Round eight Plunket Shield, Central Stags v Wellington Firebirds at McLean Park, Napier, 14-17 March 2017
Michael Papps reached his 30th first-class century in the first hour, but he had already lost a partner as Ajaz Patel struck in his first over of the day, bowling Luke Ronchi to have the Firebirds five down still with just a meagre second innings lead.
Papps would be run out on 116 by Blair Tickner with the lead exactly 100. The Firebirds then lost a further wicket in the session, Matt McEwan caught off Tickner. At lunch, the Firebirds were backs against the wall at 257 for seven, their lead 120 with just three late order wickets in hand as the Stags' hopes of a first outright for the season increased.
However, Iain McPeake stuck around to frustrate the hosts, buying valuable time and runs for his team with a career-best 48.
McPeake slammed three boundaries and three sixes in his lively, 70-ball stay, but when off-spinner Ajaz Patel finally had him caught, Patel carried on to scoop up the last two tailend wickets to dismiss the Firebirds for 336 and collect his fourth first-class five-wicket bag (five for 106) for the summer, and ninth of his career to stay well on top of the season wicket-taking list.
The Stags needed precisely 200 from 39 overs at just a tad more than five per over on a flat afternoon deck if they were to finally bag their first outright of a frustrating season, and they would take the thrilling chase down to the wire.
By drinks in the last session, they had halved the equation, George Worker on the doorstep of a half century and having been joined by captain Will Young after the loss of Ben Smith and Greg Hay.
Worker promptly brought up his fifty with a four off Woodcock: there was no intention of dropping the bit as the boundaries began to flow. Worker and Young breezed past the 150 mark for the loss of only two wickets, but the "final quarter" would see a dramatic fightback from the Firebirds attack.
It started with the loss of Young, caught off Iain McPeake on 38. That brought Jesse Ryder to the middle with Worker on 75, but Ryder's stay would be a short one as McPeake struck again.
The Stags had plenty of batting depth but lost Tom Bruce almost as quickly, this time to Brent Arnel.
Dane Cleaver stepped in with the Stags needing a further 29 off 4.1 overs at just slightly more than a run a ball.
Then, a game-changer from veteran seamer Arnel (4-35) as he put himself on a hat-trick with the last two balls of the 37th over, Worker looking for the rope only to be caught on 85 off 100 balls, and then Cleaver caught and bowled next ball after the batsmen had crossed.
With only 20 runs required for victory for the Stags, the Firebirds now needed just three wickets with two overs left. And, the heart-stopping action wasn't over. Adam Milne and Seth Rance stayed in touch with eight runs off the penultimate over, but the last ball came at the cost of Milne's wicket, McPeake picking up his third.
Arnel took the ball for the last over, still on a hat-trick. The Stags needed 12 from the over and while Ajaz Patel would get a single to avert the hat-trick, Rance would be run out off the third ball scrambling for a second run.
Now the Stags needed 10 runs off four balls, and the Firebirds one wicket with the local genuine number eleven at the wicket. Both would be denied as a thrilling and hard-fought match boiled down to a draw.
For the Stags, it was the frustrating nail in the coffin of their first-class season, thwarted every time they got into a winning position. For the Firebirds, it was a crucial missed opportunity as the Auckland Aces jumped up ahead to join Canterbury in taking maximum points from the key round.
The Stags will now host Plunket Shield leaders Canterbury in the penultimate round at Nelson's Saxton Oval next week while the Firebirds travel to Bay Oval's Mount Maunganui for a big showdown with Northern Districts.
First innings batting bonus points, Firebirds 1 (completed), Stags 3 (completed)
First innings bowling bonus points, Stags 4 (maximum achieved), Firebirds 3 (completed)
A recuperated Ben Smith reached his half century in the first session and, with Ajaz Patel, chalked up the Stags' 350, just five overs shy of securing maximum bonus points. However, Patel was caught soon after with the lead at 107 while Seth Rance lasted just three overs before being caught, giving Matt McEwan his third five-wicket bag, and second for the Firebirds.
McEwan went on to wrap up the innings with a career-best six for 81, the Stags's first-innings lead stopped at 137 with Smith the last to fall on 66.
The Firebirds faced a tricky six overs before lunch, losing Luke Woodcock to Seth Rance's first over of the second innings. However, only one wicket fell in the middle session — Stephen Murdoch caught on 25 — with Michael Papps reaching 65 by tea, the Firebirds by then traiing by just 28.
