Wellington Firebirds celebrate the wicket of Shawn Hicks.

Capital Clash at the Mount


End of match — Wellington Firebirds 275/4 (Michael Papps 57, Luke Woodcock 98, Stephen Murdoch 31, Hamish Marshall 39) beat Auckland Aces by six wickets at Bay Oval, Mt Maunganui on 25 October 2016


Early morning rain dissipating in time for the scheduled start was a bonus on a tense fourth morning at Bay Oval.

Both teams eager to get out there to settle the arm wrestle, Firebirds skipper Michael Papps resumed by tucking his frst boundary of the grey morning off Lockie Ferguson before crunching a Tarun Nethula no ball through the covers and all the way to the pickets to raise an unbeaten 100-opening partnership with Luke Woodcock.

So far, so very good as the Firebirds chased after their 275-run target, but the stand would be shattered soon after when Papps, on 57, was cleaned out by a superb pill from medium pacer Donovan Grobbelaar that swung a mile en route to knocking middle stump out clean of the ground.

Partnerships, rather than individual honours, would turn out to be the order of the last day. After anchorman Woodcock raised his own fifty, he went on to a 55-stand with Stephen Murdoch who dealt almost exclusively in boundaries to reach a quick 31.

Luke Woodcock and Stephen Murdoch formed a key duo for Wellington.

When Murdoch, the first innings centurion, played on with a further 117 required for victory, Woodcock just kept his head down, all concentration as he marched on to build yet another 50-stand with Hamish Marshall, until just 92 runs were needed after lunch.

Hamish Marshall in his Wellington debut.

All of which frustrated the Aucklanders, captain Rob Nicol having been forced to throw everything at them and rotate through his attack, looking for the magic that wouldn’t come.

Dane Hutchinson (2-44) was the most successful. He got Murdoch going full and wide, and was responsible for the most dramatic moment of all when he had Woodcock, his erstwhile Firebirds teammate, caught behind off an innocuous half-tracker on 98.

Woodcock dismissed just before his century.

The opener was naturally crestfallen to miss out on what would have been his eighth first-class century but, with just 10 runs left for victory, he at least had the comfort of knowing the first win of the Plunket Shield season was in the bag, and against the defending  champions to boot.

The Firebirds now head to the capital for their second home game of the season — the first at their traditional base of the Basin Reserve, against Northern Districts this Saturday, in a top-of-the-table round two confrontation. Entry is free throughout the match with play starting at 10.30am.


At stumps — Wellington Firebirds 66/0 in the second innings (Michael Papps 38*) require 209 on the final day to beat the Auckland Aces 278 all out (second innings, Rob Nicol 49, Brad Cachopa 37, Donovan Grobbelaar 40, Tarun Nethula 39, Dane Hutchinson 38; Brent Arnel 4-47, Jeetan Patel 4-76) at Bay Oval, Mt Maunganui on 24 October 2016


The Wellington Firebirds were sick of the sight of the Aces’ tail wagging and it was largely their own fault. Once again in this match, they had taken the foot of their opponents’ throats — evidenced by Dane Hutchinson’s second meaningful contribution of the match from number 10.

Hutchinson’s 78-ball 38 was, however, at least more circumspect than his first innings effort — given that he was being relentlessly peppered by short missiles from a distinctly riled Brent Arnel.

Jeetan Patel (4-76 and seven wickets for the match) and himself excepted, Arnel (4-47 and eight for the match) might have been rarked up as much by the shortcomings in his own bowling attack as by the Auckland tailenders per se, on what proved a long and sweaty afternoon during which he and his lead off-spinner had been forced to shoulder the bulk of the burden of overs.

From 157 for seven, the Aces succeeded in pushing out their second innings to 278 all out, making their way there thanks to a steady chain of partnerships. After Brad Cachopa had contributed 37, Rob Nicol stumped just one shy of a half century — after a fatal larrop to Patel failed to come off as planned.

Donovan Grobbelaar showed his renowned determination with 40 off 95, and his regular late-order buddy Tarun Nethula contributed 39 off 32.

