Plunket Shield round eight: Canterbury 463/9 declared in 106.2 overs (Hira 88, Fulton 37, Broom 44, Nicholls 74, Ellis 112, Henry 46; Wheeler 3-73, Rance 3-132) and 305/5 declared in 57.2 overs (Carter 73, Broom 123, Nicholls 39, Ellis 43 not out; Wheeler 2-50, Rance 2-78) beat the Devon Hotel Central Stags 350/9 declared in 97.5 overs (Smith 80, Bruce 112 not out maiden century, Rance 40; Ellis 4-75) and 235 all out in 73.5 overs (Hay 46, Young 75; Henry 4-74) by 183 runs at Saxton Oval, Nelson
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After a ground delay postponed proceedings for an hour, the Devon Hotel Central Stags restored calm to their last day nerves, and position, as Greg Hay and Will Young set about building a stabilising partnership. It was worth 108 runs before Matt Henry picked up his first for the day, Hay caught behind to usher in Tom Bruce shortly before lunch.
When the century-maker of the first innings almost immediately helped himself to a six off Todd Astle, it was clear the Stags were still intent on going for it.
But the tone changed when Canterbury silenced Bruce after the break, the testing Henry bowling Young on 75 shortly before getting Bruce caught for his fourth wicket.
With 250 runs still required, new men Dane Cleaver and captain Kruger van Wyk both stood at the crease on zero. Time to start again, but after 40 minutes of digging in, they were both sent back in by Ed Nuttall as he picked up two in quick succession.
The eighth wicket falling still with a monumental deficit, in the circumstances, of 184, the writing was on the wall for the wounded Stags. Canterbury closed in, attacking, collecting the ninth bottle just three balls later.
Another two deliveries from Astle and the Stags' pain was over: the final three wickets had tumbled without any addition, Astle claiming a sudden two-for in his last over. Already leading the Shield, the red and black machine marched on with just two rounds, now, to come before the 2015 champions will be crowned.
Andy Ellis made it a bag of four early on when he got Dane Cleaver caught for the addition of just three runs to his overnight score. Unshakable Tom Bruce remained positive, however, quickly gathering his half-century.
By the time he had lost new partner Ben Wheeler just three overs later (caught out by Todd Astle's leg spin), the Taranaki tornado was already on 69 — the Stags needing every run they could muster, still trailing by over 200 and now rapidly running out of wickets.
There went another one, very next over: 249/8 as Matt Henry picked up his second in Ajaz Patel, caught at slip for no score. A single to Bruce brought up the Stags' 250: could Seth Rance stick around with him?
The seamer not only accepted the challenge, he pelted back to back sixes off Ryan McCone as the pair sped to a 50-run stand, posting the Stags' 300 along the way. Rance, who has a first-class best of 71, was firing at a stellar strike rate and showed no fear in moving across his stumps to punish the odd leg-side ball for six: now Bruce had a batting soulmate as he began to line up the century in his sights.
The drama intensified when Rance fell for a run-a-ball 40, bringing last man Andy Mathieson to the wicket with Bruce on 97. But Mathieson straight away soothed his partner's nineties nerves, if there were any, by getting off the mark with a boundary, allowing Bruce to slap a four off Ellis to post his maiden first-class century off just 147 balls.
He celebrated in trademark Bruce style by quickly making it three breezy boundaries in a row off the Canterbury allrounder, then Mathieson added another four off Astle to get the Stags' 350 on the board, having now rustled up a cracking 36 runs off 39 balls for the last wicket.
It had been a bright rearguard fightback, the Stags having cut their deficit to 113 runs when Kruger van Wyk gambled on a generous declaration in order to give his bowlers a crack before lunch, Bruce walking back to the pavilion with an unbeaten 112.
Watch Tom Bruce's innings highlights and century celebration:
By tea, 20-year-old Canterbury opening batsman Leo Carter had continued his own impressive debut season by logging up an unbeaten 72 at a good clip, accompanied by Neil Broom, whose half-century had come off 87 balls. Carter had also ridden his luck, having been dropped by George Worker in the slips twice off Andy Mathieson early on, then surviving a caught and bowled opportunity against a frustrated Worker in the 60s.
They were sitting well at 150/2 at the pause, but the left-handed youngster was to be denied a shot at his maiden ton yet again this summer when he was dismissed in the second over after tea, Worker finally getting some relief as he chimed in with his customary breakthrough wicket.
Ben Wheeler had accounted for two early wickets with both Ronnie Hira and Peter Fulton caught behind in the previous session, now it was Rance's turn to get in the action. Only problem for the Stags was that, in the meantime, Broom barnstormed to 123 off 149 balls, with brilliant supporting cameos from Henry Nicholls (39 off 27) and Ellis (an unbeaten 43 off 23).