Papps would end the day unbeaten on 96 as the Stags attack was made to work hard on a flattening deck. The Firebirds' 205 for four at stumps gave them a slender 68-run lead with the outcome of the match perhaps resting on Papps' shoulders tomorrow morning, Luke Ronchi with him on 11 overnight.
First innings batting bonus points, Firebirds 1 (completed), Stags 3* (in progress)
First innings bowling bonus points, Stags 4 (maximum achieved), Firebirds 3* (in progress)
The Central Stags continued to rally at the business end of the competition, captain Will Young today reaching his third first-class century, 124 ff 226 balls. It was Young’s first Plunket Shield century in two seasons and began as he stepped in to replace Ben Smith, who had retired hurt early in the day after being hit in the groin by a Hamish Bennett delivery.
Smith returned later in the day after an adventurous Dane Cleaver, capitalising against the older ball, was bowled by Bennett on 47.
By lunch, both Young and his Stags had made good progress, Young having posted the Stags' hundred and his own fifty with the first of back-to-back boundaries off leg-spinner Peter Younghusband just before the break.
Young had ridden a little luck, dropped earlyish in the slips off Iain McPeake as he went all round the clock, while Bennett had earlier been unlucky not to pick up Ben Smith leg before. Opener Smith would retire hurt on 10 after a battering from Bennett that included a painful blow to the box, while George Worker had already replaced Greg Hay who had departed caught behind off Brent Arnel early in the session.
Wicketkeeper Luke Ronchi would have his second catch after a diving effort down the leg-side to remove Worker for just 16, but Young and Jesse Ryder steadied the ship and had cut the deficit to 137 by the break. Ryder was the only other Stag to reach a half century, and, on 29, chalked up his 8000th first-class run.
Caught behind on 61, he was ultimately one of four catches by Ronchi, three of them coming off the boisterous bowling of Matt McEwan who went on to four wickets with an lbw off the last ball of the day when he trapped Adam Milne.
The Stags ended day two 73 runs in the lead with 3 wickets in hand, including that of the restored Smith who had extended his score to 24.
Rain, delayed start, early lunch, won the toss, bowled the Firebirds out on day one. It was so far so good for the winless Central Stags when round eight of the Plunket Shield finally got going.
Firebirds captain Michael Papps got their visitors off to a confident enough start with Luke Woodcock, the pair treating the stinging Adam Milne with respect while Seth Rance at the other end was coming off a career-best six-for.
Milne’s attacking first spell — 6-3-12-0 — was superb, but it would be the introduction of Jesse Ryder at the other end, returning from a brief sabbatical in the Hong Kong T20 Blitz, that secured the opening breakthrough, clipping Luke Woodcock's off-bail with a peach.
It opened the floodgates for the session.
Ryder had proved very difficult to get away, then Rance — now taking over from Milne’s end, had his first wicket the very next over to have the Firebirds 45/2 in the 15th, continuing a season of trouble for a scoreless Stephen Murdoch.
Rance zoomed in for three more wickets, removing the key man Papps for 31 soon after, then adding a slashing Hamish Marshall and Tom Blundell, caught and caught behind respectively for single-figure scores.
However, the last session was a better one for the Firebirds and by drinks Peter Younghusband and Luke Ronchi were both on the brink of half-centuries, their sixth-wicket recovery worth 100 runs, off 206 balls.
Ronchi was first to the fifty, bringing it up with his sixth boundary off Ajaz Patel in the first over after the break. But when it was Younghusband’s turn next over, big Blair Tickner sent him back to the Harris Stand empty-handed, caught behind by Dane Cleaver diving down the leg-side, after a career-best 48.
Tickner had taken the brunt of Papps early on, but stormed back now to make it two wickets in two overs with Matt McEwan quickly pocketed by Tom Bruce in the slips.
Iain McPeake joined Ronchi at 172/7 and offered a burst of 14 runs before becoming spinner Ajaz Patel’s 32nd victim of the season.
It was the cue for Young to bring Rance back into the attack, the paceman looking for a bag in consecutive matches, but Hamish Bennett stuck around and helped Ronchi take the Firebirds past 200, then slogged Patel for 10 runs in two balls for good measure.
Ronchi had played an important and well-judged hand, but there would be just a trickle of singles before he, too, was gone, Tickner storming back for his third wicket as George Worker snaffled the catch, the top obstacle finally removed after offering an edge on 70.
The Firebirds’ tail still had some wag in it with a quick blast of runs from Bennett and Arnel, but when Patel collected Bennett for his second, the visitors were all out for 245 and the Stags openers safely navigated the two overs remaining before stumps.
The match is umpire Garth Stirrat’s first-class debut.