While the day could have been a lot worse for the Aucklanders, it wasn’t going to get better in the last session as Firebirds openers Michael Papps and Luke Woodcock ground out a solid start to the final dig. Needing 274 to take the match, they patiently ticked off 66 of them without loss as conditions cooled.

Michael Papps at Bay Oval.

In the process, captain Papps placed a new, major milestone on the New Zealand domestic cricket landscape. Papps became the first man to score 10,000 runs in New Zealand domestic first-class cricket, comprising 3350 runs for Wellington and 6663 for Canterbury.

That’s in addition to having broken 10K first-class career runs from New Zealand cricket activities alone, achieved late last summer — there’s a trainspotter distinction there in the criteria, by the way — and having reached 10,000 first-class runs overall two seasons ago.

Typically there was not even a glove-punch from the doughty opener who just got on with the business of scoring more runs. By stumps, his side needed just 209 more, meanwhile the local forecast for the last day has improved from heavy rain to showers — a big glimmer of hope for all Firebirds supporters on what promises to be an intriguing final day.

Luke Woodcock plays square.


At stumps — Auckland Aces 65/3 (Jeet Raval 31) lead Wellington Firebirds by 61 runs in the second innings. Earlier — Wellington Firebirds 273 all out (Stephen Murdoch 109, Tom Blundell 42; Lockie Ferguson 5-44) at Bay Oval, Mount Maunganui, 23 October 2016


First innings bonus points: Auckland Aces 6, Wellington Firebirds 6

Thirty-somethings Stephen Murdoch and Hamish Marshall looked like they had been batting all their lives together. The reality was far from it. This was Marshall’s Firebirds debut and, even after some 255 first-class matches, his inherent take-off speed between the wickets can take a bit of getting used to. Murdoch, by contrast, was the rangey, angular fellow with deceptive bat speed. Between them, their combined experience won the day in an important first partnership of the morning that stabilised the Firebirds’ position.

Murdoch quickly made it clear that he had the goods to combat Lockie Ferguson’s pace on a surface that would require relentless concentration. He set about irritating the young quick by spading him back in front of the wicket. Fellow paceman Dane Hutchinson was meanwhile unlucky, Marshall surviving a French cut, and Murdoch getting away with chasing him out wide.

The Wellington pair took their overnight stand to 63 in the first hour before Ferguson trapped Marshall (24) with a rocket, but Murdoch marched onwards, stringing together a 65-run stand for the fourth wicket with Michael Pollard, then 76 with Tom Blundell.

The result was the first ever maiden century at Bay Oval, the 11th of Murdoch’s first-class career coming from 168 balls. After dealing with Ferguson, he had murdered Donovan Grobbelaar and Shawn Hicks, racking up 14 boundaries and a six in all.

Finally, Ferguson came back with a peach to knock off Murdoch's bails and pick up his second wicket at 219 for five, shortly after drinks in the middle session. When he slid one past the troublesome Tom Blundell (caught behind on 42), the quick was on the road to a five-wicket bag in his first trot of the season, the fourth of a blossoming career.

Ferguson's 5-44 was just shy of his career-best 5-37 last season, the tail falling away against him once the new ball was in his mitt, albeit not quite stopping the Firebirds from chalking a tiny first-innings lead of four runs. That lead could have been in the Aces’ favour had they not sprayed 26 extras.

Satisfaction was short-lived as the Aces didn’t navigate the remainder of the afternoon as successfully as they would have hoped. Jeet Raval lost partners Michael Guptill-Bunce at 14/1 and Robbie O’Donnell at 31/2.

On 27, Raval reached his 4000th run for the Aces, but he will have to come back in the next round to find the further 10 runs required for the career landmark of 5000 runs overall: the elegant opener was bowled soon after, miscalculating after Patel forced him onto the back foot.

Raval’s wicket before the end of the day was precisely the gift the Firebirds had wanted. By stumps, the Aces were 65/3 in their second innings for an overall lead of 61, Rob Nicol and Colin de Grandhomme once again in this match finding themselves thrown together at the crease at a tricky moment, tasked with restoring order, with the small matter of a match in the balance.