The fall of Broom prompted Fulton to declare for the second time in the match, at 305/5: the Stags would need a steep 419 to win. By stumps, however, they were already on the back foot, having lost both Worker and Ben Smith early doors. It would be 373 runs or bust on the final day.
Andy Ellis had reached 79 in the first hour when he suddenly lost two partners in fairly smart succession. Seth Rance had made the opening move for the Devon Hotel Central Stags, after a slightly delayed start on the second morning, nabbing Todd Astle caught behind for just nine.
Then Ben Wheeler backed him up by taking out keeper-batsman Cameron Fletcher caught and bowled for 18.
Coming in at 385/7, there was little urgency placed on Matt Henry's shoulders, but he quickly found touch with a couple of boundaries and got Ellis through to 87, and Canterbury past the 400 mark, at drinks.
Ellis didn't slow up, powering through the 90s, a boundary off Ajaz Patel taking him to 99. Three balls later a single confirmed his second Plunket Shield century of the season, the fifth of his first-class and Canterbury career in what's been the allrounder's strongest and most consistent summer with the bat.
Ellis followed up the milestone with a six off Seth Rance next over, an expensive one for the Stags as the seamer bled 15 runs against two aggressive Cantabrians cashing in on a solid position. Henry gave Patel the same treatment, then took Canterbury to 450 with a follow-up single.
With a free license, the foot was down. Boom! Henry again, taking another six off Rance next over. Boom, boom! Two more, back to back, off Patel. He'd just shot to 45 off 24 balls in what seemed like the blink of an eye.
Suddenly there was an interruption as the arms went up in unison for an appeal against Ellis. Seth Rance had struck back, the centurion dismissed lbw on 112 and the cracking eighth-wicket stand stopped at 78. Then Patel got his own revenge just two balls later, delighted as he watched Tom Bruce safely take the catch to curtail the showstopping Henry on 46.
The spinner's first wicket of the match also prompted the Canterbury declaration, at 463/9, before lunch. Afterwards, Ellis continued having a field day of it against the Stags, claiming the first two wickets.
By tea, the hosts were 129/2 and still trailing by 334. Together in the middle were Ben Smith, back from injury, playing his first Plunket Shield match since December and leading the way with an unbeaten 56, and Will Young: two batsmen who relished batting on the same block together during the Ford Trophy.
This time it wasn't Young's day as, after a lengthy conference between umpires, he was given caught at slip off Todd Astle, but Smith marked his comeback with a bright 80, including nine fours and a six, before he was trapped lbw by Henry
Never out of the action for long, Ellis chimed in soon after by getting Kruger van Wyk caught behind cheaply, to cap a day on which the allrounder both scored a ton and took three wickets for 38 runs. That left the breezy Tom Bruce in charge of the Stags' tough chase. The Taranaki aggressor was unbeaten on 41 when bad light ended play, his team still a fair way behind, five down and trailing by 248 runs.
Hosting the Plunket Shield's frontrunning team, Devon Hotel Central Stags captain Kruger van Wyk sent his foe in after a weather-delayed start at Saxton Oval, but once again the Canterbury line-up combined well to put runs on the board.
Ronnie Hira dominated the morning session as he looked to put a scratchy trot behind him.
After having survived an early dropped chance at gully, he climbed to be just a dozen runs from what would have been a quick century when he feathered one behind him off quick Andy Mathieson.
Two down at lunch, snaring Peter Fulton after the break for 37 was likewise a handy breakthrough for the Stags.
But the job didn't get any easier with the Canterbury middle order one of the tougher collectives on the scene. Spinner Ajaz Patel suffered an over to forget when first Henry Nicholls then Neil Broom carted him for six in the space of five balls, and after the loss of Broom (Ben Wheeler's second wicket when he was bowled on 44), Nicholls and Andy Ellis eased the visitors to 267/4 at tea.
Nicholls was already well in sight of his half-ton and the duo trucked on after the break to be within four runs of a hundred partnership for the fifth wicket when the Stags' golden arm George Worker wove his slow magic, claiming Nicholls as he swept him straight to Tom Bruce at deep square leg: 314/5. Nicholls' feast had ended on 74, his fifth consecutive half-century (or better) in the Plunket Shield equalling the Canterbury record.
Ellis, meanwhile, had stormed to 40 and by drinks in the afternoon session he and Todd Astle were once again teaming up to push home a solid total, but poor light stopped play soon after, Canterbury 329/5 after 82 overs.