair Tickner and Liam Dudding combined to thwart, Tickner batting almost 80 minutes for his career best unbeaten 25.
By the time Donovan Grobbelaar wrapped up the Stags innings, the Aces' lead had shrivelled to just 19 runs. Dudding then made an early breakthrough, dismissing Robbie O'Donnell in his first over of the afternoon.
By stumps the Auckland Aces were 190/4, a lead of 209 runs heading into a fascinating last day of the season.
First innings batting bonus points: Auckland Aces 1 (completed), Central Stags 0 (in progress)
First innings bowling bonus points: Central Stags 4 (maximum achieved), Auckland Aces 0 (in progress)
Morning showers saw an early lunch taken at a warm and humid McLean Park before Colin Munro could pick up where he left off the previous evening. When play got underway at 1.30pm, Munro quickly clocked up his half century with a six off Navin Patel — his third — to reach a fifty off just 37 balls.
He had looked to punish Patel at every opportunity, but Patel had his revenge the very next ball as Tom Bruce gratefully clasped the catch to take the Aces to 111 for four.
By tea, it had been a calamitous session for the Aces, Munro's 52 threatening to be their top score as they quickly slid to eight down. Patel had claimed Rob Nicol in his next over, putting himself in line for a five-for and bringing together Mark Chapman and Sean Solia both yet to score.
Chapman looked out of sorts as the slips gathered around him and, on 18, he eventually offered a straightforward edge to George Worker.
Ben Horne came and went without scoring to give big Blair Tickner a second wicket, then Liam Dudding chimed in for his second with Solia caught on 17.
At 158/8 in the space of just 41 overs, it was over to the experienced pair of Donovan Grobbelaar and Tarun Nethula to attempt to garner some bonus points, let alone put their side in an advantageous position.
The Aces did it the hard way, losing their next wicket on 199 and still facing the prospect of no points as their last man took guard. Navin Patel meanwhile had his five-for when Tarun Nethula was caught on 30, his second at McLean Park and the third of his career, equalling his first-class best haul of 5-71.
The Aces' last pair scrabbled to 200 for the first bonus point and then promptly declared at 200/9 in 51.3 overs, captain Rob Nicol undoubtedly conscious that time was ticking by if they were going to get the outright upon which they now banked their championship hopes.
At stumps the Stags were 65/1 in reply, having lost opener Greg Hay to Sean Solia.
First innings batting bonus points: Auckland Aces 0 (in progress)
First innings bowling bonus points: Central Stags 1 (in progress)
The Central Stags might be forgiven for wondering what else nature might throw at them in the last throes of their Plunket Shield season.
They’ve had earthquakes, holes in covers, tropical downpours, and standard rain at the most inconvenient moments. Today it was a rolling sea fog that stopped play.
Only 15 overs were possible at Napier’s McLean Park after wet weather had already written off most of the day — but they were action-packed, after Stags captain Will Young’s coin-tossing continued to run hot and he put the Aces in.
There were two stoppages for late afternoon fog (technically bad light) before the second wave of it slowly turned into drizzle, and the heavy covers went on for the night.
By then the Aces were already three down. And despite the bizarre weather, Colin Munro was certainly seeing it all right — he got off the mark first ball with a six.
Munro was all liquid aggression, adopting his most confrontational batting stance, tapping his bat loudly, almost impatiently and hitting the ball hard.
By the time the batsmen had left the field for a second time, he’d blasted 24 off just 13 balls and had just murdered Navin Patel’s figures with three off-side boundaries in the one over.
Patel had removed both openers. He'd trapped Robbie O’Donnell on just four in a wicket maiden, then came back for Michael Guptill-Bunce 10 overs down the track, George Worker's grab at slip having the Aces 33 for three. It might have been worse for the visitors had Rob Nicol not got a life early doors, Patel running round for a catch in the deep off Blair Tickner, only for the ball to slide through his fingers.
To recap, every point in this match is crucial to the Aces as they look to overtake Canterbury, and fend off Northern Districts, for the championship. Three early wickets — including Glenn Phillips, whose middle stump was knocked out of the ground after he hit wicket off Blair Tickner’s second delivery in the match — wasn’t part of the plan.
Munro batted as if it had all just been a bad dream, and will return tomorrow at the earlier start time of 10am on 24 off just 13 balls, looking for a big recovery alongside captain Rob Nicol.