At stumps — Wellington Firebirds 43/2. Earlier — Auckland Aces 269 all out (Michael Guptill-Bunce 50, Jeet Raval 47, Dane Hutchinson 48, Lockie Ferguson career best 33*; Brent Arnel 4-57, Hamish Bennett 3-64, Jeetan Patel 3-29) at Bay Oval, Mt Maunganui 22 October 2016

First innings batting bonus points, Auckland Aces 2
First innings bowling bonus points, Wellington Firebirds 4

When is a home game not a home game? When it’s the Wellington Firebirds hosting the Auckland Aces in the Bay of Plenty. Under changeable skies, on a slightly tacky strip that got steamed with humidity then sprinkled with heat showers strong enough to chase the players from the park, the Firebirds might have been forgiven for feeling like the foreigners.

On the first day of the 2016/17 season, they went into the match with one of the more experienced teams sighted in recent years’ domestic cricket — helped by the acquisition of longtime Northern Districts fixture and latterly Gloucestershire captain Hamish Marshall (at least he, as a Northlander, could feel at home under those fat subtropical clouds).

The playing XI tallied up to a combined 1,051 first-class caps — Marshall tops with 255, 2016 County MVP Jeetan Patel with 228, captain Michael Papps with 169, Luke Woodcock with 120 and seam maestro Brent Arnel closing in on his 100th appearance this season. All that experience, versus the defending champion young bucks. What an opening match-up this promised to be.

Unsurprisingly on a humid morning, Papps opted to bowl first, but the Aces got off to the better start, early doors. Openers Michael Guptill-Bunce and Jeet Raval put on 99 in just over 21 overs, a cracking pace despite Guptill-Bunce nearly hobbling himself in the 11th over when he smashed the ball straight into his ankle bone, stopping play for 10 minutes while he was attended.

It was the Aces’ session until the half hour before lunch, when three quick wickets meant captain Rob Nicol and Colin de Grandhomme suddenly found themselves as a fresh pair looking to hold the fort until the break. The damage-wrecker had been Patel with the first of his two wickets — he would chug through nearly 31 overs in the day without much fault, the captain mixing up the pace from the respective ends.

Raval was ex-Cantab Hamish Bennett’s first wicket for new side the Firebirds and he stormed in with plenty of energy, alternating with Arnel from the airport end. Veteran Arnel (4-57) meanwhile just nagged away on classic line and length, stalking them like the proverbial wily coyote. He began ripping out the middle order in the middle session with the important dismissal of Nicol before motoring on after the early tea interval (brought about by two pesky rain breaks), putting himself on a hat-trick when he got rid of dangerous driver Brad Cachopa and Shawn Hicks, both nicking behind.

After the squandered good start, that had pegged the Aces back and the Firebirds would have been hopeful of dismissing them far earlier than ultimately eventuated. Instead, new Ace Dane Hutchinson turned on his old team with a late charge of 48 — which was so nearly his best first-class score, which stands as an unbeaten 48 for the ’Birds against ND in his former colours.

Hutchinson belted seven boundaries in his burst, aided and abetted by Lockie Ferguson who hit six boundaries of his own in a career best 33 not out. The pair of pacemen added 70 for the last wicket to wreck a good afternoon’s work from the Firebirds’ attack — which had been catered by just four bowlers. The batting partners were 27 runs short of the longstanding Auckland 10th wicket record set in the 1940s versus Wellington — which might well otherwise have been on, given the profuse engagement of the boundary.

Patel, who looked fresh as a daisy despite coming off another huge County season, had the satisfaction of stopping Hutchinson before he hit a maiden half century, and god knows what else, but the team total of 269 was still a grating blowout.

Even Stevens, then, but the day wasn’t done, time still to be made up on the cloudy evening. It wasn’t a good one for the veteran Firebirds openers, both Papps and Woodcock sent back to the pavilion with single figures: 15/2. Stephen Murdoch (14*) and Marshall (16*) steered through to stumps, at which point another 226 runs was needed, going forward, to overhaul the Aces’ first innings.

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